U.S. Authorities Pay No Price for Acknowledged Lying

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“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking. Everybody knows that the captain lied. Everybody got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died.”—Leonard Cohen

Presidents and other U.S. authorities have always been liars—just ask Native Americans. While lying to Native Americans has never been politically costly for U.S. presidents, getting caught lying by the entire American public was once politically damaging. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson paid a political price after Walter Cronkite informed Americans that Johnson’s claim of the U.S. winning the war in Vietnam was false; in the 1970s, Richard Nixon paid a price for getting caught lying about Watergate; and even in the 1980s, getting caught lying about his law school class standing and plagiarism forced Joe Biden to end his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Today, in contrast, there is little political cost to getting caught lying. When did this begin? Was it the glorification of proven liar Ronald Reagan after he left office? The high approval ratings of proven liar Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency? We can debate when and why getting caught lying became no big deal, but it is now clear—even to cognitively-challenged liars such as George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—that getting caught lying is not politically costly. Furthermore, getting caught deceiving the American public has become politically inconsequential not only for U.S. presidents but for all U.S. authorities—with the most recent example being Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to Trump and Biden.

First, a brief review, beginning with Reagan, of recent lying rulers and the lack of political cost for getting caught lying. Then, what this means for Americans’ anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, depression, substance abuse, and the general sense of absolute hopelessness.

On Bill Moyers’s list of “10 Big Fat Lies and the Liars Who Told Them” included is “President Ronald Reagan on the Iran-Contra Scandal.” In November 1986, Reagan proclaimed: “In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not, trade weapons or anything else for hostages.” Then, in March 1987, Reagan famously changing his tune: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Amnesiac Americans who name highways and schools after Reagan either ignore or are ignorant of the fact that Reagan’s lies were about breaking the law and committing arguably treasonous and impeachable acts.

In January 1984, Iran had been declared by the U.S. government as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” but between August 1985 and October 1986, Reagan okayed the sale to Iran of over 2000 TOW anti-tank missiles, 18 Hawk surface-to-air missiles, and spare parts. The belief that Reagan was ignorant of these illegal arms sales is delusional—Exhibit A: the December 7, 1985 diary entry of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger: “Met with President, Schultz [and others]. . . . I argued strongly that we have an embargo that makes arms sales to Iran illegal and President couldn’t violate it and that ‘washing’ transactions through Israel wouldn’t make it legal” (see report of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh).

While Reagan’s popularity dropped immediately after the Iran-Contra scandal, it quickly recovered and to this day, Republican and Democratic politicians alike pay homage to him. Politicians along with the mainstream media ignore the reality that Reagan lied about illegally selling arms to a “state sponsor of terrorism” that had held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days (until Regan was sworn in as president in January 1981); and also lied about the Contra component of Iran-Contra—illegally funding the right-wing terrorist Contras in Nicaragua. In recent years, both Republican and Democratic presidents have found ever new ways to kiss the dead Gipper’s tuchus—one of many examples in 2009, in the first year of his administration, Barack Obama signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act, creating a panel to plan activities in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth.

Then there is Bill Clinton. In one of the most famous lies in U.S. presidential history, on January 26, 1998, Bill Clinton proclaimed, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” And almost as famously on August 17, 1998, he changed his story: “Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” Unlike presidential lies about U.S.-sponsored terrorism, Clinton’s lies were about actions that were much more interesting to most Americans—entertaining them and uniting the entire nation in mockery of Slick Willy. Ultimately, however, what lesson did future presidents learn from Clinton about the political cost of getting caught lying? I have little doubt that George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden all know Clinton’s approval ratings when he left office: Gallup’s “Presidential Approval Ratings — Bill Clinton” reports that when Clinton left office in January 2001, he had a 66% approval rating, comprised of a 93% approval from Democrats; 66% approval from Independents; and 39% approval even from Republicans.

Next, George W. Bush, who used four lies to sell the American people on the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that so far has resulted in: 4431 total American deaths (according to the Department of Defense, March 15, 2021); hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths; and the creation of ISIS. His four lies: (1) claiming with certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); (2) asserting there was foolproof evidence that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden; (3) implying that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack; and (4) claiming that the Bush administration was open to a peaceful resolution when the decision had already been made to go to war. On May 29, 2003, Bush continued to lie about WMDs: “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.” Did Bush pay a political price for this disastrous war and his lies to sell it? Even though no WMDs were found, Bush was re-elected in November 2004 with Gallup’s “Presidential Approval Ratings — George W. Bush” reporting November 2004 approval ranging from 53% to 55%.

