Life as a Lie
Trump, Santos, and Putin
After he lost, Trump was lying to extend his political life. It wasn't that he labored under a misapprehension about the election. He knew that he had lost. He was lying not so much to deny the truth as to invite people into an alternative reality. In November and December of 2020, this gave him a certain advantage. Everyone else was waiting for the election results, then for the candidates' reaction. Trump had already thought this through. He knew that he was likely to lose. And he knew what he was going to do. He was going to tell a Big Lie, declare victory, and try to stay in power illegally.
The report of the January 6th committee is enlightening in many ways. For the most part, its authors are concerned to establish the simple course of events, which is damning enough. It is quite clear that Trump, in the full knowledge that he had lost the election, engaged in several acts that were meant to culminate in the overthrow of constitutional rule, and in his installment as president by fraud and violence. For the committee, wishing to establish intention, it was important to show that Trump knew that he had lost the election, and also knew that his specific claims of fraud were untrue. And that is all made abundantly clear.
Yet there is a deeper point to be made about the nature of politics, which is that it can be transformed by big lies issued from positions of authority. One of the more interesting sections of the January 6th report is a graph that demonstrates that Trump, time after time, lied about specific claims of fraud right after being informed that they were false. His big lie about the election, once believed, summoned forth countless smaller lies or fantasies that seemed to support it. Trump repeated these more specific lies because it was precisely fiction that he wanted. He couldn't think them all up himself; he needed help. He waited for the various inventions to reach him, made sure that they were not true, and then repeated them to millions of people.
In Trump's world, there is no true and false, there is only a kind of Darwinistic competition of belief. If a lie made it up to him on the food chain, then it must be a good one that people will believe.
So the lying by Trump was more than a deliberate falsehood. It was a preference for a Big Lie over reality, and then a search for smaller lies to promote that would cast basic elements of reality into doubt, and thereby create a sense of grievance. The coup attempt that resulted was, in this sense, entirely predictable. Big Lies demand violence, since they command the faith of some, but cannot overcome the common sense or lived experience of others. The smaller lies within the Big Lie, by generating distrust of institutions, create a sense that only violence can restore the righteous order of things. People who believe Big Lies act on the grievances the smaller lies generate. The January 6 committee demonstrates that Trump urged people to violence directly. But it is also important to understand that the deliberate generation of an alternative reality is itself incompatible with democracy.
The striving for an all-embracing fiction explains the deep affinity between Trump and Putin, which came out into the open in 2016. To be sure, Putin had a strategic interest in a Trump presidency, which could be counted upon to weaken the United States, as it did. But in the various Russian efforts to support Trump, there was something more than a calculation: there was also the recognition of a brother in the fraternity of fiction, of another man who understood lying as life.
The Russian backing of Trump in 2016 was based on the assumption that what Trump needed above all was the spread of lies. And so the Russians worked social media not to show any real virtue of Trump, but to pass on lies about Hillary Clinton that would appeal to certain demographics. It did not try to show that Trump had not sexually abused women, but rather changed the subject to an imaginary crime of Clinton. (One of the chief architects of that Russian campaign of 2016, Evgeny Prigozhin, is now a leading figure in the invasion of Ukraine, as the owner of the mercenary firm Wagner.)
Putin also tells big lies, for example that Ukraine does not exist, that there is no Ukrainian society, no Ukrainian nation. Like Trump's big lie about the election, Putin's big lie about Ukraine then incubates smaller lies: If Ukraine does not exist, the war all be a plot of NATO! The people in charge of Ukraine must be Nazis! Or Jews! Or drug addicts! Or gays! Or gender theorists! Or Satanists! (All of these claims are made in the Russian information space; the official line is in fact at the moment that Russia is fighting Satan in Ukraine).
If Ukraine does not exist, then we, the Russian invaders, are the real victims. There should not be anyone there holding us back from what we think is right. This was the same sense of grievance expressed by the Americans who invaded the U.S. Capitol: we are the real victims, we are only restoring what should have been. No one should be holding us back from seeking justice with our own hands. Just as there was a natural affinity between Putin and Trump, there is a natural affinity between those who support Trump's Big Lie and those who support Putin's.
