The GOP Is Smoking Its Own Hashish
How the Pentagon Papers Help Us Think About Donald Trump's Big Lie
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As journalist and historian Eric Alterman points out at length in a recent book, lying has always been a feature, not an exception or flaw, of democratic government in the United States. But after 2012, something changed: the lies promoted first by Donald Trump, the candidate, and then Donald Trump, the president, splintered our shared national reality. Shared reality is crucial to the functioning public and contingent counter-publics that true democracy requires. Shared reality permits fact-based interpretation, reasoned disagreement, and debate. Supported by a free and credible press, an aroused public is the most effective check on government lying.
But we don’t have any of those things now. Yes, we have a government. But we also have a shadow government, a Trump administration in exile that effectively controls one of our two major parties with the Big Lie that Joe Biden won the election through fraud.
What Trump’s Big Lie brought us was an armed attempt to overturn the election on January 6, 2021, an event that has not been experienced in this country since a conspiracy of slaveholders tried to prevent Abraham Lincoln from being inaugurated in 1861. Trump supporters continue to promote the Big Lie through a fourth ballot audit in Arizona conducted by Cyber Ninjas, a company that supports Trump and has never conducted an election audit before. Sources describe the process as, at best, amateurish and unconventional, and at worst, deliberately designed to intimidate voters and destroy evidence.
The Big Lie would have had no legs without the mendacity of conservative media corporations that sought to profit from political lying. Yet it seems that in the course of betting on Trump, they also made a major misjudgment: that there would be no consequences for promoting conspiracy theories as news.
They were wrong. Last Friday, the Trump propaganda outlet Newsmax, as part of a legal settlement, publicly apologized and admitted that it had no evidence for its assertion that a Dominion Voting Systems employee, Eric Coomer, had helped to “rig” the 2016 election.
Newsmax has been recanting its falsehoods against Dominion, and a second company, Smartmatic, since December, when both companies filed lawsuits against them and numerous other enablers of the Big Lie. Similarly, Trump supporter Sidney Powell, who these companies are also suing, has put forward her official defense: that the lies she told were harmless because the voter fraud scenarios that she and the President promoted were so ridiculous that “reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact.”
And yet, as Powell surely knows, millions of Trump supporters are not reasonable people. They have been deliberately cultivated as unreasonable people, people who accept elaborate fictions about political reality rather than grapple with the more mundane truth that the former president is incompetent, mendacious, and a decades-long perpetrator of frauds. Thus, Trump’s Big Lie—that he won the 2020 election—is ongoing and has a robust audience among the unreasonable, even though the smaller lies that support it are collapsing. Among the unreasonable are the vast majority of Republican officeholders. As the Washington Post noted on May 2, the Big Lie has increasingly become the Republican Party’s only platform and “an unofficial litmus test for acceptance in the Republican Party.”
We have seen the Big Lie before, of course. Over the weekend, I enjoyed attending a virtual conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the New York Times's decision to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers.” Hosted by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and coordinated by historian Christian Appy, the conference included many major figures, journalists and politicians, from the period as speakers. They included 90-year-old Daniel Ellsberg, the government whistleblower who handed the Pentagon Papers over to the Times. The conference was a historian’s delight, as journalists and political figures told detailed stories about decision-making, contingencies, and a Nixon administration so boxed in by its desire to maintain the Big Lie about United States dominance in Vietnam that a series of otherwise unnecessary lies were necessary to shore it up.
Younger readers may have heard the phrase “the Pentagon Papers” but not know precisely what they are or why they matter. Commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967, these documents were an official (and truthful) history of United States military involvement in Southeast Asia titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force.” Although they were made public in 1971 during Richard Nixon’s presidency, they actually revealed lies told by the Democrats McNamara had also worked for. Readers of nine excerpts that the Times began releasing on Sunday, June 13, 1971, learned that virtually everything two previous administrations had told them about the war was a lie, that these presidents and their aides had lied to Congress, and that they had authorized illegal military operations against Vietnam’s neighbors.
Most importantly, Americans learned that the United States was, and had always been, losing the war. That was the Big Lie.
In 1967, however, the phrase “Big Lie” was not yet in use. Instead, journalists and politicians critical of the government’s fraudulent claims about the war in Vietnam named this cognitive dissonance the “credibility gap,” skepticism so widespread that the government had lost its moral authority. The increasingly yawning space between government spokespeople and factual truth was alarming, although not a surprise to many on the left. As the radical journalist, I.F. Stone famously pointed out in 1971, presidents and their advisors had lied about Vietnam for so long that the military and government officials were inhabiting an alternate reality that those covering the war, or fighting in it, could not recognize. “All governments lie,” Stone wrote, “but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”
People often remember the first half of that quote and fail to note the importance of Stone’s second observation: that the habit of political lying makes the Big Lie possible because those who are perpetrating it come to believe they are telling the truth.
And such delusions put the Republic in peril. Yes, the United States had “systematically lied” to the American public about the objectives, tactics, and outcomes in Vietnam. The outcome had been disastrous, primarily for Vietnam itself. However, what pushed Ellsberg—one of the report’s authors—into becoming a whistleblower was something else. He came to understand: that Nixon’s 1968 campaign pledge to end the war was predicated on a nuclear strike or a threat of a nuclear could allow the United States to emerge as a victor.
Only four years earlier, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had been widely branded as a lunatic for proposing such a thing.
In other words, by 1969, the Nixon administration wasn’t just lying about what had been done and its own war policies (including extending the bombing campaign to neighboring nations where it believed enemy troops were sheltering.) Nixon was smoking his own hashish to such an extent that a global nuclear exchange seemed like a plausible way to win the war.
So over a period of many days in 1969, Ellsberg copied the lengthy report and, undetected, smuggled it out in his briefcase in multiple parts. But going to the public was a last resort. It was only when Ellsberg failed to persuade members of Congress to act on the information that he took the report to the New York Times. This act of courage put Ellsberg, and the Times, in legal jeopardy. But as various participants in the weekend’s conference argued, the truth about the war was not only sustained in these court proceedings, but the administration’s desperate efforts to suppress the revelations also began the process of moves and countermoves, plots and revelations of plots, that resulted in Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.
But could Ellsberg have accomplished this today, with millions of Americans gluing their eyes and ears to conservative propagandists profiting from the Big Lie? That was the big unanswered question of a conference that kept returning me to our present dilemma.
I hate to say it, but I think the answer is no.
This is why taking Trump’s vocal corporate news supporters, as well as the former president and his personal cabal, to court is so important. This isn’t about stopping conservatives, who have every right to propagate their views and shape a national argument: it is about stopping liars and those who profit from political lies. In the absence of a public able to consistently, and consensually, separate facts from fiction and real news from propaganda, the only arena we seem to have left for compelling the release of truth—and the admission of all of the smaller lies that prop up the Big Lie— is the courts.
So let’s use them.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
News co-ops are filling in the civic space vacated by reputable journalists: is it working? (Micah Sifry, The Connector, April 30, 2021)
Has Fox News jumped the shark, or have conservative prom king Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and other Murdoch pundits always been nuttier than a Snickers bar? Read media historian Eric Alterman’s Friday newsletter, and decide for yourself. (Altercation, April 30, 2021)
Ruth Franklin asks: would it have been a better idea for Philip Roth to have had a female biographer? (New York Times, April 30, 2021)
Historian Marc Stein thinks that what may have been the biggest gay rights protest before the 1969 Stonewall riots occurred at a community college in Pennsylvania: read about it at Outhistory. (April 13, 2021)
You are invited: