Betting Lies Don’t Matter09-24-2020
In 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, and during the Republican decision to block a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Senator Lindsey Graham made what appeared to be a principled statement.
Senator Graham doubled down on his statement in 2018, two years after President Trump was elected, and said: “I will tell you this. If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election. Hold the date.”
“I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination."
Now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has passed away and President Trump has decided to nominate a judge to replace her with the election less than two months away—Justice Scalia died 8 months before the election, not two—Senator Graham has announced that he—as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee—will support a quick vote on President Trump’s nominee before the election.
Democrats are shouting hypocrisy and accusing Senator Graham of lying. This seems beyond obvious. Senator Graham responds that facts have changed that justify his sudden change of heart. In tweets explaining his decision, he explains, first, that Democrats changed the rules around Senate confirmations of circuit court nominations to do away with the filibuster. But that democratic rule change happened in 2013, before the nomination of Judge Garland. It was a Republican Senate that then applied that rule to Supreme Court nominations. Senator Graham, adds, second, that the Democratic attack on President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh somehow justifies his own shifting opinion. That the Senator simply lied when he said in both 2016 and 2018 that he acted out of principle seems hard to doubt. But will it matter?
Senator Graham is up for reelection next month and is locked in a close race with Democrat Jaimie Harrison. Clearly the Senator has made the calculation that going back on his twice-stated promise to treat his 2016 vote as a matter of principle will not hurt him with South Carolina voters. Graham is nothing if not a savvy politician. He may well be correct that voters simply don’t care about the baldness of his lies. Why is this the case?
Hannah Arendt helps us to think about the way that lies work in politics, and why lying by politicians is rarely punished. First, lying is part of politics. "Truthfulness,” she writes, “ has never been counted among the political virtues.” Since all political action must begin something new, change is not possible if we cannot "remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are." Thus all political activism and change demand the imagination, the capacity to deliberately deny "factual truth--the ability to lie.” Not only can we say that the Sun shines when it is raining, we can say that "all men are created equal" when we know for sure that they are all incredibly different and unique. Without this "mental freedom to deny or affirm existence," Arendt writes, no action and no politics is possible. The deep dependence of politics on lying helps to explain why it is that simply claiming that a politician lies rarely works to discredit them.
A second reason lying rarely matters in politics is that facts are such contingent and slippery things. As Arendt writes, "Factual truths are never compellingly true." Every factual statement can be made doubtful and testimony and witnesses discredited. Graham cites the rule change around filibusters to justify his lies. It needs to be pointed out the rule change predates his lie. But then he responds that it only applied to the Supreme Court after his first lie (but he will ignore that it happened before the second time he said it). The point is, the facts get confusing. And when facts are made confusing, lies are often "more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear." As Arendt adds, by "preparing his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible,” the liar can avoid the discomfort and incomprehensibility of reality and make the lie appear more real than the truth.
There is also, however, a third and perhaps most meaningful reason that lying simply does not matter in politics today. Lying today, Arendt writes, has simply become a way of life. What she means is that we live in an age in which we as a society are increasingly comfortable living amidst fictional worlds that are disassociated from reality. This flight from reality may have its origins in a metaphysical loneliness that spurs modern masses to seek out logically coherent and comforting fictional worlds.
Lying as a way of life,” Arendt observes, was “quite successful in countries under totalitarian rule.” In totalitarian regimes, lying was guided by ideologies and enforced by terror. Totalitarianism promises to lonely masses what they want: a logically coherent fantasy that replaces a messy and uncomfortable reality. But the totalitarian states could only cement their lies through terror--by normalizing a “sheer criminality” by which lies would be certified by mass murder. For one sure way to “prove” the fact of Jewish world conspiracy is to exterminate the Jews and make them into the enemy you claim that they are. By bringing criminality into the political process on a gigantic scale, Nazi Germany secured belief in the fictional ideological reality.
Arendt did not believe that totalitarianism as it existed in Nazi Germany or Bolshevist Russia was a threat in the United States. Aware of the dangers of totalitarianism, public opinion in the United States, she saw, was not prepared to condone mass murder, camps, and terror. And yet, writing in the wake of the blatant lying in Vietnam, the burglaries, and the cover-ups of Watergate, rampant inflation, and the refusal to own up to the economic crises in the country, public opinion does appear ready to condone “all political transgressions short of murder.”
Arendt writes that politicians consistently got away with lying and even blatant criminality. While Nixon’s crimes “were a far cry from the sort of criminality with which we once were inclined to compare it,” the facts are clear that Nixon’s administration included many persons who—if not criminals—were so attracted to the “aura of power, its glamorous trappings,” that they came to see themselves as above the law. Nixon, and those around him, assumed that they could and would get away with their crimes because the believed that “all people are actually like them.” They thought that all people are, in the end, corruptible. Thus they assumed that judges, the press, and politicians could be bought or cowed. “Nixon’s greatest mistake--aside from not burning the tapes in time--was to have misjudged the incorruptibility of the courts and the press.”
Her analysis of why those civil servants and appointees who worked for Nixon stayed is eerily familiar: “In retrospect, it looks as though there existed no such grand schemes but ‘only’ the firm resolve to do away with any law, constitutional or not, that stood in the way of shifting designs inspired by greed and vindictiveness rather than by the drive for total power or any coherent political program.” Nixon’s regime was not ideological, but obsessed with power. “In other words, it is as though a bunch of con men, rather untalented mafiosi, had succeeded in appropriating to themselves the government ‘of the mightiest power on earth.’”
Against the logical ideological coherence backed by terror that supports the big lie in totalitarian states, Arendt sees that the lying in the American Republic of the 1970s was based upon the hidden persuasive power of images. What Nixon sought was to replace rule by terror with rule by “persuasion enforced by pressure and the manipulation of public opinion.” And to Nixon’s shock, the public was not amenable to such pressure and manipulation by the Executive.
While the public in the case of Watergate rejected Nixon’s efforts to turn the government into a a cabal of con men and rather untalented mafioisi, there is still the fact that those indicted and convicted for their roles in the coverup were “overwhelmed with very high offers from publishers, the press and television, and the campuses to tell their story.” This demand for “self-serving” stories by the criminals is, Arendt says, part of a continuing “quest for more lies and fabrications.” It was and is a sign that the public is addicted to lies and craves comforting stories.
Lindsey Graham clearly has thrown his lot in with President Nixon as well as with President Trump. He is wagering that the press and the people are as corruptible as he is. He is betting that lying has, indeed, become a way of life. He is betting that lying simply does not matter. In less than two months, we will have a sense of just how right he and President Trump are to have made this bet.