Political Animal


October 11, 2012 1:30 PM Truth-Telling As Fascism

By Ed Kilgore

It’s getting a lot of derisive attention today, but let me add my own hilarity to the general reaction to Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal column today suggesting that people in politics should never, ever, call each other “liars.” Here’s the passage being quoted most:

The Obama campaign’s resurrection of “liar” as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.
The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics.

Um, no. The habit of 1930s totalitarians was to either (a) ignore everything enemies say and simply exclude them because of who they are, or (b) force them to confess their perfidies, the more lurid the better. The only people I know of U.S. politics with those unsavory characteristics are typically Republicans who have been calling their opponents “un-American” for years, and/or suggesting that anyone who doesn’t accept “constitutional conservative” policy prescriptions hates the country and God Almighty. Nobody’s trying to “eliminate” Mitt Romney “from participation in politics.” The people, myself included, who have called him a “liar” have done so because he’s, you know, on a factual basis, “lied.” It’s hard to call the massive ad campaign run by Romney accusing the Obama administration of abolishing work requirements for welfare anything other than a “lie.” Since it’s not very likely that Mitt Romney fails to grasp elementary arithmetic, his repeated assertions that there are no contradictions built into his tax proposals have risen to the level of a “lie,” as well. And as readers of Brother Steve Benen know, you can go on and on and on and on.

Sometimes people on the left accuse Romney of lying when it would be possible to accuse him of “misrepresentations” or “fudging the truth” or “serial exaggeration” and so forth. But you know what? Romney’s habit of using lies to reinforce even bigger lies (e.g., his preposterous claim that his “health care plan” would take care of the uninsured just as much as Obamacare would, or his alleged interest in governing in a bipartisan manner, or his supposed independence from the Cultural Right) kind of makes me lose interest in cutting the guy any slack in theoretically close cases. And in complaining (as his running mate did earlier this week) about Democratic attacks on his integrity, Romney hardly comes into the political court of equity with clean hands, having run hatefully negative ads on both his primary and general election opponents whenever it seemed helpful to his candidacy.

But the clincher to me is that it’s not just “liberals” who think there’s something specially mendacious about Romney’s campaign: it’s what conservatives said for months when they were searching high and low for any plausible alternative to the man, and then what they said about his general-election campaign until very, very recently. Why can’t Mitt be loud and proud about his conservative agenda? they asked over and over about the policy positions he continues to hide and distort with every breath.

If Henninger or anyone else can come up with a better way of describing what Romney’s been doing in this election cycle again and again, I’m all ears. For a while I thought about calling him “Nixonian” in his byzantine twists and turns. But after a while, this became an insult to the memory of the Tricky One. In any event, don’t call those of us who have the responsibility of truth-telling about Romney and his vast, dishonest Potemkin Village of a campaign “fascist.” Nobody’s trying to silence Mitt Romney; we’d just prefer he’d unfork his tongue a lot more often. It’s exhausting just keeping up with the man’s mendacity, or whatever you choose to call his aversion to anything like straight talk.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • martin on October 11, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Can anyone mark the exact moment when our rugged individualist Galtian overlords turned into a bunch of whiny little cry-babies? Jeez they are tiresome.

  • CurtMinIn on October 11, 2012 1:47 PM:

    Thanks Ed. Just today I was sent an image in which both Obama and Romney had sprouted Pinocchio noses. In response I said that I thought that President Obama had in fact governed pretty closely to how he had said he would. About Romney I said "he's a lying sack of shit".

    Your column is much more reasoned and elegantly stated but does capture that essential truth. One candidate is a serial liar who will say anything to get elected. The other is not only our President but is also a more truthful campaigner. To call those who point out the difference "fascists" is so stupid it makes my brain hurt.

  • c u n d gulag on October 11, 2012 1:48 PM:

    If we can't call Mitt and Pauli "liers" when they're, uhm... LYING!, Well then, we're screwed!!!

    "Lie" is a one syllable word that even the biggest morons in our country can understand.

    To them, "prevaricating" is something you might do right before you started 'varicating,' and "mendacity" is 'da-city' that chicks can't go into.

    "Hey, Sam, you start varicatin' yet, or you still pre-varicatin'? You wanna make it boys day out, grab a few cold ones, 'n come with me to the men-da-city?"

