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Donald Trump sold his supporters on a big lie. What happens if Republicans let it define them?

WASHINGTON—Every day of former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial opened with a prayer by Senate chaplain Barry Black. On Wednesday, he solemnly quoted the poet James Russell Lowell: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide / In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.”

Truth would become a theme of his blessings. On Thursday, Black asked for discernment for the senators “so they will know truth from falsehood.” On Friday, he prayed, “Rescue our nation from ruin, illuminate their minds with your truth.” It was a fitting topic on which to dwell, as it also served a theme of the trial itself.

Over three days of presentations, the House representatives who prosecuted the impeachment trial built a case against Trump that, as lead manager Jamie Raskin said, tried to establish “cold hard facts.” Many of those facts focused on his cultivation of the “big lie” that Trump told insistently for months, despite an avalanche of contrary evidence and dozens of unanimous court decisions, that the election was being stolen from him, and the very basis of American democracy irrevocably corrupted in the process.

If his supporters believed that was happening — really believed it — what would you have expected them to do after he gathered them together a mile from the Capitol building where the “theft” was being completed, and told them that if they didn’t “fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore?”

Raskin and his colleagues showed videos and photos and timeline reconstructions of the violent insurrectionist actions that Trump’s supporters took under the influence of that belief. It wasn’t just predictable, they pointed out, it was widely predicted. It flowed naturally, logically, from embracing the lie.

Trump’s incitement of the rioters, in their compelling telling, wasn’t just contained in one speech, but was the result of months, years — a whole political career — of lying to them.

In that, the prosecutors were demanding more than just accountability for the events of one “day that will live in disgrace.” They were summing up the disgraceful state of their nation’s democracy after four years of Trump’s leadership, and pointing to an avenue for reconciliation through truth.

This truth is self-evident — that Donald Trump has defined his political career through lies, large and small: That Barack Obama was born outside the United States and was a secret Muslim; that Trump drew the largest crowd to a presidential inauguration in U.S. history; that the leaders of the Boy Scouts said he gave the “greatest speech”; that stealth bombers were literally invisible; that he had won a popular vote victory over Hillary Clinton; that the state of Michigan had named him its “man of the year”; that the coronavirus was “under control” and was no different from the flu; that he had an amazing health-care plan, the unveiling of which was imminent; that voter fraud was rampant; and that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Whole branches of the journalism industry evolved under Trump’s presidency to debunk his lies: CNN’s Daniel Dale, who was my predecessor in the Star’s Washington bureau, became a celebrity in the U.S. by fact-checking Trump’s speeches and tweets. The Washington Post’s fact-checkers counted 30,573 false or misleading statements Trump made during his presidency.

But it went even further than that: Trump inspired and then subtly encouraged a subculture fired by fabricated conspiracy theories that arose as a cult following him. The QAnon movement spread an elaborate web of fantastical lies about how the world was run by a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles, who Trump alone was secretly in the process of fighting. Asked to debunk such claims, Trump would claim ignorance of them, and sometimes add that he had heard QAnon adherents were fighting for a good cause. They heard his message as a coded endorsement, as it seems likely he intended them to.

What do you expect people to do when they believe such things?

An early indication of what to expect came via the Pizzagate conspiracy theory — a forerunner to QAnon — which spread the falsehood that Democratic politicians were operating a child sex-trafficking ring from the basement of a popular pizza parlour in Washington. One believer showed up with a gun to “investigate.” He found that there were no kidnapped children there, and that the restaurant didn’t even have a basement. It is a miracle he asked questions before attempting to administer justice.

Because if you really believed that the lie there was true, wouldn’t it seem reasonable to liberate those enslaved children? When the authorities not only wouldn’t help, but were collaborating in the torture?

All politicians lie, to some extent or by some definitions. They make promises they can’t keep, and perhaps many they don’t intend to. They “spin” everything — a term that evolved from an insult into a job description over the past 30 years, which describes twisting words to put the best possible face on a situation.

President Joe Biden is right now engaging in high-profile spin battles: whether when he promised $2,000 cheques to people they were to understand he meant $1,400 cheques (with the remaining $600 already approved under Trump); whether opening schools one day per week qualifies as meeting his promise to open them in his first 100 days in office.

That’s the kind of spin, more or less, that is standard.

Trump was doing something else. “I have never seen a president in American history who has lied so continuously and so outrageously as Donald Trump, period,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss told NBC late last year.

Trump insisted on lies that were so obvious that the debate about them became absurd. Yet believing those lies served as a litmus test for loyalty to him: if you would repeat his claim that it was not raining on a day when it clearly was, you were basically showing that you would take his word over any evidence, even that of your own eyes.

Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the role that consistent and obvious lies, and the resulting debate about them, play in totalitarian regimes. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed,” she wrote. Every debate becomes not an attempt to discern the facts, but a partisan struggle for control.

“The essential conviction shared by all ranks, from fellow traveller to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating and that the ‘first commandment’ of the movement, ‘The Fuehrer is always right,’ is as necessary for the purposes of world politics, i.e., worldwide cheating, as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war.”

It sounds familiar. Among Trump’s followers, “Trump is always right” is the first commandment. All else follows from that.

And Trump spread lies so big that they cut to the very heart of American democracy. According to him, you could not trust the electoral system, you could not trust the courts (not even those judges whom Trump had appointed), you could not trust Republican state officials, you could not trust the media. You could not trust anyone who disagreed with him. They were all in on it. And in the end, what they were doing was stealing the election — essentially ending, once and for all, democracy in the United States.

If you really believed that lie was true, what action would seem reasonable to save your country from ruin?

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In closing his presentation at the impeachment trial Thursday, Rep. Jamie Raskin quoted Voltaire: “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Many argued throughout Trump’s term as president that the increasing absurdity of his lies was leading the nation’s politics to ruin, and yet much of the Republican party’s leadership — either directly or by trying to avoid the subject — endorsed those lies. Some Republicans were opportunistic, capitalizing on the political cult Trump had created. Others did so out of fear, seeing the power of that cult and trying to avoid provoking it.

Many elected Republicans continued to do so even when the big lie emerged, undermining faith in the bedrock of American democracy, the shared trust in the system that is a prerequisite for democracy to exist.

When Jan. 6 made the result of that lie obvious — when the believers invaded the Capitol where those elected Republicans work, hunting them in the halls in order to prevent a democratically elected president from taking office — some who had stayed silent finally spoke up.

Liz Cheney, one of the top-ranked Republicans in the House of Representatives, said, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Nikki Haley, who Trump appointed as his ambassador to the United Nations, told Politico, “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler came forward Friday night with damning information about a Trump phone call during the riot — almost spurring the surprise continuation of the trial to call witnesses.

Yet the final vote, in which only seven Republican Senators voted to convict, made it seem clear that Trump’s grip on the party remains firm. Mitch McConnell, the party’s Senate leader, was still trying to have it both ways, condemning in harsh terms what Trump did as inexcusable and essentially endorsing every argument the prosecutors made, while explaining that he voted to acquit because he didn’t think the Senate had the authority to convict a former president. Most Republican Senators offered the same argument.

It’s a dodge. The constitutional question of whether a former president can be impeached was settled by a vote in the Senate on Wednesday night. Now they were being asked to weigh in on a different question, that of Trump’s culpability, and they were looking for a way to avoid addressing it directly — to avoid confronting the truth.

This is more ordinary political spin, but employed in extraordinary circumstances — an attempt to avoid the consequences of confronting Trump’s supporters by refusing to apply consequences to him for how he cultivated and provoked and incited them to an actual attack on Congress.

There may be a political cost to their party of their refusal to confront the big lie. While polling shows that a strong majority of Republicans currently maintain their allegiance to Trump and support him in this impeachment trial, those outside his bubble are recoiling. This week, 91 per cent of Democrats and 64 per cent of independents told a poll by Vox and Data Progress they blamed Trump for the insurrection.

And there’s a larger cost, too, as the House managers making the case against Trump emphasized: if the Republican party continues to endorse Trump and the big lie — and if one thing is certain, it is that Trump and his supporters will interpret acquittal as an endorsement, a complete exoneration of his actions — then what does that portend for American democracy?

As I wrote on Thursday, Raskin and his colleagues raised the question of whether, if Trump was acquitted, anyone doubted he might run again and inspire or incite further violence — whether Jan. 6 would be seen by history as a conclusion, or as a preview.

What Republicans have had to contemplate through the trial is whether their party’s future includes a continued embrace of the big lie and all the consequences that come with it, or a belated embrace of the truth that might eventually make a national reconciliation possible.

As the chaplain’s prayer said, there comes a time for every nation, in the battle between truth and falsehood, to choose a side. The impeachment managers argued convincingly that time was now.

Trump’s supporters, under the sway of the belief that the election was stolen, tried to overthrow the Congress to prevent a new president from taking office. If a majority of Republican members of Congress cannot condemn that as outside the realm of what is permissible in American politics, what beliefs are they endorsing about how Trump and his followers should proceed in the future?

And what actions, among believers of the big lie, then seem reasonable?

Edward Keenan

Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]

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