Abandoning the rule of law: How authoritarianism creates a fictitious world through consistent lying
There is a moment in Representative Adam Schiff’s 2021 book “Midnight in Washington” that jumps out. The book centers around the first impeachment of former president Trump for withholding congressionally approved funds for Ukraine to fight off Russian incursions. In managing the impeachment trial before the Senate, Schiff (D-CA) and his team had prepared thoroughly and carefully to demonstrate that Trump had, in fact, withheld the money in order to force Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to help Trump rig the 2020 election.
Trump’s team wanted Zelensky to announce that he was launching an investigation into Hunter Biden, whose father, Joe Biden, was the opponent Trump most feared for the 2020 presidential election. The media would jump at such an announcement and chew it over until by the time the election came around, voters would associate Biden with criminality, just as they had condemned Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, over her use of a private email server.
As Schiff prepared to summarize the powerful testimony that supported the case for impeachment, a member of his staff stopped him. Schiff recalled the staffer telling him: “They think we’ve proven him guilty. They need to know why he should be removed.”
Schiff interpreted that question to mean that senators wanted to know why they should remove him. After all, he was giving them the judges they wanted and permitting them to run the country as they wished.
Schiff’s masterful summary of the case both at the trial and in his book answered that question, explaining that senators should have taken on themselves the responsibility for removing Trump from office because he threatened the country’s national security and, if not checked, would continue to abuse his power.
In the end, only Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted to convict Trump of abuse of power (but not obstruction of Congress), but that one vote from “one brave man,” Schiff recalled, “had validated my belief and that of the Founders, that the people possessed sufficient virtue to be self-governing.”
But there is another interpretation of the reason senators wanted to know why Trump should be removed even though they admitted he was guilty of trying to rig an election with machinations that hurt the country’s national security: The leaders of the Republican Party had abandoned the rule of law.
After World War II, political philosopher Hannah Arendt explained that lies are central to the rise of authoritarianism. In place of reality, authoritarians lie to create a “fictitious world through consistent lying.” Ordinary people embraced such lies because they believed everyone lied anyhow, and if caught trusting a lie, they would “take refuge in cynicism,” saying they had known all along they were being lied to and admiring their leaders “for their superior tactical cleverness.” But leaders embraced the lies because they reinforced those leaders’ superiority, and gave them power, over those who did believe them.
That pattern, in which lies undermine the rule of law, seems to be going around these days. It is in the news internationally as Russian president Vladimir Putin is directly challenging international law both by taking Ukrainian territory by force and by committing war crimes. He justifies that destruction of the rule of law by claiming that sham referenda in four regions of Ukraine have made those regions Russian, and that any attempt of Ukrainians to reclaim their territory will be an attack on Russia that may require a nuclear response.
The rejection of the rule of law is also in the news at home, as Republican leaders appear to be following Trump’s lead. Tonight, New York Times reporters Edgar Sandoval, Miriam Jordan, Patricia Mazzei, and J. David Goodman explained the lies behind Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s dumping of migrants at Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts last month.
Since Biden took office, Republicans have tried to make unauthorized immigration a key election issue. In June 2021, Texas governor Greg Abbott and Arizona governor Doug Ducey invoked the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement that lets states send aid to each other after a governor has declared a disaster or an emergency.
Abbott has declared a disaster and Ducey an emergency over the influx of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that the Biden administration is “unwilling or unable” to secure the border. They called for governors of other states to send “additional law enforcement personnel and equipment” to “arrest migrants who illegally cross the border into our territory.”
Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis all pledged to send law enforcement to Texas and Arizona; South Dakota governor Kristi Noem one-upped them by announcing that she would send 50 South Dakota National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and that billionaires Willis and Reba Johnson from Franklin, Tennessee, would pay for the troops.
Florida’s budget this year — signed in June — continued this trend with a $12 million fund “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida.” According to Douglas Soule of the Tallahassee Democrat, that money came from interest on the $8.8 billion Florida got from the American Rescue Plan to address the coronavirus pandemic. Because it was interest, rather than principal, it was not covered by the federal requirement to address COVID-19, as the federal money itself was.
The idea was to highlight federal transportation of “unauthorized” migrants into Florida, but by August the money was untouched because there actually were not large groups of migrants coming to the state. So DeSantis focused instead on Texas, where a woman the New York Times reporters identified as Perla Huerta, a U.S. Army veteran who was a combat medic and a counterintelligence agent for two decades before being discharged last month, recruited destitute migrants to go north with the promise of work.
Vertol Systems, which charters airplanes and is well connected with Florida Republican politicians, was paid more than $1.5 million, but how they were hired and by whom is not clear. The people the operation targeted were legal asylum seekers, who were provided with fake maps and misled about where they were going.
Whether DeSantis and the Republican Party will have to reckon with reality in 2022 remains unclear. But it seems unlikely that any reality check will come from Republican leaders. Just this weekend, they have refused to comment on Trump’s inflammatory statement about Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), which seemed to encourage violence against him and included a racist smear against McConnell’s wife, Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao.
In the Washington Post, columnist Karen Tumulty concluded that while Trump was outrageous, “there is plenty of fault to go around. The Republican Party’s refusal to denounce him makes them complicit.”
Brаndоn Bоurdаges and Gоrоdenkоff
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics