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The American Sea of Deception

While we’ve never seen anything on Trump’s psychotic scale, the problem of U.S. presidential deception goes way back in American history

On the list of presidential liars: Shortly after being told of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, George W. Bush confers with administration members at a Florida school he was visiting. Months later, he would lie to the American people as he sought to justify an invasion of Iraq partly on the basis of the attacks. (Photo: The U.S. National Archives)

On the list of presidential liars: Shortly after being told of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, George W. Bush confers with administration members at a Florida school he was visiting. Months later, he would lie to the American people as he sought to justify an invasion of Iraq partly on the basis of the attacks. (Photo: The U.S. National Archives)

Four days ago, The Washington Post reported that the epic pathological liar Donald Trump made 4,229 false statements during his first 558 days as United States president. Trump spoke or tweeted falsely, on average, an astonishing 7.6 times per day during that time.

We have no historical database of presidential untruth on which to rely to make detailed comparisons, but it is certain that Trump’s rate of falsehood is beyond anything ever seen in the White House. Armed with Twitter and a mad and malignantly narcissistic penchant for twisting facts and truth in accord with his own ever-shifting sense of what serves his interests and hurts his perceived foes, this monstrosity is gaslighting the last flickering embers of civic democracy at a velocity that would make Goebbels green with envy.

Keeping up with Trump’s erroneous and duplicitous statements is exhausting work, hazardous to one’s own sanity. Just as depressing as Trump’s serial fabrication and invention is the apparent willingness of tens of millions of ostensibly decent and honest ordinary Americans to tolerate, dismiss or even believe the endless stream of nonsense and bullshit.

Still, if much of the populace has become inured to presidential lying and misstatement, it’s hardly all the current president’s fault.

Deception and misstatement are “as American as Cherry Pie” (to quote H. Rap Brown on violence)—though here perhaps I should say “as American as George Washington’s childhood cherry tree fable.”

While we’ve never seen anything on Trump’s psychotic scale, the problem of U.S. presidential deception goes way back in American history.

Eager for a back-door pretext to enter the war against German fascism (a good thing in the opinion of many), for example, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lied to Congress and the American people when he claimed that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was “unprovoked” by the U.S. and a complete “surprise” to the U.S. military.

President Dwight Eisenhower flatly lied to the American people and the world when he denied the existence of American U-2 spy plane flights over Russia.

President John F. Kennedy lied about the supposed missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. And Kennedy lied when he claimed that the United States sought democracy in Latin America, Southeast Asia and around the world.

President Lyndon Johnson lied on Aug. 4, 1965, when he claimed that North Vietnam attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. This provided a false pretext for a massive escalation of the U.S. war on Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel and millions of Southeast Asians.

Regarding Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg recalled 17 years ago that his 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers exposed U.S. military and intelligence documents “proving that the government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman administration onward. … A generation of presidents,” Ellsberg noted, “chose to conceal from Congress and the public what the real policy was. …”

President Richard Nixon lied about wanting peace in Vietnam (his agent, Henry Kissinger, actively undermined a peace accord with Hanoi before the 1968 election) and about respecting the neutrality of Cambodia. He lied through secrecy and omission about the criminal and fateful U.S. bombing of Cambodia—a far bigger crime than the burglarizing of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex, about which he of course famously lied.

The serial fabricator Ronald Reagan made a special address to the nation in which he lied by saying, “We did not—repeat—we did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.”

President George H.W. Bush falsely claimed on at least five occasions in the run-up to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War that Iraqi forces, after invading Kuwait, had pulled babies from incubators and left them to die.

President Bill Clinton shamelessly lied about his White House sexual shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky. He falsely claimed to be upholding international law and to be opposing genocide when he bombed Serbia for more than two months in early 1999.

The serial liar George W. Bush and his administration infamously, openly and elaborately lied about Saddam Hussein’s alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and about Iraq’s purported links to al Qaida and the 9/11 jetliner attacks. After the WMD fabrication was exposed, Bush falsely claimed to have invaded Iraq to spread liberty and democracy.

Bill Clinton (subject of a useful Christopher Hitchens book titled “No One Left to Lie To”) and Barack Obama were both silver-tongued corporate-neoliberal Wall Street and Pentagon Democrats who falsely claimed to be progressive friends of working people and the poor. President Obama lied repeatedly, as when he falsely claimed that he would have his Department of Justice investigate and prosecute abusive lenders for cheating and defrauding ordinary homeowners. Obama misrepresented the facts badly when he repeatedly claimed (in what PolitiFact determined to be “The Lie of the Year” in 2013) that, under his Affordable Care Act, “If Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor. And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it."

In a grotesque lie early in his presidency, Obama’s White House claimed that the carnage caused by its bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk (where dozens of children were blown to pieces by U.S. ordnance) had really been inflicted by “Taliban grenades.”

