Violence and Lies are No Big Deal

Public POTUS Parading on Pixabay

Being an account of deviance becoming normalized.

Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) was not happy being questioned by a TV reporter for NY1, Michael Scotto, about a pending investigation into Grimm’s campaign fundraising. Mr. Grimm walked away and Mr. Scotto had signed off… but the camera was still running when Grimm returned, and told Scotto:

Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again and I’ll throw you off this fucking balcony.

The video became confused with both men talking until Grimm ended the conversation, “No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” Apparently noticing the camera was rolling, Congressman Grimm hurried away.

Reached that evening, Mr. Grimm doubled down and blamed the reporter for what was — unfortunately for his story — on video.

He apologized the next day.

The investigation that touched off the reporter’s question and Grimm’s ire led to a 20-count federal indictment. Grimm pled guilty to one count of tax fraud and signed a statement admitting to underreporting wages and sales in his restaurant from 2007 to 2010 and committing perjury in a lawsuit by his employees and filing false business and personal tax returns.

Judge Pamela K. Chen, suggesting that his moral compass needed some reorientation, sentenced Mr. Grimm to eight months in the Club Fed. He resigned from Congress and did his time.

Released from prison in September of 2017, he then ran for his former seat, losing in the Republican Primary to the new incumbent, who lost to a Democrat in the general election by 26 points — this in a district Trump had won by ten points.

In the 2020 election, with President Trump on the ballot, Mr. Grimm smells a comeback victory.

Appearing to bless Grimm’s candidacy at the announcement for the 2018 effort was Stephen K. Bannon, then freshly departed from working in the White House as President Donald J. Trump’s “Chief Strategist.” Bannon’s proximity to the presidential ear was credited with cementing the support of the white nationalist movement, withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change, and Trump’s executive order excluding Syrian refugees from the U.S. Bannon emphatically denies being a white nationalist, preferring “economic nationalist.”

In Bannon’s first interview granted to any outlet but his former platform, Breitbart News, since the election, he famously told CNN:

Darkness is good: Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.

Don’t Forget your Picture ID photo from Pixabay

The first battle in Mr. Bannon’s war on the GOP was the U.S. Senate primary in Alabama for the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The primary pitted incumbent Luther Strange (supported by President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and boatloads of money poured into the race by Majority Leader “Moscow Mitch” McConnell) against former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore, supported by Bannon. Mr. Moore had been removed from the court twice for ethical lapses, failure to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse in one case and instructing Alabama judges to ignore the Supreme Court’s opinion on gay marriage in the other.

Mr. Bannon’s candidate polled 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent for the candidate Mr. Trump went to Alabama to boost. The establishment spent $137.57 for each vote while Bannon’s insurgent only parted with $7.63 per vote. Incinerated in the bonfire of Republican money was $9 million out of Mr. McConnell’s superPAC and another million dropped in Strange’s tin cup by the National Rifle Association.

Round one of Mr. Bannon’s revolution nominated a man removed from office twice over ethics violations. Round two had Bannon backing Michael Grimm, a convicted felon freshly out of prison. How in the world, sane people might ask, could Mr. Bannon have hoped to elect a man to Congress who threatened to maim a reporter for doing his job?

Perhaps Mr. Bannon — the architect of President Trump’s war on the media — was watching another election, wherein Greg Gianforte got to be the Republican congressman from Montana after body-slamming a reporter for The Guardian, Ben Jacobs, less than 24 hours before the election.

The Billings Gazette, the Independent Record, and The Missoulian withdrew their endorsements. The Crow tribe stuck with Mr. Gianforte, as did the “businessman and television personality” Donald Trump, Jr. President Trump made a robo-call for Mr. Gianforte.

Bernie Sanders endorsed and campaigned for the Democratic candidate, folk singer Rob Quist. The Democrat could, I suppose, have been accused of support from the Hollywood elite, because he was endorsed by Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Alyssa Milano, and Bill Pullman.

