In the summer of 1973, the country was transfixed by the Senate Watergate hearings. The hearings had many memorable moments (including the revelation of the White House taping system) but the one question that became iconic was that posed by Tennessee Republican Senator Howard Baker: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Guilty knowledge was the key to the whole sordid business. If over-eager Nixon underlings had burgled the offices of the Democratic National Committee, paid hush money to the defendants, and corruptly influenced the FBI and the CIA, well, that would be bad. But if the president knew about it all, and knew it from the start, that was a firing offense or worse.
But in our age of post-truth politics, the question shrivels into a dry cinder. The January 6 committee devoted the second of its public hearings to demonstrating beyond doubt that Donald Trump knew he had lost the 2020 election. He was told by his campaign staff, by officials at the Department of Justice, by local election administrators, by his daughter and son-in-law, and by the attorney general, among others. And yet he persisted in propagating the lie to the American people.
The unstated assumption here is that Trump did not sincerely believe the election was stolen. He was told over and over again that it wasn’t and yet persisted in propagating a dangerous lie to the world. And therefore he is responsible.
With all due respect to the committee (and I wish them resounding success), that’s the wrong way to look at it. In the first place, the tangle of loose wires, celebrity gossip, Putin-worship, grade school taunts, and world-class vapidity that forms Trump’s mind is impossible to penetrate. We are, to our sorrow, quite familiar with his indifference to truth. When it comes to a person who has lied about American Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers; told the country that COVID was like the common cold and was “disappearing;” lied about why he fired James Comey; and lied even about the paths of hurricanes, we are dealing with someone whose lies are a constitutive part of his psychology. And everyone knows this.
Consider just one contrast from the Watergate era. Part of why the tapes were Nixon’s undoing is that they proved that Nixon had lied to his friends and allies as well as to his enemies. Barry Goldwater, one of those who personally delivered the news to the president that he had lost the support of his party in Congress, wasn’t alone in feeling personally betrayed by Nixon. “It was an enormous betrayal for some of Nixon’s allies when they realized that he had been lying the whole time,” historian Jeffrey Engel told FiveThirtyEight, “Because it meant they had been lying too.”
The same cannot be said in Trump’s case because absolutely everyone in his circle and everyone in the Republican party who made their peace with him as leader had been lied to repeatedly. Trump had so warped the people around him that there was no expectation of honesty or integrity. Did he know that the election was not stolen or did he sincerely believe that it was? What does it matter? What is sincerity in the mind of a man who lies with every exhale? Asking whether Trump knew the election was free and fair is like asking whether a komodo dragon prefers smooth jazz or hip hop. It’s a category error.
Part of Trump’s project was to obliterate the truth, to “flood the zone with s—” as Steve Bannon explained. Damon Linker summed it up:
There’s a reason the word ‘gaslighting’ entered the working vocabulary of reporters and citizens during the Trump years—because the president made a habit of telling lies that every American could see were lies, and that most people had reason to suspect Trump himself knew were untrue as well. It was a presidential-level display of indifference to the very distinction between truth and falsehood, a demonstration that he resided in and sought to drag the rest of us into a twilit world in which the very difference between fact and fiction ceased to hold up or even make sense.
This emphatically does not let Trump off the hook for his lies. On the contrary. His attempt to blur reality is all the more reason to substitute a different standard—and not just for Trump. In our era of curated news and information silos, we must ask not, “What did he know?” but “What was it that he knew or should have known?” This is the standard in tort law. If you are the owner of a dye factory and an employee sues when he’s blinded by a malfunctioning machine, you can’t escape responsibility by saying that you didn’t know the machinery was faulty. If the negligence is bad enough, it can be criminal.
Criminal negligence is a decent shorthand for the indifference to truth and/or eager embrace of lies that has come to characterize our historical moment. Are the people who get all of their news from Fox or The Federalist responsible for what they believe? They are. Every person in a democratic republic has a duty to ascertain the truth as best they can and that means questioning the pap that they are fed nightly. It means letting the light of skepticism peek under the blanket of certainty every now and then. A Fox viewer is lied to, yes, but he or she can ask: Why did Tucker Carlson do an entire show on the first night of televised hearings, Thursday, June 9, without commercial interruptions? What was he afraid viewers would learn if they switched channels to any other outlet even for a minute?
Yes, viewers are lied to and the liars deserve particular opprobrium, but at some point citizens have to use the sense God gave them. If the Dominion Voting machines were rigged, why did Republican House and Senate candidates do so much better than Trump? If there was a vast conspiracy to flip votes from Trump to Biden, why did Trump perform better with Hispanics in 2020 than he had in 2016? And if the problem was the “rigged” voting machines, why did two hand recounts in Georgia show no discrepancies?
If the riot at the capitol was the work of Antifa and the Deep State, why was Ashli Babbit a martyr? And for that matter, if it was Antifa, why were Republican members asking Trump for pardons in the final days of his presidency? Alternatively, if it was an “normal tourist visit,” why blame it on Antifa?
Finally, why would people like Brad Raffensperger, Chris Krebs, Bill Barr, Brian Kemp, Doug Ducey, and Liz Cheney, who had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by telling the truth, be doing what they are doing? If any discordant reality can be dismissed with “explanations” like “RINO” or “woke,” we have left the realm of reality altogether.
So yes, Trump is responsible for his lies however fervently he may tell himself and others that he believes in them because what he believes is irrelevant. His mind is a black hole of truth. It’s not what he knows but what he has a responsibility to know. And the same goes for all of us.