The Big Lie is starting to unravel. One of Donald Trump's disinformation stars, Sidney Powell, is backing down. But while we're considering the matter of truth and lies, let's recall when conservatives cared about truth (or seemed to).
In the 1990s, Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu was a phenomenon. Of Mayan descent, she offered harrowing testimony about the conduct of the Guatemalan military during that country's civil war. Her 1983 as-told-to memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchu was a sensation. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When it came to light that Menchu had distorted key aspects of her autobiography, right and left responded very differently. David Stoll, an anthropologist, learned through archival research and interviews with more than 120 people that some of her tales were false. A younger brother she said had died of starvation never existed. Another brother, whom she claimed had been tortured to death in front of her parents, died in completely different circumstances. A New York Times investigation confirmed Stoll's findings.
Liberals tended to excuse Menchu, on the grounds that her story revealed a "larger truth." Some argued that while details of her story might not have been strictly true, the overall narrative remained valid because it "raised our collective consciousness" about the Maya people.
Conservatives were appalled that Menchu's Nobel Prize was not rescinded, and galled that some liberals defended Menchu's invocation of "my truth." There was no "my truth" or "your truth" they countered. There was only the truth.
The Menchu story comes to mind because this week we've witnessed further evidence of just how corrupted the right has become. The assault on truth is Donald Trump's most damaging legacy.
It's not good for Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic that allies of the president grossly defamed them, but it may turn out to be good for the country that they are availing themselves of legal remedies.
Powell, a key propagandist in Trump's big lie about the 2020 election, has issued a response to Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit. Let's review some of the statements Powell made after the election:
Appearing on Newsmax on Nov. 17, Powell said she had a video showing Dominion founder John Poulos bragging, "I can change a million votes, no problem at all." The video did not exist.
At a press conference with Rudy Giuliani and others, Powell said Dominion had been "created in Venezuela by Hugo Chavez to make sure he never lost an election." She said the machines had an algorithm that automatically flipped votes, and that George Soros' "No. 2 person" was "one of the leaders of the Dominion project." Also false.
Her tone has changed.
The reply Powell's lawyers issued to Dominion's complaint is a climb down. After challenging the court's jurisdiction and venue (standard lawyer maneuvers) and adding the claim that her comments were First Amendment-protected political speech, they get to the substance and things get truly mind-bending.
Sure, Powell's reply acknowledges, she made a series of claims about the election being stolen, but because she was clearly speaking in a political context, her comments must be construed as standard political exaggeration.
The election truther's argument, then, is that any factual claim, no matter how false, is insulated from consequences under defamation law if it is connected to politics. This is worse than "my truth." This is the claim that any politically motivated lie is fine.
But Powell takes it to another level. She next argues that the very outlandishness of her false statements is a defense. Sure, her reply acknowledges, Powell had said, "Democrats were attempting to steal the election and had developed a computer system to alter votes electronically." But "no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact."
So, that's it. The great lie that has poisoned our politics and inspired an attack on the Capitol and bids to become the incubus of future extremism and violence was such absurd bilge that "no reasonable person would believe it."
Of course, millions of Americans did and do believe it. The crazed mob that stormed the Capitol believed every word. Polls have found that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Republicans believe the election was fraudulent.
This is not about Powell or even about Trump anymore. It's about the complete abdication of integrity by leaders on the right — Republican officeholders, conservative opinion leaders, right-wing TV and so forth. At first they countered Trump's lies. Soon after, they began to avoid them. Next, they pretended to find them amusing. Then they shrugged. Finally, they joined. When enough people in authority tell lies, they cripple their audience's capacity for reason. A few meritorious lawsuits cannot repair that.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the Beg to Differ podcast. Her most recent book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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