The Big Lie is starting to unravel. One of 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 Menchú 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 Menchú, was a sensation. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When it came to light that Menchú 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. And though Menchú claimed that she had never attended school and was illiterate until shortly before dictating her memoir, she had actually been a scholarship student at two prestigious Catholic private schools and attained the equivalent of a middle-school education. A New York Times investigation confirmed Stoll’s findings.
Liberals tended to excuse Menchú, on the grounds that her story revealed a “larger truth.” “Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care,” said Marjorie Agosin, head of the Spanish department at Wellesley College. “We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.” Others stressed 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Conservatives were appalled that Menchú’s Nobel Prize was not rescinded, and galled that some liberals defended Menchú’s invocation of “my truth.” There was no “my truth” or “your truth” they countered. There was only the truth. And when you depart from the truth, you are lying.
There was a larger context of course. Many on the left wanted Menchú’s story to be true because they opposed U.S. assistance to right-wing regimes in Latin America, and those on the right welcomed evidence that this particular account was at least partially discredited because they were broadly opposed to left-wing insurgencies in Latin America. At the time, I was 100 percent behind those who said you cannot accept falsehood just because it serves a political purpose.
The Menchú 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. For now, our best, and possibly only remaining check on flagrant lying is the tort system. (Disbarment is an available penalty for lawyers who severely transgress ethical norms, but it is rarely invoked.)
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 November 17, Powell said she had a video showing Dominion founder John Poulos bragging that “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 Chávez to make sure he never lost an election.” She said the machines had an algorithm that automatically flipped votes, and that George Soros’s “number-two person” was “one of the leaders of the Dominion project.” Also false.
After Georgia performed a hand recount of the ballots proving that Dominion’s voting machines had not been tampered with, Powell claimed that “Mr. Kemp and the Secretary of State . . . are in on this Dominion scam with their last-minute purchase or award of a contract to Dominion of a hundred million dollars.”
When first asked about Dominion’s defamation suit, Powell responded on Twitter that she wasn’t worried because “[w]e have #evidence” and “They are #fraud masters!” (Her account has since been suspended.)
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. “Notably, one of the focal points of the complaint is a press conference held by Sidney Powell and others on November 19, 2020 at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Obviously, any press conference originating from the Republican National Committee is political to its core.” [Emphasis in original.]
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.” And yes, she said that the 2020 election was the “greatest crime of the century if not the history of the world.” 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, 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 office holders, 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.