Thursday, February 9, 2017

Facts are not Partisan: A Plea to Honest Conservatives

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him.
- George Orwell, 1984
Still from the film Gaslight
Most of the people I knew growing up were conservatives. I'm from rural Arkansas--a red part of a red state--so many of my friends, extended family, and teachers were very conservative. And most of them were good, honest people. My maternal grandfather, for example, was the very picture of a conservative man's man. He was a cattle-rancher; a big man who was still saddle-breaking horses well into his sixties. He didn't even have to try to be manly. He had that rare kind of effortless masculinity that other men looked up to, and were secretly intimidated by. He was a staunch Republican, from a family that was Republican when most southerners were Democrats. And he was one of the best and most honest men I've ever known. In fact, honesty was something he was known for. Several people made a point to tell me that my grandpa was one of the most honest people they had ever met.

I'm a moderate liberal myself, and my grandfather never liked that (he once peeled a Bill Clinton sticker off my car) but I think he would have been pleased to know he was my main role model for honesty. At times in my life when I've been asked to do something advantageous but dishonest, I've always thought of him. And it's helped me do the right thing. 

That's one reason I'm so disturbed by our new president and his administration. My grandfather was one of many Republican role models I've had in my life, and I don't want to see their party take the path it's taking. I don't want it to become the party of Trump. While most of the Republicans I knew growing up were good people, I truly don't think Donald Trump is. He just isn't like them. He's not modest. He's not polite. He's not kind. He's not respectful of other people. He follows none of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He's an admitted adulterer who's bragged about behavior that the Republicans I grew up around would be sickened by. 

But what I want to focus on here is that he is not honest. 

It's a demonstrable, well-documented fact that our new president is a habitual liar. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's true. Just the other day, he told a group of sheriffs that the murder rate is the highest it's been in 47 years. That wasn't simply untrue; it was almost the opposite of the truth. FBI data show that the murder rate is close to the lowest it's been in 50 years. And that's just one of many of Trump's lies. Recently, he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, saying it was bigger than Barack Obama's, even though anybody could compare pictures of the two crowds and see that this simply wasn't true. And his staff backed him up with their own lies. Kellyanne Conway created a new catchphrase when she claimed they were just "alternative facts", and then created an internet meme with a lie about the Bowling Green Massacre, which, as everybody now knows, never happened.

This administration's lies are so bold and pervasive that they're starting to seem like an intentional strategy to make people question their grip on reality. As many have pointed out, it closely resembles a form of psychological abuse called gaslighting. In the movie Gaslight, a sociopathic man makes Ingrid Bergman think she's going crazy by making her think she can't believe her own eyes. When she sees a gaslight flickering and wonders why, he denies that it's happening, even though she can plainly see it. Soon, rather than believe he could lie that shamelessly, she starts to question her own sanity. That's the reason gaslighting works, ironically. Most people can't imagine lying remorselessly themselves, so they can't believe anyone else could either. They start to doubt their own sanity before believing another person could really be that dishonest. 

Now the Trump administration is taking advantage of that fact, and they're starting to resemble a propaganda ministry in an authoritarian country or dystopian novel. Lately it's been reminding me of the information minister in Iraq during the American invasion in 2003. Remember him? I'll never forget how he looked right at the cameras and said there was no invasion, while American troops poured into the country all around him. I never dreamed we would have an American president and his staff acting like Saddam Hussein's information minister, but here we are.

And that shouldn't be acceptable to any of us--Republican or Democrat. Facts are not partisan. Reality doesn't care what ideology we subscribe to, and facts are facts whether we believe them or not. That's basically what facts are. And facts must be defended, even when it isn't easy. After the Boston Massacre, John Adams almost ruined his career by defending the British soldiers in court. He did the hard and unpopular thing, because he believed that some of those soldiers were innocent. During the trial, he said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Both parties should hold themselves to Adams' standard.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans can disagree about many things and remain decent, honest people. They may honestly disagree about what's right and wrong, and even what's true (if the evidence is inconclusive, or made to seem that way). But when it comes to truth and facts, there are two things both parties should agree on: 1. There's no such thing as alternative facts. If a claim contradicts the evidence, it's a falsehood, not an alternative fact. 2. Facts matter. Truth matters. Both parties should consider it unethical to tell lies, and grossly unethical for a leader to gaslight citizens as a political strategy.

Any party that can't accept or follow these principles has gone badly astray. Any party that tolerates habitual, blatant disregard for truth will either self-destruct or betray the democratic principles it was created to uphold. Believe it or not, I don't want to see either of these things happen to the Republican Party. Obviously I don't want to see the Republican Party to damage our country with a wildly unethical president, but I also don't want to see it self-destruct. I really don't. Even if I disagree with Republicans about most things, I wouldn't want to live in a one-party country ruled by the left. I think opposing factions are necessary to keep either side from sacrificing basic rights and liberties to their ideology, and I think there are people on both sides who would do just that if they could. History has shown that either the right or the left can descend into tyranny when unopposed.

So, if you're the kind of decent, honest conservative that I grew up around, I'm not going to plead with you to abandon your party. I know that's not going to happen. But I am going to plead with you to take a stand, and fix it. Don't let Trump become the face of the Republican Party. Don't let it become the first party in American history to abandon truth completely. Don't let that happen to the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. Please...don't let that happen on your watch. 

You may be getting defensive right now, and if so I don't blame you. I probably would be too if I were in your shoes, and believe me, I don't envy your position. I genuinely feel bad for the many Republicans I know who are as horrified by Trump as I am. To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has happened before in American history. Even Nixon didn't try to make the American people disbelieve their own eyes and ears. No national politician has ever seemed truly devoid of honesty the way Trump seems to be. 

You may also be thinking I'm a hypocrite, asking you to do something about a lying politician in your party, when there have been plenty of lying Democrats. After all, Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Bill Clinton did, in fact, have sex with that woman. Hillary Clinton never came under sniper fire. Yes, "my" politicians have also lied. But I don't think they've ever lied like Trump does, because I can't think of any politician in American history who has. 

But let's say I'm wrong. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Hillary would have been just as dishonest as Trump. If that were true, you and I both know two wrongs don't make a right. Another politician's lies don't make Trump's lies OK. So, call me a hypocrite if you like. Believe Hillary lied as much as Trump if you must. And then show me why you're better than that, even if I'm not.

I wouldn't make such a plea in normal times, but these are not normal times, and this is not a normal Republican president. What's at stake here is not just the future of your party, but the future of the entire country...perhaps the future of the entire world. You can think what you like about me; that's not important. What's important is that Republicans take a stand and tell Trump that his lies are unacceptable and have to stop. That simply has to happen, and I'm hopeful that it will. Here's why: if you're one of the many good, honest conservatives like the ones I grew up around, I know you. You're in the same party as my tough, honest Republican grandfather, and he was nothing like Donald Trump. He was so much better than that, and I believe that you are too. 


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