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Lying Liars and the Marks Who Love Them
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Lying Liars and the Marks Who Love Them

Why are people so willingly manipulated?

Dear Reader (Especially any of you who’ve been busy rescuing baby elephants from manholes),

I know it may not seem like it, but I’m actually weirdly tolerant of wrongness. It may not always come across that way in my writing, but that’s because writing about and debating ideas is different from dealing with people. I kind of like wrong people—i.e. people with wrong opinions and beliefs—if they come by their wrongness honestly. I’ve had fun and interesting conversations with everyone from animists, to Communists, to all manner of reactionaries (I even loved a whole book by a guy who thinks we’d be better off as serfs). Hell, I’m really good friends with David French, and he thinks Aquaman was a great movie.  

What I have a big problem with is lies and the lying liars who tell them. Part of it is just the insult. Some lies rest on the assumption that I’m stupid enough to believe them and cowardly enough not to say anything. But it’s also the feeling of being manipulated. If you’re a big sports fan, you’ve probably met someone who claimed to be a lifelong fan of your team when you know they got into it only when, say, the Mets started doing well. If they said, “Yeah, I wasn’t really into them until recently, but now I’ve got the fever,” you’d have no problem. But when they try to act like they’ve put in the time all those years, it can piss you off. It’s not the best analogy, but that feeling is sort of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, if you want to tell me that Stalin was a great leader who had to do terrible things to drag the Soviet Union into the 20th century, I can have a fun conversation with you. Even more fun is finding the rare fool who actually buys the more theoretical arguments for Stalin. If you believe he was a necessary instrument of the Hegelian dialectic to hasten the inevitable triumph of scientific socialism, I can talk to you for hours. But if you start telling me that Stalin didn’t kill lots of people or some other B.S., I’ll start to lose my temper. And if it becomes clear that you don’t actually believe what you’re peddling but you think it’s necessary to lie for the cause, I’ll really get angry.

It’s worth emphasizing that these are two different kinds of people. The former is peddling lies in good faith. The latter is actually telling lies. It’s the difference between being wrong and doing wrong.

Which brings me to Steve Bannon.

Mother Jones obtained some remarkable audio of Bannon talking, on October 31, about what Trump would do if he lost the 2020 election. “What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner,” Bannon says while laughing. “He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.” Later, Bannon says, “Trump’s gonna walk in the Oval, tweet out, ‘I’m the winner. Game over. Suck on that.’”

Note that he doesn’t say, “If Trump thinks he really won,” or, “If he believes there’s fraud.” He just says—with jocular approval, even glee—that Trump will simply lie and declare victory. And he thinks that would be awesome.

Now, let’s ignore what Trump eventually did for the moment. The scenario Bannon is nearly tumescent about is evil and treasonous on its own terms. And he loves it. I say evil not least because, according to Bannon’s own professed faith, Trump would be committing a mortal sin. I say treasonous because Trump would be knowingly violating his oath of office, betraying the American people and the Constitution, and doing profound harm to the general welfare.

Moreover, implicit in Bannon’s giddy scheme is the assumption that millions of people would believe Trump’s lie and presumably act on—or even fight for—that lie. Bannon has proudly proclaimed that he is a Leninist because he shared the Bolshevik leader’s desire to destroy the state, in this case the American state. Lenin probably never actually used the term “useful idiots” to describe the Western intellectuals who bought his propaganda, but the claim survives in part because it captures his thought in pithy form. It also captures Bannon’s. He knows he spreads lies. Indeed, spreading lies is the point. “Flooding the zone with sh*t”—his phrase—is a deliberate strategy, not some accidental byproduct of some other strategy. He’s kind of an incarnated liar’s paradox; the only thing he’s reliably honest about is that he is a liar.

Now, I honestly struggle to understand why this doesn’t infuriate people who take him seriously. I don’t necessarily mean his diehard fans, because they’re mostly in on the Alinskyite grift. The people laughing along with Bannon on the audio are the equivalent of Lenin’s lickspittle entourage marveling at their guru’s amoral conniving. But what I don’t understand is why this doesn’t infuriate the sorts of people who aren’t in on the con.

Dude, there’s no truth-telling in the war room.

Just yesterday, conservative economic writer Stephen Moore appeared on Bannon’s show and accidentally acknowledged that Trump lost the 2020 election. Moore said, “I am so frustrated right now because I really believe if Trump—if the American people had not made such a big mistake in November [i.e. voting for Biden], and I think people recognize they did—”

At which point Bannon cut him off:

“Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Bannon shouted. “You mean in not fighting hard enough to make sure that we got to the steal? Dude, you’re in the War Room.” Bannon added, “You mean we didn’t fight hard enough to make sure that we got the big steal. Let’s leave that aside.” He then snapped at Moore, “I know, you still want to go on Fox. I got it.” Then Bannon described the Biden administration as “the illegitimate regime that’s there.”

It’s worth pausing on the metaphysical craptacularity of Bannon’s insult. I have enormous problems with how Moore handled the Trump years, but to claim Moore’s statement of the truth can only be understood as an effort to stay in the good graces of … Fox News … is so spectacularly grotesque and cynical it’s a marvel to behold.

Anyway, the relevant point here is that Bannon thinks his fans are manipulatable idiots. And while I can feel sorry for people who get used, I have a harder time empathizing with people who want to be used.

And that’s the thing. A lot of people simply want to be lied to. They want it so bad that they get angry at the people who won’t lie to them. Liz Cheney is a villain because she’s telling the truth. And telling the truth threatens the supply chain of bullshit.

