The First Casualty

Author: Gary Hart

The journalistic principle has been: the first casualty of war is the truth.  The same can be said of every effort to hijack a democracy and make it an autocracy.

Our commentator Michael has persuasively argued that we are edging closer to autocracy in America than most people realize.

In How Democracies Die, the authors write: “Perhaps President Trump’s most notorious norm-breaking behavior has been lying.  The idea that presidents should tell the truth in public is uncontroversial in American politics.”

Most recently, at the G-7 summit, he sought to stabilize rattled markets brought on by his trade war with China by claiming to be in phone contact with Chinese leaders “at the highest level” to restart negotiations.  Problem is, it did not happen.  It was a lie.

He who controls the meaning of words wins the debate.  News is “fake” if it is not favorable to Trump.  For almost three years, the people of America, and the world, have been offered two different, often conflicting, narratives of reality…the factual one and the one that Trump makes up.

Trump intuited early on that he could render any statement he wished, whether factual or not, and his “base” would believe him.  Roughly a third of the American people have accepted a view of the world outside the realm of facts and truth.

This is how autocracy works.  Ask Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, and many others.  What I say is true.  Do not believe anything else.

Unhinged from reality and truth, democracy cannot survive.

From our Founding, our ability to function as an increasingly mass democracy depended on confidence of the people in their government.  Confidence is built on trust.  Trust is earned by honest dealing and adherence to facts and truth.

When the autocrat declares truth to be “fake”, and a large majority know it is not, trust is breached and confidence in government fails.  To its shame, the Senate Republican majority aids and abets this demonstrably deceitful president by its silence.

These untrustworthy politicians may be clinging to their red-State careers, but at the price of their integrity and the foundation of our government in truth and reality.

The tension in a great nation divided between two realities, one genuine and the other demonstrably fake, cannot last for long.  It is schizophrenia on a massive scale.

Next year we will either opt to return to truth and reality or we will take another giant step down the road to autocracy, untruth, and propaganda.

Trumps systematic affinity for autocrats and dictators in Russia, North Korea, Brazil, and Central Europe is predictable.  He longs to create their nationalistic systems in America.  He   admires their power and control and wishes to govern as they do.  The problem is that it is not democracy, and certainly not a democracy with Constitutionally shared and balanced power.

The only way he can by-pass America’s history and its Constitution is to subvert the truth, to convince enough of our countrymen and women that his version of reality is preferable to a version based on truth and facts.

As an amateur American historian, I can find no parallel.  There is an argument that the groundwork for a Trumpean era was laid by Vietnam, Watergate, and deceptions by intelligence agencies and the Administration they served.  We were lied to by leaders of both parties with intelligence and military complicity.  It took considerable toll in public confidence in government.

Trump has seen those cards and raised.  By its complicity and silence, his party will suffer in years to come.  When a revival of honesty in government returns, as it must, an accounting by those complicit in his lies will be demanded.

It must begin next year.  If not, it could be too late.

4 Responses to “The First Casualty”

  1. Michael Says:

    Billy Bush, the other voice in the infamous “Grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, was interviewed on a talk show – I can’t remember which one – during which he recalled Trump telling people that The Apprentice was the network’s most highly-rated show when in fact it wasn’t. When Bush told him so, Trump said that the truth didn’t matter because if you “just say it, they’ll believe it.” There is an entire right-wing media complex in this country built around the doctrine of “say it and they’ll believe it.” The most dramatic recent example was of former congressman Joe Walsh telling Fox’s Stuart Varney that Trump was a liar. Varney disagreed strongly and asked for specific examples. Walsh gave the example Senator Hart cited here: Trump claiming China had restarted trade talks, which his own staff admitted wasn’t true. Varney insisted that “That wasn’t a lie.” We can debate what brought us to this point. I don’t think we need go all the way back to Vietnam and Watergate. I think it starts in the early 1990s with the advent of Rush Limbaugh, and a bit later, Fox News. The drive for ratings meant that they had to keep their audiences ginned up with outrage, and that outrage had to grow exponentially to stay effective. The result was an endless sequence of manufactured scandals, and the very dangerous notion that no Democratic president can ever be truly legitimate. The nation has suffered from bad journalism for a long time; the lead up to the Iraq invasion and the obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails are just two glaring examples. But a hermetically sealed ecosystem of rage has taken over a Republican Party that, for too long, had been happy to have it work for them. The end result was the nomination of Trump, who, by no coincidence, campaigned as an outrage performer. The question before all of us who don’t much enjoy living on the edge of a sudden plunge into authoritarian governance is how to deal with the rage machine in the context of the First Amendment. We can certainly wait it out; the audience for this stuff is much older and whiter than the general population. Eventually, it will shrink to the point where it won’t be profitable enough for stockholders anymore. But until then we need to fight against it, which means getting out our voters in ever greater numbers. There are, of course, challenges in the face of Republican suppression. But I am encouraged by the fact that, in 2018, younger voters, for the first time, voted in greater numbers than all previous generations combined. If it continues, it won’t be the first time in our history that this country had to rely on our younger citizens to save it from an existential threat. And it probably won’t be the last.

  2. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    As a member, writer, at the Ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum, a terrific online project I am a regular participant in, dedicated to continuing the legacy of humanitarian work of Sir Peter Ustinov, stated by him in effect, continued , led by his son, artist, Igor Ustinov, I write this week of our host, of Ustinov, of Trump.

    http://www.ustinovforum.com

    Trump has too often in words, deeds, overplayed. Like a barnstorming actor,however, he ain’t!

    Anyone who reads Senator Hart now, or realises the efforts in his career , surely wonders, if age is no barrier to nomination,his country, our planet could utilise him yet now onwards!!!!!!!!!!!

    Who can the Democrats pick , who can beat this lousy , peculiarly so, incumbent?

    Biden, Warren looks a good ticket, or in my view, Warren, Benett?

    Can any win?

    We must all do our bit. The party must move into the mainstream centre, stage, where Trump has left the stage…

  3. Michael Says:

    Here is the Stuart Varney clip I referred to in my comment. I wish Walsh had also used the example of Trump lying about who pays his tariffs – that it is Americans not China. But he didn’t go there. Nevertheless, this is what we are up against. A great many people will agree with Varney simply because they want to; closed minds dwelling in a closed bubble of disinformation, neither of which facts can penetrate. A bad situation in a democracy, which would easily turn even more nefarious if we take that plunge into authoritarian rule. I still remember when the Drudge Report drove the mainstream media under George W. Bush. One cannot automatically assume that many of them would not become collaborators. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/09/03/joe_walsh_vs_fbns_stuart_varney_president_trump_has_never_lied_he_exaggerates_and_spins.html

  4. Mike Swickey Says:

    Senator Hart, I am a longtime reader of your essays back to when you had the “Gary Hart Blog,” I believe it was. I’m not sure I have ever left a comment. Today, I must.

    You ended The First Casualty with this, “It must begin next year. If not, it could be too late.” This is absolutely the truth of the matter. We now have youth who have been paying attention at young ages, who know only a world of Trumpism. Four years can do much damage. But a re-elected Donald Trump? All bets are off. I have always tried not to be hyperbolic, but that 2020 is the most important presidential election in history is almost undeniable. I fear for what could happen between now and Wednesday, January 20th, 2021. But that fear is tempered with hope for a turnaround to normalcy with a Trump defeat. However, Donald Trump until Monday, January 20th, 2025 sends chills up my spine. Could our nation survive eight years of Trumpism? I hate to even consider that possibility.

    Thank you, Senator Hart. Your posts, and the community here, are truly an oasis of sanity for me.

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