Shortly after the Republican convention of 2016, I thought that Ted Cruz had one of his best moments. Reporters were challenging him about not having endorsed Donald Trump. Cruz referenced Trump’s attack on his wife and said, “Decency matters.” At that moment, it felt like a real act of character on the part of Cruz. Of course it seems far less impressive now since he ended up endorsing Trump anyway and has become one of Trump’s staunchest allies.
But I agree with the man who used to be Ted Cruz: decency matters. And in this era of fake news stories, disinformation, and alternate facts, I think something else matters, and that is the truth.
I’m not talking about moral or religious truths, or about situations where there are honest differences of opinion about the truth. I am talking about situations where there is a single truth, where it is ascertainable, and where asserting something different is demonstrably wrong.
One of the biggest tools of repressive regimes is misstating the truth to manipulate the public. Goebbels famously said if you tell a big enough lie often enough, the people will believe it. But when this is the case, bad things happen. Like senseless wars and even holocausts. Like the invasion of Iraq because we were told — untruly — that there were weapons of mass destruction. Like the Capitol insurrection, which stemmed from the biggest Trump lie — that he won the election.
In the world of politics, different parties can look at the same circumstances and draw different conclusions and propose different policies. This is perfectly healthy. The public then can consider the arguments and support the ones it feels are most sensible. One of the cornerstones of a free society is an openness to different opinions, and to the extent that those opinions are based on true underlying facts, they deserve fair consideration.
Today, however, it is too often the case that our politicians simply misstate the underlying facts. Estimates during the 2016 presidential campaign by fact checkers for how often certain candidates misstated the truth ran well over fifty percent. Well over fifty percent!!! Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but any way you slice it, it is clear that mistruths were more prevalent in that election than usual. And during the entire Trump presidency.
We should have known what we were in for when, after the election, Trump started saying that he had won in a historic landslide. The facts? First, he lost the popular vote by about three million votes. Second, his electoral college margin was in the lowest quarter of results in all presidential elections.
Now I can understand why he wanted to say it was a landslide — because that added to his mandate to govern. And I could respect it if he said he was elected in a historic upset — that would be a fair interpretation. But when he said he won in a historic landslide, that was just patently and demonstrably not true.
The United States of America cannot accept this of our leaders. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The results can be catastrophic. Have we not learned from Iraq, from McCarthyism, and from the Holocaust, that lies are dangerous?
We are facing issues today where the truth will be critical to our future. Is human behavior exacerbating climate change? Is Russia use hacking and misinformation campaigns to influence our elections? Did Antifa lead the Capital insurrection?
We cannot afford to believe what we want to believe or to accept mistruths because they conform to our politics. We need to rigorously seek the truth, and we need to hold our public officials accountable when they intentionally distort it. If we do not do this, we will continue to be manipulated by people who seek power and wealth, and the poorest among us will pay the biggest price when we end up in unnecessary wars or worse.