Then there are the Republican and Democratic nominees for president in 2020, Trump and Biden. Updating Trump lie totals from my May 1, 2020 CounterPunch piece (“If Trump is a Pathological Liar, What Type of Liar is Biden?”), by the time Trump left office in January 2021, the Washington Post reported: “The Fact Checker counted a total of 30,573 false or misleading claims made by President Trump during his White House tenure.” While the sheer volume of Trump’s lies is impressive, what’s impressive about Biden’s lies is their diversity. Biden lied about opposing the 2003 Iraq War; lied about his previous position on freezing Social Security; lied about getting arrested in South Africa attempting to visit Nelson Mandela; lied about graduating in the top half of his law school class and plagiarism; and lied about important details of the traffic accident that resulted in the death of his wife and baby daughter so as to gain greater sympathy for himself.

When Trump and Biden became the nominees for the 2020 presidential election, this guaranteed that a serial liar—convicted as such even by the mainstream media—would be elected president. Unlike some other psychologists, I do not provide “leadership training” seminars to young people and their parents, but I imagine this scenario at such a seminar: A father of an ambitious daughter who wants to become the first woman president asks what would be best way to help his daughter achieve her dream. The following response to this father can no longer be seen as totally a sarcastic one: “If you want to help your daughter become president, if she tells the truth about anything, ground her.”

Finally, Anthony Fauci, who has paid virtually no political price for acknowledging that he has deceived the American public with regard to (1) the value of mask protection, and (2) the percentage of Americans needed to be vaccinated for herd immunity. Depending on one’s tribal affiliation, Fauci’s deceptions are seen as lies or noble lies.

On March 8, 2020 on “60 Minutes,” Fauci proclaimed, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.” A month later, Fauci told Americans that they should wear masks because masks are effective in protecting themselves and others, and on June 12, 2020, The Street reporter Katherine Ross asked Fauci, “Why were we told later in the spring to wear them when we were initially told not to?” Fauci responded that he and others “were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply, and we wanted to make sure that the people, namely the health care workers. . . [had] the equipment that they needed. . . Now we have masks. We know that you don’t need an N-95 if you are an ordinary person in the street. . . . We also know that simple cloth coverings that many people have can work as well.” Fauci recognized that this may appear to be a contradiction of what he had said earlier, but claimed that it is not a contradiction as circumstances have changed.

Some of my clients reacted to Fauci’s revised mask guidance explanation similarly to left anti-authoritarian podcaster and comedian Jimmy Dore, who stated: “So, what he’s telling you is that he’s a liar, and that he lied to Americans on purpose . . . . I will never believe another goddamn thing that guy says.” Many of my clients are anxious and depressed, and studies show depressed people are generally more critically thinking and less capable of denial than non-depressed people, and so they have questions such as: “Was Fauci being dishonest in March about the lack of value of masks, or is he now being dishonest? Does he really expect me to believe that a cloth mask works as well to protect me as an N-95 respirator mask? If the reason that he advised against masks in March was that he was concerned that a run on N-95 and surgical masks would result in a shortage for healthcare providers, why didn’t he tell us in March what he is saying now—that cloth masks, which were never in short supply, are effective?” Furthermore, for some of my clients, Fauci’s claim that he has not been contradictory appears to be dishonesty about previous deception that some refer to as gaslighting—which can fuel anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, depression, and substance abuse.