    For Mitt and Paulie - cue "The Sex Pistols" singing, "Liar!"

  • Josef K on October 11, 2012 1:56 PM:

    we’d just prefer he’d unfork his tongue a lot more often

    For Romney, that's the equivalent of a volley from a crack-shot firing squad aiming straight at his head. He'd never survive if he tried to start telling the truth.

  • dricey on October 11, 2012 2:00 PM:

    The idea is to poison the word "lie" in advance of tonight's and Tuesday's debates. This way, if Biden or Obama were to accuse Romney and Ryan of lying, whether in so many words or not, the Right has pre-poisoned the accusation, so that Biden and Obama are supposed to come off looking worse than the liars themselves.

  • biggerbox on October 11, 2012 2:01 PM:

    It astonishes me that someone could write a column about the idea of lying, and reference the fascists, and yet completely avoid the concept of "the Big Lie", the propaganda technique of using a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone would distort the truth so boldly.

    Do you suppose the author intentionally avoided discussing how some people will believe a bigger lie more easily than a small one, and how if you tell the same lie over and over again it people start believing it?

    It's so much easier to beat up the Obama camp for using the word "lie" if you avoid noticing that the Romney camp is, in fact, lying.

  • SecularAnimist on October 11, 2012 2:07 PM:

    "Liar" doesn't do Mitt Romney justice.

    "Lying sack of shit" comes closer.

  • Mimikatz on October 11, 2012 2:11 PM:

    There is a diary on the Daily Kos rec list about a new book on Mitt Romney's deep and long-standing hostility toward women. One woman makes a very insightful comment, that Romney always believes he (and often only he) is always right and never makes mistakes, and that therefore he ought always to be in control. He evidently believes this gives him the license to say whatever an audience needs to hear that will get Mitt what he wants. Therefore, it isn't really lying to him, but just what needs to be done for him to achieve his goal. In this case being in control of all of us. Frightening.

    And dricey is right.

  • TT on October 11, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Henninger, along with his boss (the late unlamented Bob Bartley) and colleagues, spent the better part of a decade relentlessly slandering Bill and Hillary Clinton over Whitewater, drug-running out of the Mena airport, Vince Foster, "Travelgate", healthcare reform, and myriad other issues. For him to all of a sudden start whining about use of the word "lie" in order to describe, you know, complete and utter lies proffered by his devoted candidate, is as revolting, smarmy, opportunistic, and cowardly as it is unsurprising. Clock a bully in his jaw and he'll run home crying to mama.

  • Shivas on October 11, 2012 2:18 PM:

    Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau had a maxim, "Be tough on the problem and easy on the people."

    It is one thing to call out an untruth and quite another to call someone a liar. Firstly, the person may believe what they are saying and in fact is not a liar. Secondly, calling someone a liar takes the focus off the issue and onto the person. Any listeners are then left to decide liar or not liar, meanwhile the issue is left drumming its fingers on the table. If the listeners decide that the person is not a liar, then the issue must also fall on that side of the table.

    By keeping the focus on the issue a couple of things happen: One, by focusing on the issue you can create movement. You can point out the advantages of your position and the disadvantages of your opponents position. These things are more likely to move people than personal attacks. Secondly, you show respect for your opponent by not slanging his character, which has two effects: it raises your estimation in the eyes of the audience because you are calm and respectful, and two, you will likely have to work with this individual in the future. Many people will not respond well to people who have called them names in the past.

    Character assassination is a poor substitute for a well researched and well thought out argument. When someone engages in this type of activity you will usually see that they lack good arguments for their position. You can use this to your advantage with the audience.

  • Bokonon on October 11, 2012 2:18 PM:

    This is yet another example of the right wing latching on to a 1980's left wing arguement - that criticism and free speech and intemperate words amount to "silencing" of minorities and oppressed groups.

    The suggested remedy back then was that censorship or speech codes were therefore necessary to guarantee the free speech of the oppressed minority. The GOP's remedy now seems to be to intimidate the media into pulling their punches, and reducing this to a "he said, she said" false equivalency.

    Back in the day, the GOP and conservatives used to mock this sort of thing as political correctness run amuck. Now they are adopting these funhouse mirror arguments because ... they need something to wave in our faces. And be angry about. Always the anger and indignation and excuse-making for the faithful.

