Truth or Dare
From The New Criterion.
January 31, 2021.
Judging by the frequency with which they are — or rather used to be — quoted, the most famous words in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons come in response to the contention by William Roper that he would “cut down every law in England” to get at the Devil. Roper’s father-in-law, Sir (later Saint) Thomas More replies:
Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Back in 2008, the British columnist Daniel Finkelstein quoted this passage and proceded to ask: “Are there wiser words in literature? . . . Perhaps there are more exquisite phrases to be found on the nature of love or more descriptive passages on the horror of war. But when it comes to politics and statesmanship, surely there are none finer.”
The occasion of this observation was the inquest then being held on Princess Diana, a decade after her death, at the instance of the father of her lover Dodi Fayed, who had been killed in the Parisian car crash along with her. “Was there ever anything more preposterous, more manipulative, more laughably deranged than Mohamed Al Fayed’s allegation that the Duke of Edinburgh had Princess Diana murdered?” wrote Mr Finkelstein in The Times of London. “Yet still we have pressed on. Still, we have insisted that every man — even this man — must have his day in court. Still, even under this intense provocation, we have shown that we know that we cannot navigate right and wrong but [like Bolt’s More] merely be foresters in the thickets of the law.”
I wonder if, twelve years later, he would feel the same way about Donald Trump’s slightly less laughably deranged allegations of election fraud? So far as I am aware, no mainstream American journalist or elected Democrat has said that Mr Trump must have his day in court, if only for the honor of American justice. If More’s principle of giving the devil his due by giving him the protection of the law was still revered in 2008, at least in this one corner of the media, it apparently is so no more. A year later Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall was published and, judging by its immense popularity and that of its sequels, the hero for our times is not More, whom she portrays as a small-minded religious bigot, but his chief persecutor, Thomas Cromwell, a man who has no respect for the law except as it can be used on behalf of the king’s political purposes or against the king’s political opponents — or his own.
Certainly the Democrats in the age of Trump appear to have taken Cromwell as their model, rather than More. “The rule of law” is frequently in their mouths, but in practice, so far as “the Resistance” in government and out of it is concerned, it only applies when convenient for Democratic political purposes — especially the over-riding purpose of driving the President from office or, failing that, fatally crippling his ability to govern. It is now clear that this contempt for legal niceties dates back to the Obama administration and its attempts through the national security apparatus to damage the Trump candidacy. It is also all of a piece with Trump-era Democrats’ refusal to enforce immigration law or, more recently, laws against riot and affray. Anybody or anything, up to and including routine law-enforcement can be canceled and delegitimized by the mere unsubstantiated accusation of racism. To what law can the accused racist turn for protection when even the constitutional guarantee of free speech is no longer in effect?
Does anyone doubt that, given such open contempt for the law and their undisguised hatred for the President, the anti-Trumpers would have stolen the election if they could have done so without detection? And does anyone doubt that, with the media and local, Democratic-run governments on their side, they could have done so? These are to me powerful reasons for regarding Mr Trump’s allegations of fraud worthy, at a minimum, of a thorough investigation. Equally powerful, therefore, must be the repeated insistence by the Democrats and the univocal media that they are not worthy of investigation but are instead, monotonously and reflexively called, “baseless”, “groundless”, “false”, etc. — presumably also “preposterous”, “manipulative” and “laughably deranged.”
Yet where do we find the principled left-wing progressive — where do we even find the Never Trump Republican — who is willing to stand up, like Daniel Finkelstein, for the rights of the laughably deranged to their day in court? “Yes, of course the idea that the election was stolen was preposterous,” such a person might say, “but for that very reason, and for the honor of our system of justice, we owe the millions who, unfortunately, believe in such a thing a thorough and impartial examination of the claim before we pronounce it ‘unfounded’? How else can we avoid such a widespread breakdown of trust in our basic institutions as this represents?”
But if there is anyone among Mr Trump’s many detractors who has said this, or something like it, I have not heard about it. How are we not to think, as the behavior of the Democrats and the media over the past four years would incline us to think in any case, that they consider such a breakdown of trust to be worth it if it means getting rid of the hated Orange Man. After all, the media have long since shown that they are willing to sacrifice trust for partisanship, and they don’t appear to miss it. On the contrary, they have never been more successful than they have been since they abandoned any pretense of fairness or objectivity to tell dedicated partisans like themselves only what they want to hear.
I’m afraid we have to conclude that there is no longer any Democratic constituency for a Kantian, universally applied moral principle or for blind justice and equality under the law. The lesson of the 2020 election will turn out to be that the merely tribal politics which has been struggling to be born since at least the end of the Cold War has finally triumphed. But this makes for a certain cognitive dissonance when measured against the media and Democratic insistence that a Biden presidency represents a return to decency and morality. “The Decency Agenda” recommended by the New York Times editorial board to Joe Biden includes “accountability” for an ex-President Trump but not for those who so often disregarded the law and traditional ethical standards in opposing him. “Not a truth commission mounted out of spite,” insists the editorialist, “or justice sought in the spirit of vengeance. But some way to get answers about what happened during the Trump administration, coupled with an attempt to restore some guardrails that proved insufficient to restrain Mr. Trump’s worst impulses.”
These laughable claims to purity of motive in the law’s pursuit of Mr Trump into private life can hardly be expected to reassure that half of the country which voted for him that he will be treated fairly out of office by those whose spite and spirit of vengeance were so much in evidence when he was the elected President. In a democracy, the “accountability” of elected officials lies in the hands of the voters, not their political opponents, wielding the law as a weapon. But the pretense of such reassurance is only for show anyway. The real “decency agenda” is the effort by the Times and the media culture which it leads to do for decency what it has already done for truth: namely, to redefine the word so that it can no longer be applied to anyone not, broadly, of the Times’s own political persuasion.
