The modern GOP had always found utility in lies of various degrees of brazenness. But Trump has brought Republicans — with, it must be noted, their enthusiastic cooperation — to a place that they will not easily return from, where lying is not only permitted but mandatory.
Let’s begin with the reaction many Republicans had to the release of the Department of Justice inspector general’s report on the FBI investigation into the 2016 Russian interference effort. The I.G. stated repeatedly that there was no political bias in the bureau’s decision to mount the investigation, which given the national security implications was not only legitimate but utterly necessary. There was no nefarious “deep state” conspiracy to destroy Trump.
The I.G. did identify one area of misconduct: Applications for FISA warrants to surveil Carter Page, who had been a campaign adviser (but was no longer when the FBI turned its attention to him) contained numerous inaccuracies and omissions. But Page was peripheral to both the Trump campaign and the investigation.
Now let’s look at a sampling of the things Republicans were saying about the report on Monday:
- “The IG report proves Obama officials abused their FISA power to trigger an investigation into @realDonaldTrump’s campaign,” tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). This is false: The FISA warrant didn’t “trigger” the investigation because it was issued months after the investigation began.
- “The real interpretation is these were hardcore political partisans that hated Donald Trump and they were willing and complicit to abuse the power of law enforcement and intelligence and spy on a political opponent,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). That is the exact opposite of the truth; the report emphasizes again and again that they found no political bias at work.
- “Everything we said, everything we reported, everything we told you was dead-on center accurate,” said Sean Hannity, when in fact the report debunked the conspiracy theories Hannity has spread for years.
- RNC chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted that “Comey’s FBI repeatedly misled the FISA court and omitted key facts about the phony Steele Dossier, which launched the 2-year, $35M Russia investigation.” In fact, the report notes that the FBI didn’t even become aware of the Steele dossier until after the investigation had begun, and “we therefore determined that Steele’s reports played no role” in launching the investigation.
- White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the report showed that “This was a government trying to overthrow a president by falsifying documents and by lying and by ruining the lives of many, many people.” The report said nothing of the sort.
That very day at the impeachment inquiry we saw another extraordinary demonstration of this up-is-downism. Republican lawyer Steve Castor refused to admit that Joe Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination (“I wouldn’t agree with that”), that Ukraine announcing an investigation of Biden might hurt his candidacy (“I slightly disagree with the predicate”) or that Trump pressed the Ukrainian president to “look into” the Bidens (“I don’t think the record supports that”).
That came a day after Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), asked whether it’s appropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, responded, “He didn’t do that.”
Let us be clear: It’s not as though Republicans were hesitant to lie before Trump came along. Tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves; Saddam Hussein is going to attack us with his weapons of mass destruction; we’ll protect Medicare; voter fraud is rampant; etc.
But they put some effort into their lies, building them off pieces of reality and providing ballast for them with (frequently bogus) supporting evidence. Though they were willing to deceive the public, they hadn’t completely given up on the idea that it’s better to pay lip service to honesty, to retain a reputation as a reasonable participant in public debate even when you’re not being reasonable. They still had some glimmer of shame.
But Trump taught them that shamelessness can be a kind of superpower. If you don’t care whether journalists (let alone your political opponents) point out your lies, then you have been liberated.
And if you stop caring what anyone except your most committed supporters believes, then not only can you ignore the truth, in Republicans’ case, you have to.
When Republicans say the I.G. report has proven their conspiracy theories right or that Trump only pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden because he is deeply committed to fighting corruption, they know they’re lying. But they also know they have to lie, because it’s what their conservative constituents demand.
Every Trump lie comes with its own warning to Republicans: Back this up, or else. They know his lie will quickly be echoed by conservative news outlets. If you’re a Republican member of Congress, you turn on Fox every day and say, “This is what my constituents are hearing.” You know that if you contradict the Trump/Fox narrative, you’ll be attacked as a traitor and your political survival will be at risk.
Even if Trump loses reelection, that media system and the voters Republican officeholders represent will remain. The patterns of behavior that have been built up over the years will be difficult to undo, as they keep insisting every Republican defeat is a victory and everything a Democratic president does is a horrific crime. They will keep lying and keep insisting that to question their lies is to betray their cause.
They will be Trumpists without Trump, knowing that their audience and constituents expect nothing less. And their poison will continue to infect our democracy.