With their national convention in Cleveland now less than a month away, Congressional Republicans and many in their amen corner among the right-wing media are horrified by their party's 2016 presumptive nominee for president. As well they should be—Donald Trump may not just cost them the White House, but their Senate majority and potentially dozens of House seats as well.
But if the GOP's best and brightest are panicked that more than 13 million primary voters and the overwhelming majority of Republican delegates picked the racist and xenophobic snake oil salesman to top the ticket, they shouldn't be surprised. After all, tapping into white racial resentment has been an essential Republican political strategy for more than 50 years. When torture goes unpunished, boasting about war crimes like "taking out" families of terrorists and "bombing the shit" out of ISIS-controlled towns produces applause lines. Despite the catastrophic economic performance of past Republican CEOs-turned-president (see Hoover, Herbert and Bush, George W.), conservatives continue to tout businessmen and their fantastical fiscal plans for the Oval Office. It's no surprise that when the tough-talking, small-fingered narcissist bragged about the size of his penis on national television, Republican primary voters didn't blink.
As it turns out, Trump could have claimed that his phallus was at least four feet long. As a quick glance back shows, Republicans and their water carriers have essentially been doing the same thing throughout the Obama presidency.
One episode provides clarity in the rise of the GOP's "post-truth" politics. As you may recall, on September 12, 2009, FreedomWorks and Fox News host Glenn Beck manufactured the "9/12 Rally" in Washington. Citing the fire department, ABC News estimated the crowd to be as large as 70,000 tea partiers. But among the usual suspects within conservative media and the right-wing blogosphere, the tea baggers tried to put a different number in our faces. The real attendance figure, they crowed, was two million.
Now, that would have been impressive, if it had been true. But as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight explained in "Size Matters; So Do Lies:"
The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn't "in error", as [Michelle] Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long. [Emphasis mine.]
Of course, Republicans began Viagra-fying reality long before Barack Obama took the oath of office and haven't stopped since. Alas, there was never a warning that in case of delusions lasting longer than four hours, conservatives should contact their doctors.
By the summer of 2008, the now-familiar pattern was already in place. Right-wing pundits like Lawrence Kudlow and Rush Limbaugh were issuing red alerts about the "Obama Bear Market" supposedly already underway. By that fall, as the Washington Post ("Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally") and CNN ("Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail") reported, rage-filled Republican rallies were teetering on edge. As one nearly-foaming at the mouth GOPer put it:
"I'm mad. I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country."
And when that supposed socialist was sworn in as President Barack Hussein Obama in January 2009, that right-wing rage was repackaged as the tea party. And in a sign of media failures to come, virtually everything this manufactured movement claimed to believe was simply untrue.
The Tea Party, after all, took its name after the rantings of CNBC regular Rick Santelli. In what he later called “the best five minutes of my life,” Santelli on February 8, 2009 “decried government bailouts, called struggling homeowners ‘losers’ and speculated aloud that a new Tea Party might be needed.” But there was no “cram-down” for the banks and no mortgage bailout for homeowners.
But there were also no “death panels.” Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya and he isn’t a Muslim. You can’t demand to “keep government out of Medicare” because it is a government program. Republicans holding “Taxed Enough Already” signs were doubly deluded. By 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy dropped to its lowest level since 1950. And with his 2009 stimulus program, President Obama didn’t just deliver tax relief to 95 percent of working households: His was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. As a CBS poll found in February 2010:
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
The story of the 2010 midterms that swept away the Democratic House majority was the triumph of delusion. It wasn’t simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, “What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?” Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans, then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:
In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
The answer to all of those “what if” scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ’s Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2012, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too.
The new GOP plan of conquest was much like the old one. Once again, the Republicans would combine far-right fury with another wave of tried and untrue talking points. No matter that Obamacare reduces the national debt and was not a “government takeover of health care.” So what if decades of data showed that higher taxes on “job creators” do not hurt the economy and that the estate tax has little impact on small businesses and family farms. Big deal if the nonpartisan CBO and the overwhelming consensus of economists concluded the stimulus resulted in millions of additional jobs and a significant boost to American GDP? For that matter, who gives a hoot if the record shows that the U.S. economy almost always does better when a Democrat is in the White House? And who cares if Mitt Romney’s shameless lie that Obama “made the economy worse” was thoroughly debunked throughout the campaign?
For Republicans, this platform of deceit was a feature, not a bug. The GOP claims were not actually true, as Stephen Colbert once summed it up, but felt like they should be true. And for Jon Kyl, then the second-ranking Senate Republican revealed in 2011, that was all that mattered. After the Arizona senator was off by a factor of 30 when he declared on the Senate floor that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,” Kyl’s office released a statement explaining:
“His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a[n] organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.” [Emphasis mine.]
Mercifully, the pathologically dishonest Mitt Romney did not capture the White House. By Election Day 2012, his gymnastic flip-flops, chronic lying, and conveniently selective amnesia were summed up by terms like the “post-truth campaign” and the “Romney Uncertainty Principle.” Steven Benen’s series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” reached Vol. 41 by the time voters went to the ballot box. And in a hint of things to come, Romney had not only accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2012, but mimicked his tactics by referring to President Obama as “extraordinarily foreign” and telling voters, “No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
But in 2014, Democrats weren’t so lucky. Despite the improving economy and the success of Obamacare in controlling health care costs and reducing the rolls of the uninsured, the GOP won big again. Democrats were wiped out in the states while Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell replaced Harry Reid as the new Senate Majority Leader.
But it wasn’t just dismal midterm turnout and the GOP’s voter intensity advantage that won the day. Truth had lost.
In September 2013, NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd inadvertently helped explain why. Correcting the GOP’s Obamacare falsehoods, Todd lectured former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, was not the media’s job:
"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it. They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."
