By Tom Lamia
George Washington never told a lie, it is said. Our current president told more than 3,000 in his first year in office. Yes, the Washington Post was counting. When Dwight Eisenhower told the country, and the Soviets, that Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 aircraft were not acting on our behalf when downed over Russia, there was a national gasp of incredulity. A U.S. president lying! To his own people!! Oh, what halcyon days.
What is our fate, now that our current president has dismissed the Post, and other long-trusted news sources as “Fake News,” generated by “Enemies of the People?” This shameful tactic has undermined trust in responsible news sources, and, of course, in the president himself. His lying, as a tool of governance, is a gross abuse of the trust placed in him by his election. Many among us are dispirited and resigned to worse yet to come. His supporters say he is telling it like it is, rejecting political correctness and having justifiable revenge on elites.
Very little of what is filling our eyes and ears and seeping slowly into our long-term memory from this war on the press is likely to be good for us. I think most of us realize this and know that a course change is necessary. But as time in this new normalcy goes by, the hole being dug for us grows ever deeper. It now seems clear that the man we elected to lead us is both wielding the shovel and blocking access to the hole. It seems the best we can hope for is the emergence of beneficial counterforces able to block further digging.
Our elected leader has a personality so strong and so perverse that shame, fear, of consequences, judgment of peers and moral limits are ineffective to stop or redirect these malevolent practices. They are offset by the man’s narcissism, egomania, and disdain for critics and criticism. He “wins” because he must, because that is what his self-image demands. So, he will lie and tell us that he has won great victories in spite of facts and reason.
In an 18th Century memoir, recently published, an English groom tells of accompanying his master, a French nobleman, on a boar hunt with, Louis XV of France. The groom notes that the king did not like seeing others do well and “allowed nobody but himself to fire, or carry fire arms, nor even to pass by him in the Chace.” But, then, Louis XV was a king. What is our president’s excuse? Is our country his kingdom, the presidency his stage, politicians his courtiers? What role do we, the people, play? Groundlings in a theater of the absurd?
Disrespect has been a touchstone of this president. In the campaign, he disrespected his rivals and the election process (“I will accept the result if I win”). In office, he has disrespected his predecessors (“Only I can do it”). He disrespects critics by name-calling and evasion. Disrespect for a core principle (that ours is “a government of laws not men”) has already caused a loss of trust in his ability to govern.
To defend ourselves, and win back our relevance as an informed and responsible electorate, we must start by calling out the lies. Politicians lie, of course, but when caught in a lie, they are, generally, chastened, regretful, and apologetic. Not this president. His reaction is to tell a bigger lie, often one that is cruelly personal, against the person who has questioned his veracity. He seems impervious to shame, apparently believing personal responsibility to be a character flaw.
To effectively challenge this behavior, we must stay calm and focus on his principal weakness, his fear of loss of relevance. In business as in politics, aggressive self-promotion and resilience under duress have given him relevance. He is the paragon of intimidation, obfuscation, doubling down and settling to cut his losses. But, he cannot settle with the American people. Being driven from office by the voters is the proper remedy for that.
How is it to be done? One man’s shame is another’s glory. Peck’s Bad Boy, he is, and he is loved, loathed and lauded for it by his supporters. The lies are part of the shtick, excused, if not glorified, by the audacity of telling them. His being willing to face down his critics is a point of pride. The lying is an ingredient to his governance, but not a poison pill that will bring him down. That his lies are not a disqualifier amazes me, but his followers tolerate them. The lies are a tool in a satchel full of effective tactics. They alone will not defeat him.
Are his boorishness, his disdain for expertise, and his general ignorance of history fertile ground? Several other presidents have learned from their shortcomings once they were exposed by the demands of the office; Chester Arthur and George W. Bush, for example. But, those presidents had the gift of humility and, knowing what they did not know, worked to learn and followed the norms of their predecessors. This president does not seem to have those virtues. His intimidating arrogance has served as a battering ram to open holes in our constitutional defenses against tyranny.
But, failure caused by his obstinacy to read, listen, prepare or collaborate with others, will be noticed over time. These failings are curable if they are acknowledged. His obstinacy in not acknowledging them has led to the departure of many good people from key positions in his government. More will follow. Soon even the cultists and sycophants will notice that, despite the appeal of his bluster, he is not getting the job done for them.