Anti-Textualism, Hostages, and Asymetric Partisan Dishonesty, Part Two

Shameless lying has become such a standard part of Trump/Republican politicking that it is almost impossible to keep up.  And that, of course, is the point.  When they endlessly talk about "Biden's open borders" or "the economic disaster" supposedly befalling the US (which currently is enjoying an incredibly healthy economic boom, thank you very much), they do not make those lies the main point of their rants but rather treat them as common knowledge, which they then use to build toward whatever new lie they want to push forward.

Sometimes, the misstatements are truly trivial, such as Trump's claim that Republicans had been trying to overrule Roe for 54 years, rather than the 49 years that it was actually on the books.  Wrong, but not a lie in any meaningful sense, and certainly unimportant substantively.

But the problem arises when Trump fire-hoses his way not merely through the softball Fox-type lovefests that he prefers but even through contentious interviews with real journalists.  A few months ago on NBC's "Meet the Press," for example, he was asked whether he would do what he and his campaign have been saying they would do by gutting civil service protections for federal workers.  Trump said this: "No, I wouldn’t do that. I want great people, whether they’re Republican or Democrat. I want great people. But I want people that love our country, not people that hate our country."

The host was too focused on the next question to ask who exactly in the federal government hates our country, so Trump was able to make that oh-by-the-way-this-is-obvious assertion unchallenged.  (And in that interview, he said that Roe had been on the books for 52 years, in case anyone was wondering whether he had bothered to get it right.). Similarly, when the host asked him about pardoning himself, he ranted: "I think it’s very unlikely. What, what did I do wrong? I didn’t do anything wrong. You mean because I challenge an election, they want to put me in jail?"  There is so much wrong there that any interviewer has to pick and choose, and of course the very question reinforces the insane premise that Presidents can pardon themselves.

In Part One of this column yesterday, I focused on two examples of right-wing lying that are relatively unique in their brazenness (which is saying a lot).  The first was the argument from Trump's lawyers in this week's Supreme Court oral argument (which Professor Dorf also discussed here) that the word "otherwise" means exactly the opposite of what it means -- an argument that the hyper-conservatives on the Court seemed to lap up, no matter how much it conflicted with their professed judicial philosophy.

We will see whether that continues next week, when the Court will hear Trump's bonkers argument that he must have absolute presidential immunity for all crimes that he commits.  Here is how Professor Dorf summarized the threshold insanity of the Trumpists' argument in that case:

It is almost impossible to overstate how idiotic Trump's argument is. I'll focus on the most prominent and most idiotic. Here's the key language from Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution:

Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States: but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.

What's the argument based on that text put forward by Trump's team of crackerjack lawyers? They say that because the qualifying clause ("but the party . . .") allows for indictment, trial, judgment, and punishment of someone who is "convicted" by a Senate impeachment trial, it precludes indictment, trial, etc., of someone like Trump, who was acquitted by the Senate. 

The argument makes no sense because the provision as a whole makes the point that just as impeachment and a criminal case serve different purposes, so they have different consequences. ...

But wait. The Trump team's argument is even dumber. As quoted by the district court opinion, Trump's lawyers argue that the constitutional language means "that the President may be charged by indictment only in cases where the President has been impeached and convicted by trial in the Senate." How stupid is that argument? Very.

Based on how welcoming the Court's reactionary theocrats have been to other right-wing lies and absurd arguments, I am not confident.  But who knows what surprises lie ahead?

In any event, the second argument in Part One of this column discussed how Trump -- immediately echoed by his enablers in Congress -- started to use the word "hostages" to describe the convicted criminals who engaged in insurrection against the United States.  I will note here that one could (quite wrongly) believe that the insurrectionists have been railroaded or are great patriots or whatever, but even so, there is simply no way to describe them as hostages.  Words have meaning, and there is nothing about the way those people have been handled that suggests that anyone is looking to negotiate a deal in exchange for the release of those criminals.  Apparently, it is now necessary to state the obvious: Not all prisoners are hostages.

In any event, I closed Part One by saying that, no, this is not symmetric.  The Democrats do not engage in this kind of "lying by design."  I readily concede the simple truth that every Democrat has almost certainly said something false at some point, because they are human beings.  But "they're both liars" is hardly the sensible way to describe, say, George Washington and George Santos.  Degree obviously matters, as do intent and consequences.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in the two parties' approaches to the truth are that Democrats generally respond to being caught in a lie (or even an inadvertent misstatement) by correcting themselves and not repeating the error in the future, whereas Republicans have learned -- from Trump as a matter of frequency, although they had this game pretty much figured out even before he came along -- to simply ignore ever having been corrected.  Even small lies get the big-lie treatment of repetition, repetition, repetition until people start to believe them.