Already we have seen again and again that “truth,” as it is now used in the media means nothing more or less than “conforming to the media’s dominant narrative.” That’s how they have been able to dismiss out of hand all the claims of fraud by the President and others as false without submitting them to anything more than a cursory examination. They simply don’t fit the pre-determined Trump narrative cemented in place by the media over the last four years. What does fit the narrative, on the other hand, is the assumption that all such claims are racist by definition. “Republicans Rewrite an Old Playbook on Disenfranchising Black Americans,” wrote Jim Rutenberg and Nick Corasaniti for the Times.
In Pennsylvania, President Trump and Republicans loyal to him have sought to overturn his defeat by making false claims about widespread voting fraud in Philadelphia. In Georgia, they have sought to reverse his loss by leveling similar accusations against Atlanta. In Michigan, Republicans have zeroed in on Detroit, whose elections system the president has falsely portrayed as so flawed that its entire vote should be thrown out. Lost on no one in those cities is what they have in common: large populations of Black voters.
In other words, the “false claims” are being pronounced false not because they are untrue but because they are racist and therefore cannot be true. It’s the “old playbook” of so-called “voter suppression” that has been trotted out for years in response to any attempt to tighten election security by, for example, requiring a photo ID to vote at the polls. It’s not as if this is the first time the media and the Democrats have told us that “Black” people (the capital letter is now Times style, though it is not given to white people) can never be guilty of electoral fraud because it is racist even to suggest such a thing.
In the same way, Mr Trump’s pre-election warnings of the potential for fraud in voting by mail were dismissed — even by some who had themselves given such warnings in the past — because they were deemed to be unfeeling towards people who wished to keep to their homes for fear of the coronavirus. Once you assume the bad faith of a man, as the media and the Democrats have assumed the bad faith of Donald Trump over the last four years, then everything he says can be pronounced false merely on the grounds that he has said it. It’s a corollary of the media’s arrogation to themselves over all other persons or tribunals the right to judge of truth and falsity, and thus to claim as definitively true anything they themselves believe to be true.
Now, having established their proprietorship of Truth, they are moving on to do the same with Decency in conjunction with Mr Biden (or his handlers) by making frequent claims for the prospective return of decency to the Oval Office with his election. He has become, in spite of considerable evidence of corruption and incompetence in his past, the definition of decent solely because Mr Trump was first established by the media as the definition of indecent. Thus, too, anyone not alleging fraud but only wishing to establish the factual truth or falsity of such allegations can be deemed to be automatically on the side of indecency. For the media, the factual truth is irrelevant beside this overarching moral truth.
This must be the reason why even fair-minded Democrats have apparently been intimidated into silence, if not automatic rejection of the President’s claims. A.B. Stoddard of RealClearPolitics writes of “The GOP's Shameful Embrace of Trump’s Fake Election Fraud” — the “embrace” being not just mistaken, that is, but shameful. Indecent. A Democratic member of Congress has called for Rudy Giuliani and other attorneys representing the President in court to be disbarred, and 25 former presidents of the District of Columbia Bar have cautioned their members that they “should not be complicit in Trump’s attack on democracy.” Decency is thus invoked to deny the claims of fraud even a hearing.
So. No protection of the law for old devil Trump, it seems. But how could such an outrage against our system of justice be possible unless the media had been largely successful in persuading even those who dislike and distrust them that no decent, or decently sane person could possibly believe in a stolen election? They can’t refute the evidence of fraud, but they can keep telling everyone that only a kook or a conspiracy theorist would believe it. When all but a tiny number of fringe media voices are saying such things, it becomes extremely difficult for even the strong-minded to hold out against the chorus of disapproval.
In retrospect, it may begin to appear that the so-called Cancel Culture that has raged through the media in the last year or so the way the coronavirus has raged through the population has been used, like the virus again, to prepare the way for this post-election campaign of intimidation. Knowing that you can be canceled, ostracized, boycotted or otherwise relegated to the fringes of society for a whole range of heterodox opinions has, just in the past year, brought countless public institutions and corporations to the progressive heel, all eager to show themselves to be in conformity with the new ideas of public decency, now widely understood to exclude as indecent moral and political views that were considered mainstream and uncontroversial only a few years ago. How could this have happened without the media’s putting us on notice that dissent from the progressive consensus is no longer to be tolerated without punishment and exclusion from decent society — as such a society has lately been re-imagined by them?
The media campaigns for the new Truth and the new Decency are really the same campaign, it appears, since both have evolved out of the effort to revoke and destroy the Trump presidency — and both rely on the same intimidatory tactics to enforce belief in what, under the old ideas of truth and decency, would be considered a transparent falsehood. I beg leave to doubt that this campaign will be moderated in the direction of old-fashioned truth and decency when someone who has been as much a part of it as Joe Biden is sitting in the Oval Office.
Like the Cancel Culture (whose existence the left routinely denies), the election of Mr Biden heralds the arrival of a soft-totalitarianism that is likely to be with us — and very likely to harden — for some time to come. Biden voters can hardly have been unaware that this intellectual strait-jacket imposed on our public discourse, mainly through promiscuous allegations of racism, would be one of the consequences of pulling the lever (or sending in a postal vote) for him. Another is the probable continuation of the breakdown of public order in so many Democrat-run cities over the last six months. Could these be the best reasons of all for believing that the election must have been stolen? Only, of course, one must not say so.