First among stories that American parents tell their progeny in hope’s eternal springboard to honesty is George Washington’s apocryphal childhood confession about the cherry tree. Similarly, generations of schoolchildren know Abraham Lincoln as “Honest Abe.” That we identify our greatest presidents with integrity reflects a collective belief in an enduring national value.
By this standard, Donald Trump is irretrievably lost. He lies readily, habitually, perpetually—as we saw again last week in his response to surprising news from Arizona.
On Friday, the Trumpian Cyber Ninjas firm reported the results of the “audit” its reviewers conducted of the 2020 election in Maricopa County. They found that President Joe Biden won more votes in the county than in the official recount. Maricopa is home to Phoenix and more than half of Arizonans. As Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan summarized, “The ballots that were provided to us to count . . . very accurately correlate with the official canvas numbers.”
Logan had zero motivation to favor Biden. In December, he tweeted Trump’s “Big Lie” that the presidential election was stolen. Anthony Kern, a one-time Arizona official working on the review, “was part of the crowd storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6.” Private funding came from PACs run by Trump conspiracy theorists Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell.
In a response to Logan’s announcement of his company’s findings, Trump twisted the report’s bottom line into a prevarication pretzel. He huffed that the audit revealed that thousands of voters were not living at their registered address.
Nothing there, Maricopa election officials rejoined. Voters always move in the weeks before election day. GIs vote from overseas. They’re not “phantom voters,” as Trump claimed, but defenders of our freedom.
At one point, the Cyber Ninjas also wrongly asserted that there were thousands more mailed-in ballots than were distributed. It turned out that they erroneously included files of early in-person voting in their miscount—one of several indications that the auditors were ignorant of the basic workings of election systems and procedures.
No worry if you’re Trump. Ignore the errors. The sun also rises in the west, the earth is flat, and Oz is truly all powerful. Let fiction strangle reality.
In January 2017, we were mystified when Trump forced Sean Spicer, his comical first press spokesman, to scream that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history. Split screen videos showed Obama’s far larger audience. We didn’t yet understand the method to Trump’s insistent madness: Who do you believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?
Trump’s lies have continued nonstop. PolitiFact reports that only 1 in 33 of his statements is completely true. (Mistakes happen.) The Washington Post counted more than 30,000 false or misleading claims from Trump over the four years he was in office.
Trump seeks more than the goal of the individual lie—tearing what political philosopher Hannah Arendt described as “a hole in the fabric of factuality” is not enough. The aim of authoritarians, she wrote, is nothing short of creating a substitute reality.
Were you confused last week by Trump successfully pressing for a review of the Texas election Trump won? Undermining elections everywhere is the purpose. Trump has flogged similar election “fraudits” by Republicans in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He’s setting the stage for civil war if he runs and loses in 2024.
To rephrase Hamlet, Trump calculates that “the lie’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the power of a king.”
Simple and cumulative antidotes to a culture of lies exist at micro and macro levels. For individuals, writes Jeremy Adam Smith, co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct, continuously “make accuracy a goal” regardless of our belief system. And if opportunities arise, tell stories of true justice, including “good trouble” like John Lewis’s bravery at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Courage of several kinds, including Lewis’s, produced the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Indeed, citizens can act to support its 2021 successor, the John Lewis Right to Vote Advancement Act, as well as the Freedom to Vote Act and Protecting Our Democracy Act. The first two bills would ensure access to elections for all citizens. The third bill plugs loopholes that would allow a corrupt future president to enrich himself and perpetuate his power.
On September 24, President Biden provided a different model at the national level. Rather than broadly assert executive privilege in response to document requests from the House committee investigating the January 6th insurrection, the White House has merely expressed openness to reviewing any privilege assertions received from former President Trump. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has worked with the committee as it seeks the truth behind the Capitol riot.
One of Biden’s august predecessors, Thomas Jefferson, hoped that the university he founded would be a place where “we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.” That commitment is one that Biden, in signaling help to the January 6 committee, evidently shares. Trump, meanwhile, will happily bury truth in a deluge of lies—and with it the 245-year-old American experiment—to secure more power and wealth for himself.