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Wrong About the Power of the Truth? (My Latest Challenge to the Conservatives)


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/ .

  • Recommend you read Fantasyland: how America went haywire – a 500-year history
    by Kurt Andersen. I just finished it. Conclusion: Truth – what’s that? Sigh…

    • Andy Schmookler

      Can you give us a brief synopsis of Anderson’s thesis? Like maybe 4 (or more) sentences.

      • This is a good summary (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-america-lost-its-mind/534231/):

        1. “The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.”
        2. ” The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control.”
        3. “Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
        4. “We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.”

    • Andy Schmookler

      Excellent synopsis, Lowell.

      Although I think Anderson hits some real targets glancingly, from my perspective — he misses the main story here. If he’s saying that it is intellectual freedom — where anyone can believe whatever they wish — that has led us into this miss by “metasiz[ing] out of control,” he is locating the problem in our liberty, whereas the problem is the way power has exploited what opportunities a system like ours offers to evil.

      In the American democracy, those opportunities have always involved the use of the lie. And the reason is not hard to see.

      In a situation like Europe coming out of the Dark Ages, power could be had by the sword. The force of evil in that era might concern itself somewhat in what people believed — e.g. the enforcement of religious orthodoxy — but that was secondary. Armed and armored men on horseback could subdue the people, turning themselves into lords fortified in castles, and the mass of people into serfs, compelled into servitude.

      The American experiment, by contrast, has rested on “the consent of the governed.” So when evil has arisen, it has been through the manipulation of the opinion of the people, not so much the use of brute force.

      For that reason, the “confidence man” has long been a major figure in the American imagination. Herman Melville wrote a novel with that name — THE CONFIDENCE MAN — and in that great American novel (HUCKLEBERRY FINN), Mark Twain created a couple of major characters who were confidence men.

      Deceiving the people has long been a major tool in American politics.

      So to that extent, Anderson’s sense that something of this goes way back seems to me correct. And there have been dark times in our history in which the Lie has played an essential role. (The Lie figures importantly, for example, in the era leading up to the Civil War.)

      But what we see now in America has risen visibly over the past generation. Of course, our politics were never purely honest. But I would say that if there were a graph of the role of truth and the role of falsehood in American politics over the past century, truth would be seen as preponderant over that period– until the proportions began to change radically about a generation ago– tipping toward the Lie with the rise of Gingrich and Limbaugh, accelerating in that direction with W’s presidency (and Rove), becoming still worse during Obama’s presidency as the Rs were able to lie their way into control of Congress and of the statehouses and legislatures of maybe 2/3 of the states, and now elevating a truly prodigious liar to the Presidency, supported by the Party that controls Congress.

      So what Anderson leaves out is the whole quest for power by a destructive force that arose on the right, and worked systematically to poison people’s minds and get them to believe a false picture of the world. And then lend their power to that force by voting for the confidence men who have been the agents of that force.

      And one more thing, to tie this to the main thing I’m trying to say these days: the success of this force of the Lie has only been possible because that side in the political battle that has remained pretty true to the truth has not wielded that truth powerfully enough to defeat the lie..

      • Actually, what I posted was a VERY short teaser, not a “synopsis,” of this superb 462-page book. As for the things you claim Andersen supposedly leaves out, you might want to read the book first before you jump to that (incorrect) conclusion. In fact, Andersen writes extensively about “When the GOP Went Off the Rails,” about right-wing media, Trump, etc. But the fundamental thesis Andersen lays out is that Americans’ willingness – even eagerness – to believe whatever the hell they want to believe “is deeply embedded in our DNA,” just waiting to be exploited by hucksters, flim-flam men, and also more dark/diabolical forces like those represented by the Republican Party of the past few decades…culminating in the ultimate low (or at least let’s hope this is the ultimate low and that it can’t get any lower) of Donald Trump.

        • Andy Schmookler

          If you say that I jumped to an incorrect conclusion, I’m glad to stand corrected. After all, you’ve read the book and I haven’t.

          Judging from what you’ve said about his thesis — ” that Americans’ willingness – even eagerness – to believe whatever the hell they want to believe “is deeply embedded in our DNA,” just waiting to be exploited by hucksters, flim-flam men, and also more dark/diabolical forces like those represented by the Republican Party of the past few decades” — it would seem that a test of whether the conclusion I jumped to was incorrect might be this:

          Does Anderson make a good case that this eagerness of Americans “to believe whatever the hell they want to believe” has been a serious problem before this era when “dark/diabolical forces” arose over the past few decades?

          As I look over American history, I don’t see this thing “in our DNA” as having been any huge problem before now.

          It might have created a vulnerability to what’s happened more lately. What I would want to understand about that possibility would be: are Americans — with this in our “DNA” — any more susceptible to believing lies than other societies?

          The Germans of the post World War I era proved vulnerable to the Big Lie. And I wouldn’t say that the German culture, shaped by such things as Luther and the Prussian state, etc. had in their cultural DNA a propensity to believe whatever the hell they want to believe.

          But then, the Germans went over to the dark side after enormous national traumas, whereas a whole bunch of Americans got led astray by liars when there were no huge national injuries to cope with.

          • “Does Anderson make a good case that this eagerness of Americans “to believe whatever the hell they want to believe” has been a serious problem before this era when “dark/diabolical forces” arose over the past few decades?”


          • Andy Schmookler

            Thank you, then, for the tip about FANTASYLAND. It sounds like he’s seen something in our history that I’ve not seen.

  • Andy Schmookler

    A propos of that whole discussion — of people believing what they want to believe — something has come back to mind that I recall from my experience campaigning against Bob Goodlatte back in 2011-12.

    What I noticed was that many people have taken the very American idea that “everybody has a right to his opinion” and turned it into the (also very American) idea that “everybody’s opinion is worth much as anybody else’s.”

    That wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that attitude– and I’d say that it grows out of not just our American liberties but also our American egalitarianism.

    On the one hand, it could have the benefit of having a nation of people who think for themselves. (If only. It seems that a lot of people on the right, who think they think for themselves, are in lock step with their political tribe.)

    On the other hand, the idea that “my opinion is as good as anyone’s” means that people don’t feel any obligation to pay any special attention to people who know a lot about the matter in question. Expertise can be dismissed. What the climate scientists are saying is not given any more weight that what some ignorant person thinks is his equally respectable opinion on the matter.

    And it would seem that this would be another factor that would facilitate people coming up with beliefs that please them — i.e. believe what they WANT to believe — without the kinds of intellectual habits that tend to tether people closer to what’s TRUE.

    • Right, Andersen talks a great deal about that American phenomenon…

  • Dave Webster

    The guilty pleas have nothing to do with collusion and the majority of the indictments were cribbed by Mueller from a Russian news article and even then Mueller got it wrong according to the author of the Russian magazine that Mueller pathetically attempted to plagiarize.