From The New Criterion.
November 30, 2021.
Remember way, way back, five or six months ago, when you couldn’t read a news story about Donald Trump’s challenge to last year’s election results without its being qualified, usually in the very headline, as “false” or “unfounded”? Soon the claim of electoral fraud became known in media shorthand as Mr Trump’s “Big Lie” — presumably to distinguish it from the 30,572 lesser lies supposedly told during his four years in office, according to the comically misnamed Washington Post “fact checkers” — with no further description necessary. I always thought this a poor, self-discrediting strategy by the Trump-loathing media. To anyone not already as Trump-hostile as The Washington Post the “Big Lie” topos must have sounded like protesting too much. If we had to be told every time it was mentioned that any questioning of the election results was a lie, maybe that was because there were good reasons, never mentioned by the reporters, for believing that it was not a lie.
Moreover, as with Jim Rutenberg’s notorious announcement in August of 2016 of The New York Times’s open hostility to the Trump campaign and candidacy — which obviously carried over to his presidency — the value of reporting on “the Big Lie,” ostensibly as information, had to be automatically discounted by readers’ knowledge of its tainted source, already advertised as being determinedly hostile and therefore unfair to the alleged liar. Well, maybe it is a lie, but we know from long experience of the dubious “lies” catalogued by the dubious fact-checkers that the Post would call it a lie whether it was or it wasn’t. The paper, like so much of the media, is simply telling its by-now exclusively NeverTrump readers what they want to hear. The readers themselves must know that as well as anybody, but they have no more interest in persuading any rational doubters of the media consensus to their own view than the Post itself does.
All this is old news, of course, but we are learning during the first months of the Biden presidency how the media’s deliberate trashing of their own credibility also works in reverse. The benefit of the doubt which was never extended to Donald Trump, is so automatically given to his successor that he reaps the benefit even when, to sane and rational people anyway, there is no doubt — no doubt that he has, to put it with Swiftian politeness, said the Thing which was not. I mentioned in this space last month (see “No Regrets” in The New Criterion of October, 2021), President Biden’s transparent pretense that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan had gone more or less according to plan and that the chaos surrounding it was inevitable — nothing he or his generals could have done about it. He had “no regrets,” he said. After that article went to press, the President put the capper on what was either an obvious falsehood or a sign of insanity by the jaw-dropping claim that the just-concluded evacuation had been “an extraordinary success.”
Well you see, the media told us, there was a context for that remark. Not, of course, the context of 20 years of war and sacrifice, nor the context of the thousands of Afghan lives now placed in jeopardy because of their belief in America, nor the $80 billion or so of military equipment left behind us that will now benefit the Taliban and their terrorist allies. It certainly wasn’t the context of America’s standing in the world and reputation as a reliable ally. No, in the very narrowly-defined Bidenian context the glass, however empty it may appear to others, is always more than half full. The only things that counted to him, or to that considerable portion of the media which lives to do his bidding, were that (a) the war was over (for us, obviously, though not for the Afghans) and (b) more than 120,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan before the Taliban-imposed deadline of August 31. However many unnumbered more who had been left behind need not concern us.
Remember back in January of 2016 when candidate Trump said that the primary voters who were shortly to present him with the Republican nomination to the presidency were so loyal that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible”? Turns out that even such hypothetical loyalty as that was no more (or less) “incredible” than the media’s actual loyalty to Sleepy Joe Biden. Emboldened, perhaps, by the comparative lack of reaction to his claims of “extraordinary success” in Afghanistan, he appealed to congressional waverers over the passage of his $3.5 trillion (additional) spending bill by saying it would really cost nothing. In the words of the Washington Post’s headline, “Biden defends his social agenda bill, saying the cost will be zero.”
Can we get a fact-check on that please? No qualifier of the “falsely” or “unfounded” variety made it into that headline. There’s only room for one “Big Lie” in the Post’s telling, and we know who was responsible, must be responsible, for that. Actually, Post “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler and his merry band of Pinocchio-mongers took a few days to get around to it, but when they did they didn’t quite give Joe a pass for his “zero cost” $3.5 trillion spending bill — which, according to the Wall Street Journal, will actually cost much more than that. After a tortuous “analysis” of budget-speak, the Post fact-checkers concluded that Mr Biden’s obvious absurdity was only worth two (out of four) Pinocchios on the grounds that what he was really saying was that the infrastructure bills would be revenue-neutral, not that they would cost nothing — because projected tax-revenue increases, also in the bill, were said to cover the cost. Never mind that such projections are themselves invariably false. Given this highly restricted context, what to ordinary English speakers couldn’t have been anything but a lie, was no more than half a lie in the Post’s view.
Gerard Baker, also writing in The Wall Street Journal, sees in this and similar absurdities what he calls “Joe Biden’s Economic Fantasy World.” I would be the last person to deny that Joe and most of his party have long inhabited such a world, but that undoubted fact could not, by itself, have brought them almost to the point of passing such ruinous legislation and imposing the far-from-zero cost of it on every man, woman and child in the country. For that the fantasists and deluded ones have to have had some means of imposing their delusions on quite a number of people all of whom cannot themselves be so deluded. How do they do this? Well it helps a lot to have the media on your side, thundering away about the Big Lie of your opponent while excusing (or half-excusing) any little fibs you may be guilty of yourself. But that only pushes the question back a degree or two. What is it that keeps the media and the not-quite so deluded Democrats walking in lockstep with the deluded ones?
I cast my mind back not to 2020, nor even to 2016 but to four years earlier than that and the election of 2012 when, as you may remember, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview with the Huffington Post that some anonymous investor with Bain Capital had told him that Mitt Romney, then the Republican candidate running against Barack Obama, “didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years.” He was quick to disclaim the insinuation as his own, adding: “Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain. But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?” Later, even on the Senate floor, he repeated the charge in his own voice, saying that he had heard it from an “extremely credible source.”