    Kind of like the GOP suddenly discovered a deep and abiding concern about sexual harassment when going after Bill Clinton. This is equally heartfelt, I am sure.

  • Gandalf on October 11, 2012 2:18 PM:

    For some reason we in this country seem to have lost the capacity to you know actually embrace reality if it directly contradicts what our team is doing or saying. If these flaming gaper republicans get control of the country again I guarantee the number of people who are going to be drastically disturbed won't just be populated by liberals. The loudest bitchers and whiners will be teabaggers.

  • Peter C on October 11, 2012 2:25 PM:

    So, the paper of Wall Street says we mustn't call Mitt a liar. But, before he was indicted, they didn't call Bernie Madoff a liar either. Would THAT have been a fascist thing to do?

    The Wall Street Journal is a partisan rag owned by Rupert Murdoch. Of course they don't like anyone using the word lie; if Murdoch's papers stopped lying, 3/4 of their content would disappear. Without lies, FOX News would be the '24-hour test pattern' network.

    We have a representative democracy; we select representatives to legislate FOR us. We don't get to vote on our laws directly. If we do not reject candidates who lie to us, we give up our democracy.

    Most people have an internal regulator which must be over-ruled in order to lie. It's called a conscience. Fundamentally, it is bad to empower those without one.

    One test for liars is utterly easy and straight-forward: if someone says absolutely contradictory things with conviction, they are a liar. This test doesn't even have to assess the factuality of either statement.

    The fact that this conservative mouthpiece is trying to pre-empt our use of the word "liar" is strong evidence that we should use it loudly and often. No one likes being lied to. It is fundamentally disrespectful. It treats us like the worthless 'takers' of the 47%.

  • jjm on October 11, 2012 2:29 PM:

    Mitt has way too big an ego to ever be 'wrong' and anything he says is therefore 'right.' Not exactly a recipe for success at governing. And indeed, isn't it true that after the first year or so in office as governor, Mitt just stopped doing much of anything?

    It's pure nonsense, and biggerbox is certainly true, that it was the fascists, and especially the Nazis, who made lying the very core of their political program.

    Mitt lives in unreality, and ultimately by lying to everyone makes you deceive yourself.

    Just remember old Adolph in his Berlin bunker telling himself that he could still win ....

  • bobbo on October 11, 2012 2:29 PM:

    Sarah Palin taught me that the First Amendment protects me from any criticism of anything I say, so obviously calling someone me a liar is a violation of my constitutional rights and you should go to prison for it.

  • rimKitty on October 11, 2012 2:33 PM:

    Lying sack of Mitt has stretched the limits of truth beyond all ethical bounds.

    So, let's get to the heart of it. Say you're a soldier and your life depends on the man fighting beside you. Would you want that guy to be Mitt Romney? 'Nuff said.

  • g on October 11, 2012 2:49 PM:

    Let's also not forget that Romney called Obama a liar prior to the first debate, saying in an amazing moment of chutzpah, that the president was "known" as untruthful, and then during the debate itself likening him to a fibbing child. This after a campaign of running the most dishonest ads.

    Romney is the most dishonest candidate of the modern era.

  • Anonymous on October 11, 2012 2:56 PM:

    The modern conservative movement is borderline fascism. And I only say "borderline" to be polite.

    They are ideologues, whose dreamt up philosphies not only deny objective reality, history and mathematics but trump them. If reality disagrees with their ideology then, by God, reality must be wrong.

    They declare what is "American" and what is not. And they have the hubris to insist that no disagreement can be made to their political philospophy. They demonize their opposition and accuse Obama and the Democrats of attempting to destroy this country. Liberal is profanity throughout much of the nation.

    They distort the processes of government to achieve their goals. They take advantage of every loophole that they can find to subvert the elected officials of the other party, in spite of the will of the people who put them all into office.

    They lie constantly. Not just Mitt Romney. The GOP as a whole has embraced numerous untruths: Unions, Shariah Law, Death Panels, Socialism, Obama the Apologizer, Al Gore Inventor of the Internet, John Kerry flip-flopper and fake war hero ... I could go on and on.

    They have no problems with calling Democrats liars (has anyone forgotten Wilson?) even when the Dem in question is stating an unquestionable fact. They call Obama a liberal extremist even though he was reached out to them constantly since being elected.

