Lie to me


The present is never as special as it seems, particularly in politics. Following breathless political coverage – even when you mostly agree with it – only serves to obscure this fact. So I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane, and review an article by one of my favorite writers, Rick Perlstein, in the context of recent political events.

Perlstein’s article, published in The Baffler in 2012, is called “The Long Con.” Here’s the lede:

Mitt Romney is a liar. Of course, in some sense, all politicians, even all human beings, are liars. Romney’s lying went so over-the-top extravagant by this summer, though, that the New York Times editorial board did something probably unprecedented in their polite gray precincts: they used the L-word itself. “Mr. Romney’s entire campaign rests on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites,” they editorialized. He repeats them “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” “It is hard to challenge these lies with a well-reasoned-but- overlong speech,” they concluded; and how. Romney’s lying, in fact, was so richly variegated that it can serve as a sort of grammar of mendacity.

Pundits—that is to say, the ones who aren’t stitched into their profession’s lunatic semiology, which holds that it’s unfair to call a Republican a liar unless you call a Democrat one too—have been hard at work analyzing what this all says about Mitt Romney’s character. And more power to them. But that’s not really my bag. I write long history books that are published with photos of presidents and presidential aspirants on the covers. The photos are to please the marketers: presidents sell. But my subject is not really powerful people; biography doesn’t much interest me. In my view, powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.

All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party chose as their standard bearer a pathological liar. What does that reveal about them?

An excellent question.

Perlstein argues that Romney’s lying was not a bug, but a feature. It ingratiated him with Republican elites, many of whose careers have been built on lying and grift, and it persuaded the rank-and-file, who basically gobble that shit up. In other words, Romney’s lying was a shibboleth: it marked him as one of the tribe.

As Perlstein notes, the ability to lie with impunity enables more sophisticated forms of skullduggery. After, what’s the point of lying if you can’t make money off it?

One interesting tactic that Republicans (and grifters in general) use to grift is to point out grifting on the part of others. This helps to build trust between the grifter and the griftee. Perlstein notes one pitch that he received from Human Events, entitled, “The Trouble with Get-Rich-Quick Schemes”

He writes,

Perhaps I’m a little gullible myself; for a couple of seconds, I believed the esteemed Reagan-era policy handbook might be sending out a useful consumer advisory to its readers, an investigative guide to the phony get-rich-quick schemes caroming around the right-leaning opinion-sphere. But that hasty assumption proved sadly mistaken, presuming as it did that the proprietors of outfits like Human Events respect their readers. Instead, this was a come-on for something called “INSTANT INTERNET INCOME”—the chance at last to “put an end to your financial worries . . . permanently erase your debts . . . pay cash for the things you want . . . create a secure, enjoyable retirement for yourself . . . give your family the abundant lifestyle they so richly deserve.”

It reminds me of my favorite phrase on the internet: “x that THEY don’t want you to know about” (usually, x is some sort of product that makes your penis larger or your cancer smaller). The elegance of the pitch is that it creates a division between the good guys and bad guys – the bad guys are the doctors or pharmaceutical companies who want to make money off your poor health and desperation, and the good guys are the ones who want to sell you the miracle cure that the bad guys want so badly to suppress. It’s so beautifully self-reinforcing that it almost brings a tear to my eye. Responding with “Actually, doctors have tested this product and it doesn’t work” will bring forth the ultimate rebuttal: “But they’re the bad guys!”

What’s immensely frustrating about the types of people who fall for cons or conspiracy theories is that they’re often half-right. There really are nefarious forces in the world who are trying to scam you out of your hard-earned money or keep you deliberately ignorant. (Most of those people are known as Republicans, in fact.) In the case of pharmaceutical companies, it is certainly true that they have every incentive to develop treatments instead of cures, and to keep drug prices as high as possible. And I don’t blame people for seeking alternative medicine (although maybe NewsMax is not the best place to find it). But we must always be cognizant that, in recognizing one scam, we don’t fall prey to another.

Trump understands this strategy all too well. It comes so easily to him that it seems not practiced or conscious but instead instinctual and subconscious. Here’s one example:

Instead of participating in a Fox News debate in late January, Trump instead decided to hold a fundraiser for veterans groups. He claimed to have raised $6 million in a single night. One of the groups he neglected to help was the “Wounded Warrior Project”, a charity that serves injured veterans.

Politico reported:

Reports about the Wounded Warrior Project’s alleged mishandling of donation money factored into Donald Trump’s decision to not include the group among the 22 veterans organizations receiving the $6 million connected to his Thursday night event, the Republican presidential candidate said.

“We saw some bad stories about them…I think, on CBS, actually,” Trump said in an excerpt released Friday from his interview with CBS’ John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” to air Sunday. “And I think I want to give it a little pause, until we find out whether or not that stuff is correct. So we look very carefully. I always do. I look very carefully as to expenses and what things are costing and how they allocate their money. And I like to see nice, low numbers in terms of expense. Those numbers were pretty high.”

It’s the same con, isn’t it? Trump is saying, “Those bad guys at the Wounded Warrior Project don’t care about veterans at all, so you should give your dollars to me instead!” And the first half of that sentence is basically correct. The Wounded Warrior Project, according to Charity Navigator, spends less than 60% of its money on programs/services: a pretty poor ratio. (For comparison’s sake, the much-maligned Clinton Foundation is at 87%)

However, the $6 million dollar figure that Politico credulously reported was a lie. A Washington Post investigation later revealed that only $4.5 million had been raised and disbursed, because “unnamed big donors” had backed out. Who were those unnamed donors? One was Trump himself, who had promised to donate $1 million but failed to do so until several weeks of relentless pressure from the media and the risk of losing face finally compelled him to do so. (According to the Post, “When asked Tuesday whether he had given the money this week only because reporters had been asking about it, Trump responded: “You know, you’re a nasty guy. You’re really a nasty guy. I gave out millions of dollars that I had no obligation to do.””)

Admittedly, the Wounded Warrior Project is but one example. But I think it helps to focus on anecdotes instead of trying to comprehend his mendacity all at once. (As Perlstein wrote about Romney, “There are more examples, so many more, but as I started to log and taxonomize them, their sheer volume threatened to crash my computer. (OK, I’m lying; I just stopped cataloging them, out of sheer fatigue.)”)

A whole slew of articles came out during the campaign season about how religious voters, and specifically Mormons, were turned off by Trump’s apparent lack of regard for religion, his xenophobia, religious bigotry, racism, sexism, etc. To take two random examples, FiveThirtyEight ran a piece during the Republican primary entitled, “The GOP Establishment May Need Religious Voters to Stop Donald Trump”, and the New York Times wrote in October 2016 (!) about how “Utah’s Top Mormons [were] in “All-Out-Revolt” against Donald Trump”. Of course, in the general election, Trump ended up winning the evangelical vote by a greater margin than Dubya (80% to 16%), and won more than 60% of Mormon voters.

One writer in Religious News was apparently shocked by these developments, with an opinion piece entitled, “Most Mormons Planned Not to Vote for Donald Trump; What the Heck Happened?” (Apparently, Mormons said one thing to the pollsters and did another in the voting booth.)

But where’s the real surprise here? That the same people who believe that the Angel Moroni directed Joseph Smith to find golden plates buried in the ground voted for a guy who believes that global warming is a Chinese conspiracy? Or that the same people who tithe 10% of their income to an organization whose only purpose is self-expansion and self-enrichment would give their votes to a man who has made that his life’s motto?

There are truly innocent people who are victims of scams. I pity the poor old lady on the internet who gives her money to a fake Nigerian prince because she naively trusted him. (Although, it’s worth noting that even in these scams, there’s almost always an element of venality on the part of the victim.)

But that’s not what’s going on here. Republican voters are sophisticated suckers. They recognize the lie, at least part-way. They know that Trump doesn’t practice religion, he only affects it, and that he doesn’t practice charity, he only plays at it. They’re willing to tolerate those lies because the stories he tells target the right enemies: “THEY” – the people who want to keep you in the dark about THEIR lies and prevent you from having the INSTANT INTERNET INCOME and the 10 inch dick that you truly deserve. But what happens when the rank-and-file are invariably proven not to be as sophisticated as they thought? What happens when they realize that they, not THEY, are the marks?

I’m reminded of this incredible article by Sarah Kliff in Vox where she interviews Trump reporters in Kentucky, the site of one of Obamacare’s biggest successes. They superficially seem wise to the con:

“I found with Trump, he says a lot of stuff. I just think all politicians promise you everything and then we’ll see. It’s like when you get married — ‘Oh, honey, I won’t do this, oh, honey, I won’t do that.’”

But when she asks them about Trump’s plans to gut or repeal Obamacare, she gets this in response:

“I guess I thought that, you know, he would not do this, he would not take health insurance away knowing it would affect so many people’s lives,” says Debbie Mills, an Obamacare enrollee who supported Trump. “I mean, what are you to do then if you cannot pay for insurance?”

Another excellent question.


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