Listening to former FBI director James Comey, it was easy to identify the key themes on which most analysis would converge.
He accused the president of lying, “plain and simple,” about whether FBI employees had lost faith in Comey. He suggested Trump obstructed justice in a private conversation with him and colorfully hoped recordings exist to prove his veracity: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
And, somberly, he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Russian interference in American politics is real.
Regardless of your political leanings, Comey was profoundly credible, in part because he also acknowledged fault — he testified that he could he have been “stronger” in challenging Trump in the moment. He detailed how he wrote careful notes of what was said right afterward. Why? “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” Comey told senators.
Comey emerged as so utterly believable that even Republican senators on the committee dared not impugn his integrity in their questions.
The next day you had the liar-in-chief claiming it was Comey who was lying. “Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction,” Trump said in remarks in the White House Rose Garden. He charged that Comey’s testimony was a politically motivated stunt orchestrated by those still angry over his victory last November. Never mind that Comey is a former lifelong Republican turned independent and that Democrats remain angry that he cast a new and damaging cloud of suspicion over Hillary Clinton’s emails little more than a week before the election.
And yet, when reporters queried Trump’s supporters after the showdown, most were still eager to provide enthusiastic support, whether or not they watched the Comey testimony. Seventy percent of Trump backers believed Trump over Comey, according to a poll taken after Comey spoke.
Since Trump’s election, those of us on the left have been hectored about how we fail to understand the despair of Trump’s white, working-class voters who feel leaders of both the nation’s parties have screwed them.
But it is hard to empathize when lies do not seem to matter. Nor does the consensus that a foe once described as the “evil empire” by their beloved Ronald Reagan is threatening our democracy seem to faze these supporters. Can you imagine the right-wing outrage if a Democratic president seemed so uninterested in Russian interference?
The contrast between the credibility of Comey’s earnest and self-effacing testimony and that of our petulant and narcissistic president is hard to overstate.
It was against this backdrop that I just read “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” a new book by the junior Democratic senator from Minnesota who is famous for his previous career in comedy on Saturday Night Live.
The book is hilarious, a wonderful political read, and Franken looks hopefully beyond the current political muck and mire. But if there is one thing that outrages Franken, it is a political climate of lying without consequences.
He wrote an entire chapter on it titled “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President,” referencing a previous Franken book title — “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
Laments the senator: “Even considering all the terrible things Trump got away with during the campaign — mocking a disabled reporter, attacking a Gold Star family, referring to Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ and ‘drug dealers,’ calling for Muslims to be banned from our country — I still can’t believe he got away with lying so much.”
Later, he writes: “We seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have lost all of their power to damage a politician.
“In fact, the ‘Trump effect’ yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them. Like a movie that is loosely based on a true story, Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy.”
Franken complains that during the campaign, networks aired speech after speech by Trump filled with lies but, because the ratings were good and perhaps because the audacity of his lies is so unprecedented, nothing was done.
“What would Trump have had to say for a network to cut off a speech and break in, with the anchor saying, ‘Good lord, I’m sorry. We’re just not going to show you any more of this crap.’
“Or at least run a ticker at the bottom of the screen with some underpaid intern just Googling the numbers Trump was pulling out of his ass.”
As corrupt, self-interested and unserious as Trump is about policy — and all that is terrible — it is the lying that is the biggest threat, Franken writes.
“I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”
This didn’t begin with Trump, of course, but with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and Breitbart and ludicrous allegations about liberal mainstream media bias, which often causes it to bend over backward to not challenge factual accuracy — especially television news. Franken wrote about those themes before and again in his new book.
To be sure, lying was instrumental in the eight-year GOP campaign to make sure Barack Obama could not succeed in his vision for a better, more collaborative political culture in America.
So please, don’t keep lecturing the rest of us about how we need to better understand and empathize with Trump’s most virulent base, which seems to say, “We’re with you, Donald, and we don’t care whether you’re lying or not.”
As he concludes his chapter on lies, Franken humorously pledges to continue his “Global Jihad on Factual Inaccuracy,” hoping for a new era of “Neo-Sticklerism, and that “national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon.”
We can only hope.