I have readers who passionately believe the election was stolen. The remarkable thing is that when I go through their emails, the argument for how the election was stolen evolves as each specific claim gets debunked. Every few weeks I get a new “Aha! I was right!” email. The Italians did it! No wait, it was Hugo Chavez! Okay, Chavez didn’t do it—it was the Chinese! Okay, I was wrong about the Chinese, it was Dominion! No, it was Mark Zuckerberg. The Deep State! Soros! Fauci! Col. Sanders …”  

Each time the “evidence” is less a new “fact” but a new theory that lets them hold on to the only conclusion that matters.

This crap annoys me for all sorts of reasons, but what really invites contempt is the way they’re never mad about the previous lies they were asked to peddle. If you want to hold onto the conclusion that the election was stolen, that’s one thing. But why aren’t you mad about the previous lies you now concede are lies? Why are you only mad at people like me who refuse to believe every new effort to sell the lie?

“It is received doctrine among con artists,” Kevin Williamson has observed, “that every mark participates in the con — those who have been, and remain, blind to that are willfully blind.” This is the key to the success of Bannon’s marks’-ist-Leninism.

And that’s the thing I just cannot understand. I suppose I can get my head around it in the sense that I know a lot of people want to be marks. That desire is at the heart of vast swaths of human history. What I can’t do is get my heart around it. I just hate being taken for a fool by liars so much, I can’t muster the emotional imagination to viscerally comprehend why Trump’s fans aren’t furious at him. Nor can I muster much sympathy for them, because at this point, to still believe that Trump isn’t the most glaringly obvious, self-serving, and oafish liar to dominate American life since at least the advent of mass communication is beyond me. I can only assume they want to be lied to.

I totally get why conservatives get angry about Biden’s lies—real or alleged. But I don’t understand how anyone—TV hosts and TV watchers alike—can shriek about the evils of lying in general, and about Biden’s presidential deceptions in particular, while yawning at, or defending, Trump’s. All my life, conservatives, including me, have inveighed against the left’s double standards. The Trumpy and Trump-enabling factions of the right today aren’t merely shot through with what should be mortifying hypocrisy, they’ve made a double standard for a con artist their central organizing principle.

What Trump did.

In case it wasn’t obvious, the scenario Bannon predicted turned out to be true in all of the important particulars, no doubt in part because that’s exactly what Bannon counseled Trump to do. It’s a bit like “predicting” a boxer will go down in the third round when you’ve already worked it out with the boxer. Publicly, Bannon’s utility to Trump is head-past-the-sphincter ass-kissery. In 2016 he made the central “principle” of Trumpism defending the Access Hollywood tape. But privately, his value to Trump is that he gives Trump permission and encouragement to be a terrible person.

But even if Trump’s treasonous and evil lies about the election weren’t the product of Bannon’s worm-tongued Trump-whispering, the fact remains Trump did it.

It’s astonishing to me how many people will defend Trump by saying, “He believed it was stolen,” or, “You can’t prove he didn’t believe it.” I think this is embarrassing garbage, contradicted by nearly everything we know about Trump, the preponderance of the evidence,  and the testimony of the entire leadership of his own Justice Department, save for one ridiculous fifth-columnist goober by the name of Jeffrey Clark.

But for turds and guffaws, let’s pretend it’s a real argument. A president who actually cared about the good of the country and his constitutional oath would need to be persuaded that the election was stolen. He would also need to be convinced that the scope and nature of the conspiracy to steal the election was so outrageous that it would be worth throwing the country into turmoil by declaring himself the winner despite the official returns.

Before you shout, “That’s what happened!” kindly shut your pie hole. That’s not what happened, and there’s zero evidence saying otherwise. First of all, he said in advance that if he lost it would only be because the election was stolen. He said it in the primaries and the general election in 2016. He said it throughout 2020. He didn’t reach that conclusion in contradiction of the facts, he said it before there were any facts at all because the election hadn’t even happened yet. It’s one thing to play the game, lose, and then lie about the other guy cheating. It’s quite another to go into the game already lying about the result. And it’s a peculiar form of narcissistic sociopathy to believe that losing is prima facie evidence of cheating.

Moreover, countless people told Trump he lost. And when I say people, I don’t mean the ranks of the supposedly Trump deranged haters, I mean countless Trump loyalists. When Bill Barr said there was no evidence the election was stolen, Trump immediately snapped, “You must hate Trump.” In more than 60 court challenges—many before Trump appointed judges—he lost all but one.

But even if, in his heart, he believed the election was stolen, he had a moral, patriotic, and constitutional obligation to concede for the good of the country (even Nixon did that). Trump went the other way. He told the Justice Department to just declare the election corrupt—evidence or no—and he’d “take care of the rest.” When that didn’t work, he kept reaching into his private menagerie of advisers until he found sycophants of the lowest coprophagic phyla willing to tell him what he wanted to hear.

So what if he believed the lie? He believed the lie because he wanted to. Rather than subordinating his desires to his obligations to the country, he did everything he could to ratify them. That’s the thing about Trump. He’s not just a con man, he’s his own mark. I don’t care that he believes his own lies. I do care that others do. And while I can feel sorry about the authentic useful idiots who still believe them, I feel contempt for those who just don’t care that they’re lies.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The dogs left this afternoon to stay at Kirsten’s for the week, as the Goldbergs decamp for a vacation (which is why I may skip the G-File next week). Gracie will be well-tended to at home. There’s not much new to report beyond that. There were a couple of bad nights due to thunder and some much needed solar recharging, but Pippa remains remarkably silly, while Zoë dutifully handles security. I did find a new scritch button on Pippa. I’ll post proof-of-life shots as Kirsten provides them. But I haven’t figured out a policy for how to do Pippa’s daily day-of-the-week reminders on Twitter. Should I use archival photos? I just don’t know. 


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.