But presidential lies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an American political, media, intellectual and educational culture that has long been drenched in a vast sea of fable, deception, ideological selection and flat-out propagandistic falsification. The biggest and most relevant lies of our time don’t just issue from the mouths, press releases and now, sadly, Twitter feeds of presidents. They are major historical and societal myths and grand narratives of broad falsehood widely shared across the major party spectrum by “responsible” and “respectable” authorities in politics, business, education, literature, religion, media and public affairs.

I recently asked a dozen or so online associates and friends for their top five nominations under the category of the Big Lies of Our Time in the United States. We came up with fully 50 great national fairy tales and untruths (one for each U.S. state). Here are my nominations for the Top 10 Big National Lies:

 1. We live in a democracy. This core myth cries out for demolition with special urgency at present thanks to constant media and political class repetition of the claim that Russia “undermined our democracy” during the 2016 presidential election. I have written at length against this claim so many times that it has become difficult to do so again without excessive self-repetition. Here are just three among a large number of reports and commentaries in which I have carefully explained why the U.S. is a corporate and imperial plutocracy and even an oligarchy, not a democracy:

“Time Is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy From the American Oligarchy?” CounterPunch, March 21, 2018

American Money, Not Russia, Put Trump in the White House: Reflections on a Recent Report,” CounterPunch, March 30, 2018

Who Will Protect U.S. Election Integrity From American Oligarchs?” Truthdig, April 18, 2018

Putin’s War on America Is Nothing Compared With America’s War on Democracy,” Truthdig, July 22, 2018

Also see my book “They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy” (2014).

 2. Capitalism is about democracy. No, it isn’t—and one need not be an anti-capitalist “radical” like myself to know better. My old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

There’s nothing—nada, zero, zip—about popular self-rule (democracy) in that definition. And there shouldn’t be. “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s: “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.” More than being compatible with slavery and incompatible with democracy, U.S. capitalism arose largely on the basis of black slavery in the cotton-growing states (as historian Edward Baptist has shown in his prize-winning study “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”) and is, in fact, quite militantly opposed to democracy.

“We must make our choice,” onetime Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement was unintentionally but fundamentally anti-capitalist. Consistent with the dictionary definition presented above, the brilliant French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled toward the concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands.

 3. Capitalism is about the free market. Nope, it’s about the rich seizing control of the state and using it to make themselves richer and to thereby—since wealth is power and pull—deepen their grip on politics and policy. The profits system is so dependent on, and enmeshed with, governmental protection, subsidy and giveaways that one might even question the accuracy of calling it capitalism. (For elaboration, please see my recent Truthdig essay “Our ‘Rentier Capitalism’ Is One More Nail in Earth’s Coffin”). It is at the very least state capitalism, and always has been. A truly “free market,” that is fully laissez-faire capitalism, has never actually existed. At the same time, state-capitalist market forces in all forms, including their most government-free ones, have always brought widely different levels of freedom and un-freedom (including even literal slavery) for people depending on what class they belong to and how many resources they bring to influence and profit from market processes.

4. Big business and its political agents are freedom-loving libertarians who hate “big government.” False. They only hate big government that’s not under their control and doesn’t serve their interests. The contemporary capitalist elite and its many agents and servants hate only what the left French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”—the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. They want to starve and crush those branches of government that reflect past popular victories in struggles for social justice and democracy. But the portions of the state that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor are not the subject of their ire. The regressive and repressive “right hand of the state,” comprising the big sections of “big government” that distribute wealth upward and attack those who resist empire and inequality, is not its enemy. It grows in accordance with the slashing of left-handed social protections, as the increased insecurity that results drives ever more disadvantaged people into the clutches of the military and the criminal injustice system.

5. The United States is a great land of liberty. Really? It depends on what part of the class-race structure you inhabit. With a massive and highly militarized police and prosecutorial state that has used the so-called war on drugs and related cooked crime crazes as pretexts for racially hyper-disparate mass arrest and imprisonment, the U.S. is home to the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world (and in world history). Social movements are regularly infiltrated, surveilled and crushed by the high-tech U.S. police state.

Hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens depend on employers not just for their incomes but also for their and their families’ health insurance, something that militates strongly against their willingness to speak freely within or beyond the workplace.

Americans suffer the longest working hours in the “developed” (rich nation) world; they spend inordinate and crippling amounts of time under the despotic supervision of bosses and lack the time and energy and information to participate meaningfully in the nation’s supposed “democracy.”

Freedom to do what one wants with one’s life depends on the possession of money and wealth, which is more unevenly distributed and harshly concentrated in the U.S. than in any other wealthy capitalist nation. Liberty is certainly enjoyed in great proportions by the top 10th of the upper U.S. 1 percent, which owns as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. Liberty is far less prevalent among the 57 percent of Americans who, as CNBC reported last fall, have less than $1,000 in savings; 39 percent have no savings at all. Last January, the same network reported that more than a third (36 percent) of Americans would have to go into debt to pay for a major unexpected expense like a trip to the hospital or a car repair.

