This piece has appeared in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).
My upbringing instilled in me “truth” as a paramount value, and I’ve devoted my life to working hard to learn and respect what is true. Part of that respect for truth makes it a virtue to admit when I’m wrong — because truth is more important by far than pride. So I start here by admitting I might have been wrong again.
I say “again” because many months ago here I admitted my mistake in thinking that, though Trump would get the Republican nomination, he’d not win the election. My error, as I said in a previous column, was in believing that the 50-some percent of Republican voters who had said, during the primaries, that they had an “unfavorable” view of Trump would not later support him if he became the nominee.
But they did.
My new likely error also involves how a lot of Americans relate to Donald Trump. Months ago, I felt confident that the truths uncovered –- by the Mueller investigation, and by virtually all the finest journalistic institutions in America –- about the Trump circle, campaign, and administration, would move more and more people to withdraw their support from this President.
Who could not be moved, I thought, by a picture so powerful, so dark and disturbing, so expertly substantiated by evidence? Who would not realize how profound a threat to the basic values of America (such as that we’re “a nation of laws, not of men,” in John Adams’ famous phrase) revealed by this emerging picture of the Trump presidency?
But that’s not the way it has gone in recent months: public opinion has moved in the opposite direction lately, with more approval of this president and diminished support for this crucial Mueller investigation than polls found back in March.
What to make of that?
Part of it is the power of sheer ignorance — a problem illustrated by another recent poll showing that a majority of the American people (59%) believes that the Mueller investigation has so far uncovered no crimes. That belief is quite demonstrably false. The truth is that Mueller has already obtained five guilty pleas and 19 indictments.
But apparently, that 59% knows none of that.
For some, that ignorance is the result of their getting their news from untrustworthy sources, like Fox News, which for years have shown themselves willing to lie to their audience in order to advance its own political agenda.
For others it’s a sign they’re simply not paying attention.
Another factor is an important asymmetry between the sides in the battle for public opinion. While one side – Trump and his accomplices – regularly shouts its lies from the rooftops (“fake news,” crooked FBI, and the latest false story “Spygate”), the other side –- the investigators and prosecutors — is required by the ethic of its professional role to stay mute.
Remaining silent except for its court filings, even a crackerjack team like Mueller’s –- honoring the norm not to tell the American people the truths their legal investigation has uncovered until it has completed its work — is at a disadvantage to a shameless force of demagoguery broadcasting lies.
But even all those factors, taken together, don’t seem sufficient to explain the larger picture of rather consequential falsehoods that a lot of people apparently believe.
Perhaps the core falsehood is found here: that 76% of Republicans believe Trump tells the truth all or most of the time. This, despite the fact that already –- in less than a year and a half –- Trump has told more than three thousand Trump lies (some of them false on their face).
Something more seems to be required to explain how people could choose to believe Trump over the reporting of the best of the American press — believe Trump despite what has long been obvious, and that Trump said explicitly to CBS’s Leslie Stahl (off camera) during the campaign: Asked why he keeps bashing the press, then-candidate Trump replied, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
People choosing to believe this extraordinary liar leads America to some extraordinary consequences.
Like 75% of Republicans believing the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt,” despite all the people in Trump’s inner circle who have demonstrably lied about their contacts with the Russians, as well as all the indictments and guilty pleas.
Like 48% of Republicans believing that between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in 2016, despite the election officials around the nation (Republican and Democratic) all saying nothing of the sort occurred.
Trying to understand how so many people can believe things that can so readily be proven false, I feel obliged to reconsider one of my own long-standing beliefs.
My family taught me to believe in the power of the truth to triumph over falsehood. (That’s something I believe that our nation’s founders – men of the Enlightenment – believed as well.) But, apparently, the truth is powerful only if enough people in a society are committed to it.
The prospering of the Lie in America today, by contrast, seems to indicate that many people choose to believe what they want to believe, regardless of whether those beliefs are even plausibly true.
While the political crisis in America today has shaken my life-long belief in the power of the truth, it has also made my belief in the value and importance of the truth stronger than ever.
Andy Schmookler – a prize-winning author who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in VA-06 – has written most recently a series titled “Press the Battle: Fighting for the Soul of America(ns),” at http://abetterhumanstory.org/press-the-battle/ .