August 21, 2018 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Trump’s Lies Injure Us. Every Day
"Truth isn't truth," Rudy Giuliani said. Truth is, we're tiring of this bullshit.
Rudy Giuliani was savaged righteously over the weekend for saying, “Truth isn’t truth.” The president’s attorney explained to NBC’s Chuck Todd that his client would be subject to a “perjury trap” if interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
To be clear, there is no such thing as a “perjury trap” for honest people. As the Post’s Greg Sargent points out with necessary frequency, President Donald Trump’s problem is not that he’ll be tricked into saying something he shouldn’t to federal investigators. His problem is that he can’t lie and he can’t tell the truth. Giuliani wants us to see a trap in Mueller’s probe, but the trap is very much of the president’s own making.
“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth, and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth. He didn’t have a, a conversation—”
Todd: “—Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like—”
Giuliani: “No, it isn’t truth! Truth isn’t truth!”
The more interesting question, for me, is why the reaction to “truth isn’t truth” was so savage. Though right and proper, it was kind of over the top. I mean, it’s not like “truth isn’t truth” changed anything. Giuliani has said daft things before. He’ll say daft things again. Meanwhile, the Mueller probe will plod onward in pursuit of justice.
I think the reason is twofold. One, we are amid a crisis in journalism. The news business is experiencing enormous technological change while under assault by a president calling reporters “the enemy of the people.” This combo is going to make some of us sensitive to the president’s lawyer alleging that “truth isn’t truth.”
But I think there’s another reason, one that’s more personal.
Americans understand and, to a certain degree, accept that all presidents lie. But no one alive today has experienced so much falsehood coming straight from the heart of power in the United States. For that reason alone, I’d say the savage reaction to Giuliani reflects a nation injured every day by the president’s fire hose of mendacity.
Injured? Yes, injured. This is boilerplate among moral philosophers. Human relations, the thinking goes, are impossible without assuming that people are generally reliable and trustworthy. If they are generally unreliable and untrustworthy, anything worth doing is no longer worth it, because it’s based on fictions, fantasies, and lies.
Immanuel Kant said that “without truth, social intercourse and conversation become valueless,” and that “a lie always harms another; if not some particular man, then it harms mankind generally.” Michel Montaigne had this to say: “Our intercourse being carried on solely by means of the word, he who falsifies that is a traitor to society.”
These are moral claims, but the injury can be political. When it comes to a president’s role in a democratic republic, lying is about more than the different between truth and falsehood. It’s about the trust placed in him or her to govern in the people’s name. Without trust, there is no legitimacy. Without legitimacy, only tyranny remains.
I don’t know if tyranny was on Harry Frankfurt’s mind when he wrote On Truth, but it seems so. “The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and to impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs,” he wrote.
They are designed to prevent us from being in touch with what is really going on. In telling his lie, the liar tries to mislead us into believing that the facts are other than they actually are. He tries to impose his will on us (my italics).
On Truth was written in 2006 (a sequel to 2005’s best-selling On Bullshit), but it predicts the electorate’s reaction to a president who has lied more than 4,200 times is more than 500 days in office. The sheer volume does more than exhaust our critical thinking. As Frankfurt* presciently wrote: “Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real sense, to make us crazy” (my italics).
Concern for national sanity was not central to the reasoning behind the impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon but injury certainly was. After enumerating six charges against the president, the first article of impeachment concluded by citing the “manifest injury of the people of the United States.”
In all of this, Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States (my italics).
Richard Nixon quit before the American people had their final say. Time will tell if the same fate awaits Donald Trump. But if the savage reaction to Giuliani’s “truth isn’t truth” is any indication, I’d say Americans are tiring of this president’s bullshit.
*Quotes from Kant and Montaigne come from Frankfurt.
A Word about #MeToo
Turns out a victim of sexual crime can be a victimizer, too.
I’m talking about Asia Argento. The Times reported Sunday that the Italian actress and filmmaker paid a man hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep quiet about a 2013 incident in which she plied a then-17 year old Jimmy Bennett with alcohol before sexual assaulting him. The age of consent in California was then and still is 18.
This is news in its own right, but it was news for another reason.
Argento is one of the many faces of the #MeToo movement. She is among dozens who have accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, rape or other crimes. The apparent concern is that Argento’s own alleged crime will discredit #MeToo and its goal of raising awareness of inequities of power between the sexes.
I don’t see why it should.
Argento is not Weinstein’s only accuser, for one thing. For another, being a perpetrator of sexual crimes doesn’t invalidate or discredit being a victim of sexual crimes. Social scientists have documented the pattern of victims becoming victimizers over time.
More importantly, I think, is that #MeToo ought to include not just women, but children. To fulfill its great potential as a transformative social movement, it ought to include, say, the more than 1,000 kids (now adults) who were preyed on, abused, assaulted, and raped for seven decades by Catholic parish priests in Pennsylvania.
In my view, the point of #MeToo is not only to make us aware of inequities of power between the sexes but to bring light to the norms, habits and institutions that go into hiding abuses of power. Whether it’s lawyers protecting a Oscar-winning mogul’s reputation or it’s bishops protecting the Catholic Church, the evil is the same.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.