When We Absolve Our Leaders of the Burden of Truth and Fact

Who are you going to believe? Trump or your own lying eyes?

December 18, 2018

On Friday, the Washington Post published the startling results of a poll commissioned in part to help us comprehend the extent to which President Trump maintains support from roughly four in ten Americans.

The poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans today say it’s “extremely important” for presidential candidates to be honest. That’s down from 71 percent in an Associated Press-Yahoo poll from 2007. The figure for Democrats has stayed steady at 70 percent. Separately, the Post poll found that 41 percent of Republicans now say it’s sometimes acceptable for political leaders to make false claims “in order to do what’s right for the country.” Twenty-five percent of Democrats say the same.

What the poll results really tell us, as 2018 ends, is that the problem with politics and governance and democracy in America isn’t just that tens of millions of Americans still believe what Trump is telling them despite what they see differently with their own eyes. The problem also is that tens of millions of Americans still support the president’s policies and tactics even though they know he is lying to their faces every day. In this latter group, surely, are many Republican members of Congress, many of them rule-of-law types, who feel the need to justify, excuse, or defend what the Feds say is Trump’s criminal conduct.

What does it mean for our nation’s future to untether truth and honesty, facts and evidence, from the obligations we expect of elected leaders? Can this really be the legacy of a political system mythologized first through George “I-cannot-tell-a-lie” Washington? What do we do with all these blind followers of Trump, and how do we address the impact their continuing misinformation is going to have on the direction of the nation’s policies?

We know that some of Trump’s lost followers are racist, either overtly or otherwise, and will support him no matter what largely because they’ve heard his white supremacist dog whistles and feel as though he’s their man. If you want to know more about these people, what makes them feel the way they do, and why they naturally would support an authoritarian white nationalist like Trump, read Glenna Gordon’s stunning new piece in The New York Review of Books, titled “American Women of the Far Right.” It illustrates the depth and breadth of white supremacy today.

And no doubt some of Trump’s other lost followers are merely the newest victims of the grift and con that has been part of the Trump family story for decades. Maybe these folks still believe he’s a billionaire or haven’t heard about his serial bankruptcies. Maybe they really do think he’s a “stable genius” (because how else would he have become so rich and famous?) and knows more about the climate than climate scientists, more about the economy than economists, more about tariffs than trade experts, and more about foreign policy than the most seasoned diplomats?

Who knows, really, why religious moralists suddenly and persistently support an amoral president who barely pretends to be religious but who now is credibly accused of illegally paying hush money to ensure the silence of at least two women with whom he had extramarital affairs? Or why Republican politicians like Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham, who hounded President Clinton for his lies about sex during the impeachment of 1998, suddenly are chill with President Trump repeatedly lying about sex and then using unlawful tactics trying to cover it up. Can religious opposition to abortion rights really explain it all?

It’s easy to say that all of these followers are sticking with Trump because he’s delivering to them the policies they’ve long wanted. That they’ll settle for all the lies and scandals so long as more undocumented immigrants are kicked out of the country or so long as the nation’s national resources are doled out to campaign contributors or so long as there is the promise that more people will be imprisoned and fewer people will receive health insurance. Except that some of these followers are the ones losing their health insurance because of Republican policies or are being sent to prison for drug crimes that may or may not warrant the sentence.

Nothing Special Counsel Robert Mueller could ever introduce as evidence is going to convince Trump’s lost followers that they are backing the wrong guy. Nothing a group of federal judges could write would do the trick. No plea deal, like the ones already in the books for Flynn or Cohen or Manafort or Papadopoulos, is going to draw them back from their post-fact world where lies are “acceptable” if the liars are your liars and not the other guy’s liars.

And of course, should any of these politically charged cases make it to trial in New York or Washington, some of these lost followers surely are going to end up on juries, where they’ll likely apply the “reasonable doubt” standard in all sorts of unreasonable ways. Like calling witnesses “rats” for testifying in a federal investigation. Or linking a judge’s heritage or nationality to the substance of his or her rulings. Or alleging vast conspiracy theories on longtime FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Or believing that “law and order” means locking up political enemies.

On Sunday morning, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the former U.S. Attorney, started pitching the dubious notion that Trump orchestrated hush money payments though Michael Cohen because he, Trump, didn’t want to subject his family to the emotional distress that would have come from public exposure to his philandering. Imagine making that pitch to a jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, my client, the serial adulterer, didn’t break the law when he authorized the payment of money to a porn star to keep her quiet before an election because he was thinking, first, of his beloved family.”

The line wouldn’t even fly on “Law and Order.” But it will fly with about one third of the population next year. That’s just one of the challenges to those who believe the current administration is the most blatantly corrupt and destructive in U.S. history. It’s not just about uncovering objective evidence of the corruption and the obstruction of justice designed to hide it. It’s also about convincing people that their faith in Trump is tragically misplaced. Such is the delusional power of the president that the success of this endeavor is an open question heading into what reckons to be a rocking 2019.

(Image: Jamie Squire/Getty)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.