Mitt Romney is a liar. Of course, in some sense, all politicians, even all human beings, are liars. Romney’s lying went so over-the-top extravagant by this summer, though, that the New York Times editorial board did something probably unprecedented in their polite gray precincts: they used the L-word itself. “Mr. Romney’s entire campaign rests on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites,” they editorialized. He repeats them “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” “It is hard to challenge these lies with a well-reasoned-but- overlong speech,” they concluded; and how. Romney’s lying, in fact, was so richly variegated that it can serve as a sort of grammar of mendacity.Some Romney lies posit absences where there are obviously presences: his claim, for instance, that “President Obama doesn’t have a plan” to create jobs. Other Romney fabrications assert presences where there are absences. A clever bit of video editing can make it seem like Romney was enthusiastically received before the NAACP, when, in fact, he had been booed. There are lies, damned lies, statistics—like his assertion that his tax cut proposal won’t have any effect on the federal budget, which the Tax Policy Center called “not mathematically possible.” That frank dismissal vaulted the candidate into another category of lie, an attempt to bend time itself: Romney responded by calling that group “biased”; last year, he called them “objective.”There are outsourced lies, like this one from deep in my files: in 2007, Ann Romney told the right-wing site Newsmax.com that her husband had “always personally been prolife,” though Mitt had said in his 1994 Senate race, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” And then Ann admitted a few sentence later, “They say he flip-flopped on abortion. Well, you know what? He did change his mind.”And then there’s the most delicious kind of lie of them all, the kind that hoists the teller on his own petard as soon as a faintly curious auditor consults the record for occasions on which he’s said the opposite. Here the dossier of Mittdacity overfloweth. In 2012, for example, he said he took no more federal money for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games than previous games had taken; a decade earlier, however, he called the $410 million in federal money he bagged “a huge increase over anything ever done before.”
There are more examples, so many more, but as I started to log and taxonomize them, their sheer volume threatened to crash my computer. (OK, I’m lying; I just stopped cataloging them, out of sheer fatigue.) You can check in at MSNBC’s Maddowblog for Steve Benen’s series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” for the current tally. He was at Volume XXXIX as of this writing, though I’m confident several more arrived while this magazine was at the printers. Volume XXVIII, posted early in August, listed twenty-eight separate lies. Then came the Republican convention, when his designated fibbing-mate Paul Ryan packed so many lies into his charismatic introduction to the nation that a Washington Post blogger assigned by his editor to write a piece on “the true, the false, and the misleading in Ryan’s speech” could find only one entrant for the “true” section; and his editor then had to concede that “even the definition of ‘true’ that we’re using is loose.”Pundits—that is to say, the ones who aren’t stitched into their profession’s lunatic semiology, which holds that it’s unfair to call a Republican a liar unless you call a Democrat one too—have been hard at work analyzing what this all says about Mitt Romney’s character. And more power to them. But that’s not really my bag. I write long history books that are published with photos of presidents and presidential aspirants on the covers. The photos are to please the marketers: presidents sell. But my subject is not really powerful people; biography doesn’t much interest me. In my view, powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.The leaders are easy to study; they stand still. We can amass reams on their pasts, catalog great quantities of data on what they say in the present. Grasping the shape of a mass public, though, is a more fugitive process. Publics are amorphous, protean, fuzzy; they don’t leave behind neat documentary trails. Studying the leaders they choose helps us see them more sharply. Political theorist James MacGregor Burns’s classic book Leadership explains that “leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize, in competition or conflict with others, institutional, political, psychological, and other resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers . . . in order to realize goals mutually held by both leaders and followers.” Watching charismatic people try to seize their attention and win their allegiance becomes the intellectual whetstone. As political psychologist Harold Lasswell once put it, a successful aspirant to leadership is one whose “private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of public interest.” Watching those private motives at work, the public they seek to convince comes into focus.All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar. What does that reveal about them?
An Oilfield in the PlacentaIn 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.Subscriber lists to ideological organs are pure gold to the third-party interests who rent them as catchments for potential customers. Who better suits a marketing strategy than a group that voluntarily organizes itself according to their most passionately shared beliefs? That’s why, for instance, the other day I (and probably you) got an advertisement by way of liberal magazine The American Prospect seeking donations to Mercy Corps, a charity that helps starving children in the Third World. But back when I was getting emails every day from Newsmax and Townhall, the come-ons were a little bit different.Dear Reader, I’m going to tell you something, but you must promise to keep it quiet. You have to understand that the “elite” would not be at all happy with me if they knew what I was about to tell you. That’s why we have to tread carefully. You see, while most people are paying attention to the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big institutions have their money somewhere else . . . [in] what I call the hidden money mountain . . . All you have to know is the insider’s code (which I’ll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.Soon after reading that, I learned of the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” the one “Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.” (Why would they? They’d just be leaving money on the table: “I was scheduled for open heart surgery when I read about your product,” read one of the testimonials. “I started taking it and now six months have passed and I haven’t had open-heart surgery.”) Then came news of the oilfield in the placenta.“Dear NewsMax Reader,” this appeal began, leaving no doubt that whatever trust that publication had built with its followers was being rented out wholesale. “Please find below a special message from our sponsor, James Davidson, Editor of Outside the Box. He has some important information to share with you.”Here’s the information in question: “If you have shied away from profiting from the immense promise of stem cells to treat disease because of moral concern over extracting stem cells from fetal tissue, pay close attention. You can now invest with a clear conscience. An Israeli entrepreneur, Zami Aberman, has discovered ‘an oilfield in the placenta.’ His little company, Pluristem Life Systems (OTCBB: PLRS) has made a discovery which is potentially more valuable than Prudhoe Bay.”Davidson concluded by proposing the lucky investor purchase a position of 83,000 shares of PLRS for the low, low price of twelve cents each. If you act now, Davidson explained, your $10,000 outlay “could bring you a profit of more than a quarter of a million dollars.”Not long after I let the magic of the placenta-based oilfield sink in, I got another pitch, this one courtesy of the webmasters handling the Human Events mailing list and headed “The Trouble with Get-Rich-Quick Schemes.” Perhaps I’m a little gullible myself; for a couple of seconds, I believed the esteemed Reagan-era policy handbook might be sending out a useful consumer advisory to its readers, an investigative guide to the phony get-rich-quick schemes caroming around the right-leaning opinion-sphere. But that hasty assumption proved sadly mistaken, presuming as it did that the proprietors of outfits like Human Events respect their readers. Instead, this was a come-on for something called “INSTANT INTERNET INCOME”—the chance at last to “put an end to your financial worries . . . permanently erase your debts . . . pay cash for the things you want . . . create a secure, enjoyable retirement for yourself . . . give your family the abundant lifestyle they so richly deserve.”Back in our great-grandparents’ day, the peddlers of such miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes were known as snake-oil salesmen. You don’t see stuff like this much in mainstream culture any more; it hardly seems possible such déclassé effronteries could get anywhere in a society with a high school completion rate of 90 percent. But tenders of a 23-Cent Heart Miracle seem to work just fine on the readers of the magazine where Ann Coulter began her journalistic ascent in the late nineties by pimping the notion that liberals are all gullible rubes.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
The Long Con: Mail-Order Conservatism - "Mitt Romney is a liar..."
Great piece by Rick Perlstein @The Baffler: