But if anything, the Republican Party today is even more committed to myths, falsehoods and a shared hostility to the very idea of an objective reality on which a democratic debate might be built than they were when Trump was still president.
Things are not getting better. They’re getting worse. And it’s almost impossible to see a way out. A quick rundown of news just from the past couple of days:
- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson are vaguely suggesting that Anthony S. Fauci is to blame for creation of the coronavirus, based on a convoluted stew of half-truths and speculation about international virology research and the hypothesis that the virus originated in a lab in China. Carlson has been telling his viewers that covid vaccines have been killing people by the thousands. He’s the highest-rated host on cable news.
- Republican members of Congress are trying to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection as a gentle stroll through the Capitol by people who may or may not have been Trump supporters. Meanwhile, the purging of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) shows that the lie that Trump won the 2020 election has become the central organizing principle of the GOP.
- The very act of fact-checking work is so offensive to Republicans that a group of GOP state legislators in Michigan have filed a bill called the “Fact Checker Registration Act." It would require fact-checkers to register with the state and acquire a million-dollar insurance policy, and fine them if their fact-checks are displeasing to the government.
Though the GOP may despise fact-checking, Republicans have little to fear from it, and a look at its history helps illustrate why the situation we now confront is so desperate and how we got here.
When the abysmal 1988 presidential campaign ended, journalists felt they had been manipulated into amplifying false and distracting claims, in effect becoming handmaids of a successful effort to deceive the country. So media organizations and academics began developing fact-checking as a distinct enterprise, trying to debunk falsehoods in advertising and stump speeches.
The goal was to correct the record and provide the public with accurate information, but it was also premised in part on the force of shame: If a politician told a lie and it was noted and corrected, they would be less likely to tell the same lie in the future. If it worked, the entire informational ecosystem could become healthier.
But from the beginning, fact-checking ran into challenges. The first was that people are resistant to having their views revised if they have an investment in the lie they believe; pointing out the truth to them isn’t nearly enough. The second was that some politicians can’t be shamed into being honest, because they have no shame.
It was true of George W. Bush and many of those who worked for him; they mounted what may have been the most successful propaganda campaign in U.S. history, convincing the public to support an invasion of Iraq based on the twin lies that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and that he posed an imminent threat to the United States with his fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
But that was nothing compared to Trump, who used attempts to fact-check him as fuel for his campaign to convince every Republican that there was no such thing as objective truth. All that matters is our side and our enemies': Whatever we say is true and whatever they say is false, and every news outlet that is not part of the GOP spin machine is your enemy.
We now confront a situation where one of our two parties still has some shame and is committed to the idea of truth even if some of its members occasionally say things that are false, while the other party not only rejects the idea that they ought to be honest at all but also builds their arguments on almost every issue on obvious, demonstrable lies.
So what’s the way out?
The distressing answer is that there may not be one. In some other world, Republicans would respond to election losses by changing their approach; if, for instance, the biggest liar in our history lost his party control of the White House and Congress, they might try something different.
But they aren’t. All the incentives within the GOP still point in the direction of genuflecting before Trump and reinforcing both his particular lies and the kind of dishonesty he embodied. No Republican politician finds their ambitions thwarted by a reputation for dishonesty; quite the contrary.
So fact-checking doesn’t change their behavior, and neither does losing. The few among them who stand up for truth become pariahs. They depend on a media apparatus committed to lying to its audiences.
If there’s a way any of that could change in the near future, I’d love to know what it might be. But I’ve yet to hear any good ideas.