Wall Street chieftains who threw millions of Americans out of work and destroyed billions of dollars in savings through their reckless and often criminal practices have escaped prosecution while the nation’s jails and prisons are loaded with disproportionately black, Latino and poor people serving long terms for comparative small-time drug offenses. In a report titled “The Price of Justice,” The Nation reported last year that “roughly 500,000 people are in jails across the country simply because they are poor”—that is, because they can’t make bail payments or pay fines and/or court fees.

In the words of the title of one report on the poverty and bail jail problem, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

 6. The United States is a great monument to classlessness. No, it isn’t. The U.S. is a great monument to savage class inequality, marked by an extreme concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands (Louis Brandeis’ death knell for democracy) and the lowest rates of upward mobility from the lower and working classes into the middle and upper classes in the “advanced” world. Three absurdly wealthy Americans (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) now possess among them as much wealth as the poorest half of the United States. As one of those three, Buffett, noted 12 years ago: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” As wealth and income congeal ever upward in New Gilded Age America, even the professional middle class now experiences ubiquitous “precariousness,” lost security and status, and downward mobility. As the cultural theorist Lynn Parramore writes in a recent review of journalist Alissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America”:

Today, with their incomes flat or falling, [young middle-class] Americans scramble to maintain a semblance of what their parents enjoyed. They are moving from being dominant to being dominated. From acting to acted upon. Trained to be educators, lawyers, librarians, and accountants, they do work they can’t stand to support families they rarely see. … Their new reality: You will not do as well as your parents. Life is a struggle to keep up. Even if you achieve something, you will live in fear of losing it. America is not your land: it belongs to the ultra-rich. …

They are somebodies turning into nobodies … the Chicago adjunct professor with the disabled child who makes less than $24,000 a year; and the California business reporter who once focused on the financial hardships of others and now faces unemployment herself. … Uber-driving teachers and law school grads reviewing documents for $20 an hour—or less. Ivy Leaguers who live on food stamps. … Their labor has sputtered into sporadic contingency: they make do with short-term contracts or shift work. … Once upon a time, only the working poor took second jobs to stay afloat. Now the Middle Precariat has joined them. … Deep down, they know that they probably can’t pass down the cultural and social class they once took for granted.

It sounds like something out of, well, Marx.

 7. Hard work and individual brilliance is the key to individual wealth, and the lack of such work and brains is the source of individual poverty. Nonsense. In the U.S. as across the capitalist world, private oligarchic fortunes rest on the parasitic collection of multiple forms of rent obtained through the ownership of multiple forms of inherited property and the wildly inordinate influence that the wealthy Few exercise over the oxymoronically named “capitalist democracies.” The preponderant majority of the wealth “earned” (appropriated) by the ever more obscenely opulent is produced by countless less privileged others and by a set of societal and institutional arrangements designed to serve those fortunate enough to be born into affluence. (See the brilliant left geographer Richard A. Walker’s masterful discussion of the real source of Silicon Valley’s spectacular profits in his recent book “Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area.”) Millions of Americans work absurdly long, smart and hard hours for an ever-shrinking share of total income and wealth and face economic precarity for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own personal effort and smarts. Rising labor productivity has not remotely been matched by rising wages or benefits in a globalized labor market structured by and for the employer class.

8. Growth is good. U.S. and Western state capitalist ideology has long proclaimed that growth—not redistribution and sociopolitical democratization—is the solution to poverty and joblessness. But contemporary capitalist expansion is largely predicated on low wages, weak benefits, a fading left-handed social welfare state, generalized precarity for the Many, and relentless destruction of the earth on which we all depend. Economic growth under the heedless, commons-plundering command of the unelected dictatorship of capital is now clearly environmentally exterminist—a grave threat to livable ecology. There are no jobs, no economy, on a dead planet, and there’s no Planet B.

 9. We have an “independent” and “mainstream” media. False. We have neither. For elaboration (I am running of word count), please see my 2015 ZNet essay “On the Nature and Mission of U.S. Corporate Mass Media.”

 10. The U.S. is a force for good and peace in the world. It is no such thing. For some ugly details (word count again, dear reader), please see my recent Truthdig essays “The World Will Not Mourn the Decline of U.S. Hegemony” and “The Chomsky Challenge for Americans.”

Trump deserves a special place in the Totalitarian Hall of Shame’s special Lying Head of State exhibit, but all these grand national deceptions were in place under Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Bush 41 and Ronald Reagan. Most of them have been operational under most of modern U.S. history. Impeaching or un-electing the uber-dissembler who now occupies the Oval Office will not magically make them go away. Only a great people’s rebellion on behalf of liberty, equality, solidarity, the common(s) good—and truth—can do that.

For the full list of Fifty Big National Lies, go to my website, paulstreet. org.

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Paul Street

Paul Street

Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books, including “Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis” (2007), “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power” (2010), and “They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy” (2014), and a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Z Magazine/ZNet, Black Agenda Report and teleSUR English. He has taught American history at several Chicago-area colleges and universities and currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

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