Sometimes, those insistently defiant repetitions of lies are relatively unimportant.  For example, the Fox News-led freakout over "Trans Visibility Day" being celebrated this year on Easter was quickly rebutted by nearly every non-Fox-style news source as well as every late-night comedian, all of whom pointed out that Trans Visibility Day was also celebrated when Trump occupied the White House and that it is always celebrated on the same date, whereas Easter happened to fall on that date in 2024.  Even so, Trump repeated the fully debunked claim almost immediately in a stump speech (pandering to his White Nationalist crowd by saying that Election Day 2024 will be "Christian visibility day").

I suppose it also counts as relatively trivial that Republicans endlessly insist that government spending can be cut by rooting out "waste, fraud, and abuse," even when their own calculations show that that is simply false.  Also, saying that Stacey Abrams "never conceded" is only true in the sense that her concession speech included her saying that she did not want to use that specific word even as she conceded; yet we find this in an op-ed last Fall about Vivek Ramaswamy (remember him?), who "liken[ed Trump] to Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor of Georgia who refused to concede her 2018 defeat — and to be clear, in conservative politics, that’s a serious burn."  Notably, it is not just Ramaswamy but the liberal-ish author of that op-ed who accepts as fact a lie about Abrams.  That is the power of repetition.

Much less trivially, even the most bland among the Republicans continued to claim that the Democrats funded the hiring of 87,000 IRS agents who would be armed and unleashed on middle class taxpayers, no matter how many times that was shown to be false.  And the earlier-vintage claim that the IRS "targeted conservatives" at the direction of the Obama White House is in the repeat-it-until-you-believe-it Hall of Fame.

And just for one last golden oldie, there was Mitch McConnell's pre-Trumpian lie about "the Biden rule" (which did not exist) to justify refusing even to hold a hearing on President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to an open Supreme Court seat.  No matter what anyone said, McConnell would serenely repeat again and again that "the people" should decide who would nominate a Supreme Court justice, even though the people had done so when they put Barack Obama back in office for a second four-year term.

But again, is it not true that Democrats lie?  And again, yup.  The question is what they do when caught, or simply when the evidence does not back them up.  I still vividly recall the brief moment in the 2008 presidential campaign when reports surfaced about Republican nominee John McCain supposedly having had an extramarital affair.  (This is back when that might have mattered to Republicans.)  Some Democrats picked up on the report, but the story was quickly exposed to be baseless.  Did those of us who opposed McCain continue to say that McCain was a philanderer?  Of course not, even though as a political matter we certainly would have been happy to be able to say so.

Interestingly, the only example that comes to mind of Democrats moving forward with an obviously dishonest attack line was in the 2020 presidential primaries, when Pete Buttigieg (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Amy Klobuchar) continually pummeled Liz Warren by saying that her single-payer health care plan would involve increasing "taxes."  No matter how many times Warren and others pointed out (correctly) that her plan would result in savings for most Americans (with health care "taxes" being offset by savings on co-pays, deductibles, and so on), the drumbeat was that Warren was not being "honest" about raising people's taxes.

That, however, is still a matter of people to the relative right attacking someone to their left with Republican-style disinformation.  And the general lack of examples of Democrats digging in on dishonesty leads to fact-checkers applying different standards to Democrats, including the recent example of the guy at The Washington Post giving Biden "two Pinocchios" for describing unequal taxation in a way that the fact-checker disagrees with as a matter of policy.

At one point during Obama's first term, Democrats (including Obama himself) claimed that McConnell had vowed from Day One to make Obama a one-term President.  It turned out that McConnell had in fact said words to that effect just before the midterm elections in late 2010, not early 2009.  Did Democrats continue to say that McConnell was committed to harming the country in order to prevent Obama from winning?  Yes, they did, because that was still true.  But did they continue to say that McConnell had announced as much in 2008 or 2009?  No, they did not.

To repeat: Everyone gets facts wrong.  Everyone puts an unfair slant on things.  Everyone outright lies.  What matters is that not everyone does those things in equal measure, and everyone is definitely not equally willing to simply keep repeating lies after they have been exposed.  Republicans, from Trump to congressional leaders to Supreme Court justices all the way down, are uniquely willing to be shameless in saying or doing anything to get their preferred outcome.  Democrats have some shame (quite a lot, in fact) where Republicans have none.  It is not even close.