Newly-elected congressman George Santos took Trump's approach to politics to its logical conclusion. Trump was a failed businessman and successful entertainer, who then used his entertainer skills to pretend to be a successful businessman and run for office. But no one could deny that he had careers. In the case of Santos, everything is just made up. He is not even a failed businessman (though he is a confessed thief). He is not even an entertainer (unless you count customer service). He is just a man who understands that lying for its own sake is a way to do politics, attract money and gain power. It will not take years to take apart his story; it will take weeks. (One thing that has emerged is a connection to Russia). And then the question arises: is alternative reality the future of America, or at least of its Republican Party?
Trump's Big Lie opened the way for Santos, who repeats it, and who attended the rally to, in his own words, “overturn the election for Donald Trump.” Trump was a model of a man who came to power and gained money on little beyond mendacious schtick. Santos is following that lead. But it is also important to understand the new context in which Santos functions. By lying constantly during the first campaign and during the presidency, Trump set an example, one that is most relevant to members of his party. For two years now, Trump's Big Lie has functioned the way that the Stalinist line used to function in the communist party. What Stalin said had to be treated as true, even if party members knew at some level that it was not. They had to engage constantly in what George Orwell called double-think, living in one lie, and preparing themselves for the next one, all the while imagining that somehow the process served some greater good.
Trump has trained Republicans, and a large part of the American people, in just these mental habits. Elected officials can say that elections don't work, and no one really even notices the doublethink. Republicans claim that Democrats can alter electoral results, even as Republicans win control of the House of Representatives by a tiny margin. We ask ourselves: how can Russians continue to support the war in Ukraine? How do they handle obvious contradictions, like saying they are fighting a war against Nazis when the country they invade has an elected Jewish president? This is the answer: they have been trained that there is no truth, only the leader's sheltering fiction, the comforting big lie, the line that comes down from above. We can all be trained like that, and too many Americans have been.
Once factual truth is no defense in politics, all that remains is spectacle and force. If Putin says there is no Ukraine, the war must prove it. If Trump says he won, his followers must storm the Capitol.
What follows from this, as students of democracy have argued since ancient times, is that the truth matters, and that truth needs defenses. Part of that defense is ethical. The truth cannot take revenge on a Santos (or whatever his name turns out to be) or a Trump or a Putin on its own. People have to care about it as a moral value. Democracy can only exist on the basis of such a moral commitment.
Aside from this, truth needs equality. When wealth is too unevenly distributed, as it is in this country, it is very hard to have a national conversation of any sort, and it is very easy for oligarchs to ride artificial spectacle to power (or fund others to do so -- it will be interesting to learn who, aside from a sanctioned Russian oligarch's cousin, funded Santos).
Perhaps most fundamentally, truth needs everyday champions. In every case I have mentioned -- Putin's war in Ukraine beginning in 2014, Trump's 2016 campaign, Santos's 2022 campaign -- we simply lacked the foreign correspondents or investigative journalists. The only pre-election coverage of Santos's lies was in a local newspaper, which contradicted his claims to great wealth. No larger medium picked it up in time. If we had more newspapers, and if we had more reporters, this story would likely have developed, and Santos would likely not have been elected.
This is the underlying sadness in the media brouhaha about Santos. Once a few facts were revealed (in a New York Times story on December 19), the television talk shows and social media could unleash a firestorm of indignation. But that was too late. The point of journalism is not to be outraged afterwards, but to prevent outrages from happening. It is not our role as citizens to be angry after an election. It is our role to vote calmly on the basis of what we should know. And we just don’t know what we should.
The problem is not that media are not alert. The problem is that the correct media are ceasing to exist. Talk shows can only talk about what someone else investigates. The internet can repeat, but it cannot report. We speak about the news all day, but pay almost no one to get out and report it. This rewards people who lie as a way of life. Every political career demands investigation at its beginnings, and most American counties lack a daily newspaper. That is where we are, and it has to change.
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The level of cognitive dissonance required to remain Republican in 2023 is astounding.
The antidotes to lies are accountability and consequences. It does not matter if we are discussing Trump's, Putin's, or a six-year old child's relatively inconsequential lies in response to the "who did that" question. In every case the antidote to lies are accountability and consequences.
It is particularly important that when lies are so disruptive to the social fabric of our society that they become threatening to large numbers of us that accountability and consequences should be as swift and serious as possible.
Let us all hope that 2023 sees swift accountability and serious consequences for both Trump's and Putin's lies.