In contrast to Fauci’s explanation for reversing his mask guidance, he was straightforward in his acknowledgment that he had attempted to deceive the American public with regard to vaccinations and herd immunity. Specifically, in a December 24, 2020 New York Times story, “How Much Herd Immunity is Enough,” the Times reported that in the pandemic’s early days, Fauci tended to cite 60 to 70 percent as the percentage of Americans needed to be vaccinated for herd immunity; but then, in November, Fauci began saying 70 to 75 percent; and by mid-December was saying 80 and 85 percent. The Times reported that “Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. . . . he believes that it may take close to 90 percent immunity to bring the virus to a halt .” The Times quoted Fauci: “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”

This Fauci acknowledgment, while candid, is troubling for critical thinkers trying to make vaccine choices. If a higher percentage of Americans willing to get vaccinated allows Fauci to be truthful about the vaccination percentages required for herd immunity, some critical thinkers—unsure whether they are being unduly paranoid or simply logical—worry whether they are being herded in some way so as to achieve higher vaccination percentages. Specifically, the reported high 95% effectiveness rate of the mRna Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is what has majorly persuaded many people to get vaccinated when they have the opportunity; however, Fauci’s more recent attempt to persuade people that the standard one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine—initially reported to have only a 66% effectiveness overall (though later reported as higher but still lower than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines)—is as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear contradictory. When Fauci was questioned about the lower effectiveness rate of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on “Meet the Press” on February 28, 2021, he said: “It’s not the weaker vaccine. They are all three really good vaccines,” and that Americans shouldn’t compare efficacy percentages because each was studied “under different circumstances.”

By proclaiming the three vaccines as equally effective but simply studied “under different circumstances,” Fauci begged the question from critical thinkers trying to make a decision as to which vaccine to take: Are you now saying that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, if studied in the same manner as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, are not really 95% effective? BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) associate editor Peter Doshi had earlier, on November 25, 2020, published in BMJ an analysis of the trials, “Pfizer and Moderna’s ‘95% Effective’ Vaccines—Let’s Be Cautious and First See the Full Data, in which Doshi questioned whether the research design used in these Pfizer and Moderna trials (specifically, subject exclusions, short trial length, incorrect “endpoint” outcome measures, and the lack of true double-blinding) had inflated effectiveness percentage. Doshi is by no means anti-vaccination, simply an honest critically-thinking scientist.

To be clear, untruthful U.S. authorities are nothing new, a reality painfully discovered by Thomas Paine. After Robespierre incarcerated Paine in a French prison, only luck saved him from the guillotine; but Paine came to despise George Washington, president at that time, even more than Robespierre, as it became clear to Paine that Washington (who Paine had greatly assisted with his portrayal of him in The American Crisis as a better general than he really was) had refused to help him because Paine’s death would have been politically convenient for Washington. In Paine’s Letter to George Washington, he tells us that as a member of the French Convention, he had firsthand knowledge that Washington had lied about John Jay’s mission to England, and Paine concludes: “Mr. Washington may now, perhaps, learn, when it is too late, to be of any use to him, that a man will pass better through the world with a thousand open errors upon his back than in being detected in ONE sly falsehood. When one is detected, a thousand are suspected.” Paine cared deeply about character, a word he uses several times in Letter to George Washington, and he makes it clear that the disloyal and dishonest Washington had none.

While there is some controversy over the degree of Paine’s alcohol abuse, no doubt the pain of his disillusionment with Washington drove him to drink more. By the time Paine returned to the United States from Europe in 1802, his colossal contribution to the launch and success of the American Revolution had already begun to be buried. Paine had become a hated figure among Christian Americans for his Age of Reason critique of organized religion, and his Letter to George Washington cemented his pariah status, marginalizing Paine not only for the remainder of his life but for more than a century after his death.

A disappointed Thomas Paine discovered that Americans have a “talent” for denial and amnesia. Similar to Paine, “untalented” in this regard are most of my clients and many others labeled with so-called “mental illness.” Many individuals in this group are “afflicted” with critical thinking, which disables them from denying or forgetting authorities’ contradictions and deceptions—and such awareness can fuel anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, depression, and substance abuse.

Paine knew that the American experiment in democracy required a critically-thinking population, or else authorities could easily manipulate and control it. Thus, he was greatly troubled to return to the United States and see the nation swept up in a so-called “Second Great Awakening,” a religious revival that rejected his cherished Enlightenment values of rationalism and skepticism. If Paine was alive in the twenty-first century, observing that it was politically inconsequential for U.S. presidents and other authorities to be caught lying by the entire American public, this would be evidence for him that the American experiment in democracy had failed. Given that he had thrown his entire being into trying to make this experiment work, its failure would hurt him deeply, so much so that no amount of alcohol or psychiatric drugs may have been sufficient to take the edge off of his heartache.

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press, September, 2018). His Web site is brucelevine.net