    They embrace bizarre conspiracy theories to inspire paranoid passion among their base. They oppose fact-based education, or rather, they oppose facts in general. They insist on supporting nearly theocratic ideals, in spite of our Consitutional guarantees that the American governement should not favor any religion, and that there should be no religious tests for public office.

    They insist that giving more money and lower taxes to the richest of the rich is the key to economic prosperity. Nevermind that the wealthiest of us pay lower taxes now than during any time since before the Great Depression. Nevermind that the wealthiest of us have a larger share of all of the money in the nation than they have EVER.

    They speak highly of individual freedom (as if Liberals do not value such a thing) yet the last time that they controlled both Congress and the White House, they performed the largest breaches of personal freedom since the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII. And let us not even mention Iraq, a waste of thousands of lives, years of time from our service men and women, and untold billions of taxpayer dollars — all based on lies and paranoid imaginings.

    To question the GOP on any of these things is to commit heresy. To be against them is to be "un-American" and a traitor to the Republic.

    And to call them out on their lies is, of course, forbidden. Just as fascists and tyrants throughout history have forbidden others from calling out the lies of their own making.

    Oh, how I wish that the GOP was half as loyal to our nation as it is to it's ideology. But that party is not. They value their ideology more than anything. And that alone makes them borderline fascists.

    And, again, I am being polite by merely calling this tendancy borderline.

  • BJ smith on October 11, 2012 2:57 PM:

    A lie by any other name is still emphatically a LIE

  • Mitch on October 11, 2012 3:00 PM:

    The verbose Anonymous @ 2:56 was me.

  • Kathryn on October 11, 2012 3:04 PM:

    It's worth mentioning that Romney in a TV interview before the debate called Pres. Obama a liar, he didn't use the word liar but clearly said that the president did not tell the truth so he would have to watch for that in the debate as Pres, Obama tended to not tell the truth, ha, ha, ha.
    During the debate, Romney also called Obama a liar when he said as president was entitled to this, that and the other but he was not entitled to his own set of facts. I am so bloody sick of these fork tongued republicans, hope Martha Radditz does a better job than Jim Leher, think she will.

  • Zenster on October 11, 2012 3:20 PM:

    I was eligible for the draft under Nixon. I'm glad he brought the war to a conclusion and I didn't get called (high draft #). Romney does not compare because Nixon came up the hard way. But he really was a servile dick. Romney has led a very sheltered and privileged life. Aristocratic if you will. We need more videos of Romney debating himself on all the positions. I find them to be entertaining and informative.

  • jjm on October 11, 2012 3:26 PM:

    One more thing.

    During the first debate, I recall that it was ROMNEY calling President Obama a 'liar' by continually claiming 'no, it's not' whenever Obama correctly characterized Mitt's positions.

    What's more, just before the debate I recall Mitt telling an interviewer that Obama fudges on the truth.

    It's utterly ridiculous. I've heard zero lies from Obama and hundreds from Mitt and his running mate.

    This is pure Karl Rove.

  • Renai on October 11, 2012 3:30 PM:

    RimKitty, Romney wouldn't be in that fox hole next to you. He'd be hiding in France living off a trust fund.

  • exlibra on October 11, 2012 3:31 PM:

    Shivas, 2:18 PM

    So let me make sure I understand what you're saying: Mitt Romney lies, ceaselessly and brazenly; that's proven. His lies are huge and small, and and often include personal attacks on the President; that's proven, too. Yet, to call Mitt Romney a "liar" would amount to "character assassination"? Really?

    Someone who works is called a "worker"(Someone who welds is called a "welder". Someone who waits on people is called a "waiter"). Someone who dances, especially professionally, is called a "dancer". Someone who talks a lot is called a "talker"... What would YOU call someone who lies all the time? "Modern day Pinocchio" doesn't cut it any more; he's beat the poor little guy into wood pulp.

  • Eric Carrig on October 11, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Pointing out examples of poor political management or corporate malfeasance is important, but we need options to think about or take – other than voting against one political party or limiting corporate power.

    People are tired of the current zero-sum political environment that assumes that government must either expand or shrink, markets must be free or regulated, and taxes must be raised or cut.