The attack on reporter Jacobs was precipitated by a question about the Congressional Budget Office scoring of the (late, unlamented) Republican health care bill, then newly released. GOP leadership had insisted the vote be taken before the CBO scoring, but Mr. Gianforte was being asked his position at a time when he had the full story. Therefore, he could endorse the bill if he wished but if he chose to come out against it, the CBO had handed him cover.

Mr. Gianforte had gotten through the campaign without taking a position on the hottest issue in Washington at the time and apparently did not wish to give up that advantage a day before the election. His assault on Mr. Jacobs was on audiotape and within the presence of a Fox TV crew.

A spokesman for the Gianforte campaign, Shane Scanlon, released a statement that was transparently false. He claimed Mr. Jacobs was a “liberal journalist” who had grabbed the candidate and had asked “badgering questions.”

Alicia Acuna, a Fox reporter who saw the whole thing from “about two feet away” said:

Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter…[A]t no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.

Do lies matter in post-factual politics? Chris Hayes proposed that Shane Scanlon, who put his name to the lies, would not be effective if he went to Washington with Congressman Gianforte, because he would have no credibility.

With apologies to Chris Hayes, his analysis made some quaint assumptions about modern politics.

Both the legal profession (a common gateway for politics) and the rules of legislative bodies have — contrary to popular belief — cultural standards of truthfulness.

Lawyers understand that it’s hard to make money practicing law if you can’t make verbal agreements with other lawyers. Judges have short lists of lawyers that can’t be trusted and there is a monetary price to being on those lists when you have to reduce everything to writing and you have to show face to accomplish tasks trustworthy lawyers handle with a phone call.

Legislators disadvantaged by a reputation for dissembling have trouble accomplishing something as simple as amending a bill during floor debate. When you drop an amendment on a bill and there have been no lobbyists touting your amendment door to door, other legislators must trust your statement of what you are doing or, having a doubt, they will vote you down before taking a risk if you have lied in the past.

I am reminded of what persons of all political stripes used to say about Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) when he was in the Texas state senate:

He’s so honest you could shoot craps with him on the telephone.

Born and raised in a small town, I come from a situation where you can’t be anonymous. Reputation always mattered. I’ll cheerfully admit that my background may predispose me to place an excessive value on truth, but I can’t believe my predisposition is the only reason I believe Donald Trump has led us to unfamiliar territory.

Reporting incorrectly or making a mistake will naturally create political problems, but I always thought an intentional lie uncovered would end a political career. I have been so wrong about that.

The New York Times only started trying to count Donald Trump’s lies on January 21, 2017. That choice of starting date sounded odd to me, but I soon realized you can’t be influencing the election by telling the truth, right?

I’ve been trying to understand how lies got to be so normal. Bill Clinton famously claimed:

I did not have sex with that woman.

Around the same time in U.S. political history, there was the Newt Gingrich Congress. I remember lots of hyperbole and hypocrisy taken to a whole new level when many of those in Congress tut-tutting over Bill Clinton’s sexual impropriety were shown to have been doing the same thing at the same time.

Hyperbolic speech is not lying. Hypocrisy is only lying by implication.

During the next presidential campaign, somebody mailed a selection of George W. Bush’s debate preparation materials to the Al Gore campaign. The materials came to former Congressman Thomas J. Dewey, who called the FBI. An employee of Mr. Bush’s media consultant served a year in prison and three years on probation.

While we were lied into the second invasion of Iraq, the lying was only chargeable to President Bush on the “captain of the ship” theory. Looking back on the deadly lies, they appear to have originated in the Vice President’s office, including the misrepresentation of classified materials and the planting of lies in The New York Times by cultivating Judith Miller — who went to jail protecting her source in the VP’s office (with Times support) and then got fired by the Times when she was released.

