Systemic GOP Lies Injure America

We need to talk about how their lies make us feel crazy.

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The Republicans, as they say, told on themselves Monday. Well, Joni Ernst did.

The Iowa senator, who’s up for reelection, explained without meaning to the Senate’s impeachment trial is now a concerted effort to do what the Ukrainians wouldn’t: create a fake rationale for a fake investigation into fake corruption by Joe Biden.

“Iowa caucuses, folks, Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening,” Ernst told reporters in the Capitol. “And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point? Not certain about that.”

Lies, in other words, don’t just deceive.

“This discussion today” came courtesy of the president’s attorneys, who didn’t bother defending their client so much as put the former vice president on trial. Senators saw, perhaps for the first time, an edited video in which Joe Biden says he threatened to hold up a billion-dollar loan to force Ukraine to get rid of its prosecutor-general.

Missing from the clip, however, is the fact that Biden threatened to hold up the loan to goose Ukraine into get rid of a corrupt senior government official who was too soft on corruption related to the natural gas firm his own son worked for, Burisma. Missing is the fact that Biden wasn’t working for himself, or his son, but for the United States government, the European Union and anti-corruption agencies around the world. Missing is the fact that “corruption” in Ukraine is a byword for being in Russian pay.

(You can watch the full video here.)

Such context, however, undermines the GOP’s bid to smear Biden. Here’s Ted Cruz:

We just saw video, I'd encourage every news outlet here to show it, of Joe Biden bragging how he told the president of Ukraine that he was gonna cut off a billion dollars, gonna cut off a billion dollars in foreign aid to Ukraine unless they fired the prosecutor. And in Joe Biden's own words, “Son of a bitch, they fired the guy.”

The legal issue before this Senate is whether a president has the authority to investigate corruption. The House managers built their entire case on the proposition that investigating Burisma corruption, that investigating the Bidens for corruption was baseless and a sham. ... That proposition is absurd.

What’s Cruz is saying is absurd. It’s a fire hose of lies.

But it’s more than that. It’s malevolence.

He’s trying to hurt us.

The conventional wisdom among liberal critics, myself included, is that the president and his confederates are trying to convince everyone that everyone else is as amoral as Trump is. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said, while watching the Senate trial that, “This is the core of Trumpism: this nihilistic cynicism and projection that everyone is equally corrupt, everyone acts like Trump.” I made that case myself last week in “A GOP Ensnared in ‘the Russian Story.’” I think we need to go a step further, however.

Think about it. The president’s defense yesterday was rooted in a Kremlin lie—that it wasn’t the Russians that attacked our sovereignty in 2016 but instead the Ukrainians, and that it wasn’t Donald Trump who corrupted the will of the people but instead Joe Biden, who was in league with foreign agents in a conspiracy to elect Hillary Clinton.

Up is down, right is left, wrong is right. Everything is upside down and backward.

That’s why Chris Hayes later on added: “The aggressive disingenuousness really starts to strain one's sanity.” To which Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, replied: “It really does. I’ve had a number of times when I just have to tune out. Listening to people lie from a position of power becomes enervating over time.”

Hayes and Marshall are a political junkie’s political junkie, but even they shrink away from engagement when lies pile up faster than fact-checkers can keep pace. Why aren’t we talking more often about how a malicious system of lies makes us feel? Who benefits when even political junkies turn away from things making them feel insane?

Lying is one thing. Systemic lying is another. There’s more at work here.

Moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt once wrote, in his book 2006 On Truth, that lies “are designed to prevent us from being in touch with what is really going on. In telling his lie, the liar tries to mislead us into believing that the facts are other than they actually are. He tries to impose his will on us” (all italics mine). “Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real sense, to make us crazy.”

Lies, in other words, don’t just deceive.

They injure.

—John Stoehr