    We want an alternative to the bad news, ranting, and blaming while their lives and kids’ futures don’t improve.

    Let’s invite people to participate in local "solutions competitions" where they can solve problems related to issues like, taxes on small businesses, air quality, education, or wealth inequality.

    People pick the issues they want to solve like excessive waits at the doctor’s office, food scares, or skyrocketing energy bills. Then citizens and local (even national) subject matter experts submit their ideas in a template -- much like a business case or legal argument -- to describe their solution (but limit the length of answers like Twitter).

    Let people vote on the parts of the strategies they like best in a simple multiple-choice format.

    We’d get cool ideas and be able to see what people think is most important across a range of issues and elements related to each strategy. We could integrate all the local ideas into one spot where community, business and government leaders could see the “best practices” from across the country.

    Since we would know how many people support various solutions, we would also have a means to hold leaders accountable for implementing strategies.

    @10 (www.at10us.com) has the ability to manage this kind of process for interested citizens, groups, and publications and it worth a look if you agree with this line of thinking.

  • Marko on October 11, 2012 4:30 PM:

    "You lie!" - Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), 2009 heckles President Obama while addressing congress.

    So yeah, it's OK if you're a Republican to call the POTUS a liar to his face during a major prime-time event. But clutch your pearls and head for the fainting couch when Dems do the same.

  • Varecia on October 11, 2012 4:33 PM:

    This didn't stop the GOP from calling Al Gore a liar.
    I think Democrats should use the blunt term 'liar' when they hear a conservative or a Republican LYING. I'm so sick of the tentative euphemism 'untruth.' If they're lying then say so, in no uncertain terms!

  • Mitch on October 11, 2012 4:36 PM:

    @Eric Carrig

    The problem is that politics is really only a zer-sum game to the GOP. The Democrats often side with the GOP on legislation and are willing to adopt "conservative" ideas. At which point the GOP suddenly disowns it's own former ideas and begind to call such ideas un-American. ACA is a prime example of this.

    As long as the GOP is more committed to being in power than they are to doing thier jobs as public servants, we will be stuck in this current, rather depressing, political climate.

    Politics is the art of compromise. Unfortunately one party cannot and will not compromise, while the other party (ostensibly MY party) does little more than compromise. Even if it means losing the war to win some battles.

    There is very little hope that good ideas can come to fruition, when the more vocal and influential of our two political parties denies that the government can do anything good, and constantly demonizes everything that disagrees with their agenda.

    And, yes, the GOP is more influential than the Democratic Party. When is the last time that DEMS have been able to practically rule while in the minority? Because that's what the GOP has been doing successfully for the Obama's entire term.

  • Doug on October 11, 2012 6:44 PM:

    "As long as the GOP is more committed to being in power than they are to doing their jobs as public servants..." Mitch @ 4:36 PM

    THAT is the be-all and end-all of current GOP thinking. If a Republican is a T-bagger then being in power means a) that position is NOT held by a Democrat and b) one can start gutting the safety net and putting all those "others" in their proper places (see gulag for where those "places" are).
    If a Republican is what I call a DeLay Republican being in power means a) a Democrat isn't holding that position and b) one is now in a position to further one's fortunes - literally.
    Sometimes, of course, the Republican in question is a mix, not unlike the R/R team...

  • Frieda Landau on October 11, 2012 6:54 PM:

    Romney is not a liar; he's factually challenged.

  • Sparko on October 11, 2012 7:19 PM:

    I can tell you this: the republicans fear the word "liar" like no other. It must have polled well for Obama indeed. They have been trying to inoculate themselves against for weeks--even using the word to define Obama in many spin sessions after the first debate. Use the word with abandon and challenge repubs every freaking time they try to use or bitch about it with regard to the dissembly twins, Romney Ryan. . .

  • Hart Williams on October 11, 2012 7:25 PM:

    No: "factually challenged" indicates misspeaking from ignorance. "Lying" indicates knowing the facts and intentionally omitting and/or contradicting them.

    Sin of omission versus sin of commission.

    Mitt is a liar, whether the honorific "sack of shite" is attached as a modifier or not.

  • David Martin on October 11, 2012 8:15 PM:

    In southeastern Florida, congressman Allen West is running an ad with a flaming American flag, claiming that his opponent consorts with terrorists.