Vice President Cheney has not stood for election again and most of his co-conspirators were not products of electoral politics. Scooter Libby, a Cheney person who turned out to be Judith Miller’s confidential source, was saved from the consequences of his felony conviction by presidential clemency. Bush 43 took political hits from his right flank for merely commuting Mr. Libby’s sentence rather than pardoning the conviction.

After all, Mr. Libby didn’t do anything serious. He just lied.

Barack Obama is to my knowledge the only POTUS to ever have his State of the Union address interrupted by a shout of “You lie!” At the time of the shout, what Mr. Obama was saying was about the position of undocumented immigrants in the health care law he was willing to sign.

It was not possible for Mr. Obama to lie about that matter. If memory serves, there were five bills at various stages. President Obama was saying what he would sign if and when a bill came to his desk.

Later, Mr. Obama was called a liar for claiming that people could keep their health insurance even if it did not have all the coverage that was required by Obamacare. He was not lying. There was in fact a grandfather clause for non-conforming policies. He did not anticipate the lengths to which the insurance companies would go to get rid of the low dollar and low coverage and therefore low profit policies. Obamacare exempted existing policies from the minimum coverage requirement. It would have been difficult to require insurance companies to offer policies they no longer wished to have on the menu. So the insurance companies cancelled — something they could have done anyway — and Obamacare got blamed.

That’s an argument we could have had, about attempting to force the issue. We didn’t have the argument but it became fashionable to say Mr. Obama lied, which, ironically, was a lie. Mr. Obama himself quit contesting it, perhaps considering “liar” was a pretty low grade insult when “traitor” was common.

You heard, I presume, about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drinking champagne and laughing as they watched the disaster in Benghazi in real time from drone cameras?

Candidate Image from Pixabay

Of course, the grandest accusation against Barack Obama was the one adopted by Donald Trump when he was playing the birther. If Mr. Obama were not born in the U.S., then he had lied when he signed any number of forms that claimed otherwise.

Mr. Trump staked out turf on the other side of the question about President Obama’s citizenship. “His people” were in Hawaii “investigating Obama’s birth certificate.” We “won’t believe what they are finding.” We are still waiting to experience this flush of disbelief.

The birther scenario always seemed to me to require superhuman abilities in Mr. Obama’s parents — not to mention access to a time machine — but Trump never bothered to produce the evidence he claimed to have uncovered. In the end, there were not two sides to weigh. Why was that not the end of Mr. Trump’s political ambitions?

Since the arrival of The Donald, U.S. politics is a fact-free zone, but we were already knee deep in facts optional. Now, truth simply no longer matters. Looking back over the politics through which I’ve lived, there are lies here and there.

The sainted Dwight Eisenhower lied about the U2 incident and was proved a liar by the Soviets when they produced the pilot President Eisenhower had claimed did not exist.

LBJ ramped up the Vietnam War based on the Gulf of Tonkin lie.

Richard Nixon tried to lie his way through the Watergate scandal.

The difference between then and now was that getting caught lying carried consequences. Ike’s lie blew an impending summit meeting out of the water. LBJ’s lie was one of the first dominoes to fall in a row that would destroy his chances for reelection. Mr. Nixon’s lies helped boost his articles of impeachment out of committee, an event that led to his resignation.

That was then and this is now and lies seem to have reached liftoff from the gravity of political consequences. If truth no longer has value, how do we tell our kids to be truthful? I try to tell my grandkids what I was told about truth but they are not stupid and they will notice a gap between what I say and how the world acts.

My grandkids are not rude enough to say these things out loud but I am not stupid enough to miss what they must be thinking.

I tell them to keep their hands to themselves and they wonder if I noticed that Greg Gianforte didn’t do that and now they call him “Congressman.” Convicted felon Michael Grimm is following close behind.

I tell them not to lie and they wonder if I noticed Donald Trump riding to the presidency on a magic carpet of lies and that he appears to be governing without improving his relationship with the truth.

The only values I know to offer my grandkids are still found in the public libraries. They are just a bit harder to find now that they are shelved under “historical fiction.”

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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