Now here’s the interesting part. At the time the fact-checkers were all over Harry Reid. Louis Jacobson for Politifact wrote that “Reid has made an extreme claim with nothing solid to back it up. Pants on Fire!” Glenn Kessler himself didn’t hesitate to give the full “4 Pinocchios for Harry Reid’s claim about Mitt Romney’s taxes.” Well, actually he did hesitate — at least long enough to check with several “tax experts” who claimed to think that, although it was not probable, it was just about possible that the candidate had paid no taxes for ten years — but then to cite Mr Reid’s failure to provide any further explanation of his source’s credibility as his reason for awarding the four Pinocchios.
So it seems that, as recently as nine years ago, the word “lie” still retained enough of its old meaning — its non-political meaning, as we may say — as the utterance of a deliberate falsehood by anybody, regardless of political affiliation, to shock, or at least semi-shock, liberal journalists when they could tell that they had heard one. That may even have been true three years later when the HuffPost’s Ayobami Olugbemiga revisited the controversy — just over two months before Donald Trump walked down the golden escalator at Trump Tower, and wrote as follows:
When asked about it three years later, you would think Reid would apologize or at least show the proper level of contrition that matches the irresponsible and undignified act of using the Senate floor to spread false allegations about a politician from the opposing party. But Reid has no regrets. “I don’t regret that at all,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday. . . “Romney didn’t win did he?”
By the time that another year had passed, those words — “Romney didn’t win did he” — were apparently tattooed on the eyeballs of journalists across the land. Also, perhaps, on those of Donald Trump. Harry Reid’s parting gift to the Republic (he retired after the following year’s election) was to lay down for his fellow Democrats what has ever since been their guiding principle: that progressives’ winning, by any means necessary, is the only thing that matters — not honesty or honor, fairness or justice, not truth itself when these things conflict with the will to win. Being, as they suppose, “on the right side of history,” they have a positive duty to win over the forces of reaction (guess who), and old-fashioned ideas of truth, right, or law independent of party loyalty no longer obtain. Truth is what they say it is, because they say it is.
And, therefore, journalists whose historic if previously more or less surreptitious loyalty to the party might have wavered in the face of Harry Reid’s fierce, unprincipled partisanship had only to look at Mr Trump — who, as they would have been only too willing to be persuaded, must have been playing by similar rules with a kind of bizarro, mirror-image ideology to that of the progressives — and they were ready to drink the Rutenbergian Kool-Aid. The struggle was all; truth is what we say it is. I think this is the only way to understand the blizzard of lies — unashamed lies, patent lies, obvious-to-the-meanest-intelligence lies — that have fallen from Mr Biden’s White House since he came to office and the media’s willingness to Post them with little or no comment after carefully cataloguing the 30,573 alleged lies of his predecessor.
Actually, the two things are connected. Harry Reid put us on notice years ago that he and his fellow Democrats were prepared to lie and cheat in order to win. We should have believed him before the media became complicit in the lies and cheating — before they introduced their own “lie” strategy versus Donald Trump, which has now been revealed as prelude and cover for their own lies. These have become ever more blatant and shameless, as with Mr Biden’s proclamation of the “extraordinary success” of the US evacuation from Afghanistan or the “zero cost” $3.5 trillion spending bill. He’s obviously living in some private world of his own where reality can be turned into whatever he wants it to be, and the media continue to follow him there because, having made the accusation of bad faith routine as a partisan weapon, they have blunted it and rendered it impotent when used against themselves. People will say, they think, “So what if he’s lying. They all do it, don’t they?” And people do say it. How else can the Biden approval ratings continue as high as they do? One recent poll appears to show that his rating for honesty has actually dropped less than his general approval over the last six months and still stands at 50 per cent.
The allegations of lying against Republicans have been successful in the past partly because they were made first and partly because of the old-fashioned manners of Republicans like Mitt Romney or George W. Bush who would disdain to accuse others of lying almost as much as they would to lie themselves. But there is also the fact that, feeling themselves immune to lying themselves, the media obviously really believe in the lies of the opposition. The ideology they cling to tells them they can never be wrong, so long as they cling to it. And if they can never be wrong, the opposition, the would-be non-ideologues who timidly point out the other side’s no doubt merely negligent errors, can never be right. That’s why Donald Trump must have intuited that the only way to fight them was to play by their rules — or rather their non-rules. I think often of the caller to the Rush Limbaugh Show in 2016, Sean in Philadelphia, who said that the only way for the Republicans to win was to nominate Mr Trump, since he was the only one of the candidates for the nomination who would “fight dirty” — the way the Democrats do.
Such dirty fighting now appears to be the political equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction (with media credibility as collateral damage), or MAD, which was once the strategic doctrine behind the stockpiling of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, each armed with multiple nuclear warheads. Was it Harry Reid who pressed the button? Or was it Bill Clinton with his patent insincerity and his “worst economy in 50 years” — an oldie but goodie that I believe has also been trotted out again against Mr Trump’s economy, which was actually very good until the coronavirus shutdown. Funnily enough, I think a case can be made that the missiles were launched first by none other than Joe Biden himself who, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987 (150 years ago, by his own account), presided over the shamefully partisan and mendacious “Borking” of one of the most qualified nominees to the Supreme Court there has ever been, the late Robert Bork. One can easily enough imagine Senator Biden’s saying, “He didn’t win, did he?” a quarter century before Harry Reid did. He certainly has never apologized. There have been many turning points in America’s political history, but the Bork episode, more than ever since the election of President Biden, begins to look like one from which there can be no turning back.