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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.