Even more pathetic is that fact Chuck Todd himself knew better. As he wrote just two months earlier when the Ted Cruz-led campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act was heating up:
Here's a thought exercise on this summer morning: Imagine that after the controversial Medicare prescription-drug legislation was passed into law in 2003, Democrats did everything they could to thwart one of George W. Bush's top domestic achievements. They launched Senate filibusters to block essential HHS appointees from administering the law; they warned the sports and entertainment industries from participating in any public service announcements to help seniors understand how the law works; and, after taking control of the House of Representatives in 2007, they used the power of the purse to prohibit any more federal funds from being used to implement the law. As it turns out, none of that happened.
That's exactly right. It didn't happen. And it couldn't happen for three very simple reasons. For starters, when it comes to scorched-earth opposition, both sides don't do it. Republican obstructionism during the Obama presidency is simply unprecedented. Second, as the Pew Research Center found in 2014, conservatives unlike liberals tend to get their political news from a single source: Fox News. Last, conservatives suffer from (or depending on your viewpoint, benefit from) the "Hack Gap."
For much of the past decade, Jonathan Chait, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Ed Kilgore, and others have discussed the importance of the "Hack Gap." As Drum explained it after the first Romney-Obama debate in 2012:
Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.
This past September, Brad Delong offered this elegant summary of liberal virtue and conservative vice. The Hack Gap, he wrote, is:
[T]he willingness of conservative intellectuals to sacrifice their credibility by making transparently-false arguments to advance the interests of their political masters, and the lack of willingness of liberal intellectuals to do the same.
That's why the battle between Clinton and Sanders supporters over his single-payer, "Medicare for All" replacement for Obamacare became so heated. It wasn't simply a question of governing philosophy, but of math. Liberal wonks (for example, here, here and here) contested assumptions about economic growth, potential savings, and more to claim that Bernie's numbers did or didn't add up.
The contrast with the Republican field in general and Donald Trump in particular couldn't be starker. As Ezra Klein put it in March:
This week, it became clear that the Democratic Party will nominate Hillary Clinton -- a politician about as mainstream in her beliefs and methods as you will find in American politics. It also became clear that the Republican Party is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Donald Trump -- a man who is, by any measure, "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of [his] political opposition."
That difference makes all the difference when trying to identify his supporters. As Philip Klinkner summed it up in Vox earlier this month, "The easiest way to guess if someone supports Trump? Ask if Obama is a Muslim."
That Barack Obama is a Muslim born outside the United States is a double lie. Yet they have been Donald Trump's go-to talking points for years. His claims about Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, eliminating the national debt "over a period of eight years," denying he assumed another identity to act as his own spokesman, that his tax cut windfall for the wealthy will "cost me a fortune," self-funding his campaign, and so much more are laughable on their face, As it turns out, of the 168 Trump statements evaluated by Politifact, 126 (or 72 percent) were rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire. Nevertheless, the sheer number and audacity of his lies, slanders, and deceptions only deepen the ardor of his supporters, who see his refusal to correct the record as a sign of "strength."
It's a sign of something, alright.
Writing in the New York Times, Brendan Nyhan warned, "Don't assume Donald Trump's supporters believe all his words." Nyhan cited recent polling and political theory to argue that "many don't take his promises literally … If they discount those promises and instead gauge the likely effect of each candidate on the status quo, voters might in some cases choose a candidate whose preferred position is further from them." Daniel Drezner offered a different take on why the post-truth political era might be around for a while. "Americans' almost total loss of trust in every institution outside of the military explains why "the marshaling of undisputed facts and evidence doesn't have quite the effect on public debate that it used to."
But these theories don't account for the asymmetric production of and belief in, well, bullshit. Republicans are only too happy to be unencumbered by the dictates of the truth; their conservative supporters are more than content to accept their story-telling and myth-making. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argued in their 2012 book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism:
Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem.
It was almost five years ago when Paul Krugman rightly denounced Mitt Romney's campaign for what he labeled "post-truth politics." In May, MSNBC's Steve Benen presented a perfect example of what happens when the Republican "reality gap" persists over time. Despite the fact that unemployment has been halved (from around 10 to around five percent) and the Dow Jones has more than doubled (from around 7,900 to 17,800) during President Obama's tenure, a PPP poll found that GOP voters by large margins believe the opposite is true.
There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what has happened during Obama's time in office. 43% of voters think the unemployment rate has increased while Obama has been President, to only 49% who correctly recognize that it has decreased. And 32% of voters think the stock market has gone down during the Obama administration, to only 52% who correctly recognize that it has gone up.
In both cases Democrats and independents are correct in their understanding of how things have changed since Obama became President, but Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.
Mercifully, there are indications that some among the American media are starting to call B.S. on Donald Trump's B.S. The turning point began when Trump turned his attention away from GOP primary voters to the general election against Hillary Clinton. In May when Trump resurrected the "bizarre and unfounded" conspiracy theories that the Clintons had their friend Vincent Foster murdered, CNN's Jake Tapper rejected the Donald's claims as "ridiculous and frankly shameful." (At ABC News back in September 2009, Tapper similarly denounced a Fox News ad that his and other networks failed to cover the 9/12 rally as "demonstrably untrue.") By June, CNN was using its on-air graphics to fact-check Trump's lies in real-time. And recent polling in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida shows that The Donald is paying a price for his racist lies targeting born-in-America judge Gonzalo Curiel.
That doesn't mean Donald Trump will stop his pathological lying any time soon. Republican voters appear to have little problem with it. As for Trump himself, he boasted in his book The Art of the Deal:
I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.
I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration -- and a very effective form of promotion.
Which is why no one should be surprised if Donald Trump says he has a 53-inch penis. Of course, he doesn't have a massive dick—he is one.