What Do We Do About Those Who Lied for Trump?

Nashville, Tennessee. January 6, 2021.

On January 6 I was in Nashville, near the state Capitol building, where I ran into a pro-Trump rally just after the noon hour. I walked by to take a closer look and hear what was being said. A few hours later, in Washington, D.C., people with similar views to those in Nashville would storm the U.S. Capitol in what many have called an act of insurrection.

Back in Tennessee, I was stunned, as I often have been, to hear speakers making claims about Democrats stealing the presidential election for Joe Biden and how if “we don’t [keep Trump in office] we are going to lose the country we love.” At the end of the rally, a preacher stood on a set of steps over-looking the crowd and offered a prayer.

In God’s name, he prayed for the country, President Trump, and all those poor patriots who clearly can’t count, because they firmly believe Trump should still be president. A young girl stood next to her mother holding a sign that said, “Stop the Steal.” And her mother was proud of her daughter for being there and taking such an interest in the future of the country.

As the crowd broke up, people drifted into small groups dotted across the plaza that is ringed by memorials to citizens of Tennessee who have died in America’s wars. The preacher who had just led the crowd in prayer walked past one group and they thanked him for coming and praying with them. In return, he told them to have faith. “We will win this thing if you just have faith and don’t give up,” he said.

It is as if everyone there had been infected with a virus that makes them incapable of thinking for themselves. It could be the premise of a Stephen King novel. They believe fully and completely that there is a conspiracy led by Democrats and the news media to take their country away from them. They believe that Donald Trump is the only thing standing between them and a socialist dictatorship. They believe Joe Biden is evil and corrupt.

On Counting Votes

Let me depart for just a moment to address the issue of the news media and the declaration of Biden as the winner of the presidential election. For some reason, certain Trump supporters believe that the news media just made up the numbers on Election Day(or week) and kept counting until they could declare Biden the winner. In fact, that’s not how it happens. In fact, news organizations, as they have throughout the nation’s history, send people to voting places and town halls around the country on election night and record the votes as they come in. They then add up the numbers that are reported to them by local election officials and announce who has the most votes. That is the first way we find out who won an election whether it be for mayor or president.

Later, those votes are certified by local and state officials and in the case of the president, made official by the Electoral College and Congress. The news media is not engaged in a conspiracy, its only role is to count and report the results. First unofficially and later officially. So Donald Trump lost and Joe Biden won. That is the honest truth and the numbers do not lie.

The Big Lie and Who Is Responsible

But let’s return to the main question around our current state of national affairs. How is it that so many Americans have become so susceptible to lies told by President Trump, his supporters in Congress and others in position of leadership? It has happened because the former president and his network of supporters have metaphorically cashed in on the credibility of the Office of President, and other government offices, that previous presidents created. The same can be said of the right wing news media. Networks like Fox News, have credibility with some, because they manage to look and sound like main stream news organizations whose business model has been based on telling the truth.

There are those who will ask as a means of proving their point; “Is Trump the first president to lie? Has the main stream news media always gotten everything right, without bias?” No. The answer is no. But it’s a matter of degree and intent isn’t it? Has any president ever made lying an organizing precept of his administration? No. Has any president, after losing an election, tried to lie his way to another term by claiming the election was stolen from him? No, this is the first time. And the only reason his lies on this issue have been so effective is because, for the most part, American presidents have avoided the temptation of telling the biggest lies in deference to common decency and agreed upon norms of behavior. Given that context, there are millions of Americans who tend to believe a U.S. president no matter what he says. Trump, and others, have taken advantage of this for their own political purposes or financial gain.

Once Again, A Time for Choosing

It is the others I am most concerned about right now, because they have a choice to make and in some cases we have a choice to make. Their choice is whether to continue through the rest of their lives — and the rest of their lives in the American public square — employing the deceitful tactics of their leader in an attempt to dominate public affairs or whether they are going to reject those tactics. Our choice is to decide if and how we are going to hold President Trump’s enablers responsible for the role they have played in severely damaging our national discourse and poisoning the minds of so many of our fellow citizens to the point that some would attack the U.S. Capitol.

It is difficult for me to argue for mercy in this regard, but in the interest of charity, perhaps it is reasonable to suggest that anyone in public life, who knowingly bought into Trump’s lies to advance or maintain their own political or financial standing, should be allowed back into the league of ordinary citizens, if they are willing to admit their mistakes, apologize, and commit to the truth. Some clearly do not deserve a second chance, but because we are all Americans and we have to live with each other, the offer should be extended.

There is a long list of people who might be covered by this offer. Former presidential staffers, cabinet members, members of congress(House and the Senate) Republican Party leaders at the national and local level, businesspeople who were willing to look the other way because they saw their profits rising during the Trump years.

As someone who saw the danger of Trump early and have spoken out against him for more than four years, I have little sympathy for politicians who hedged their bets during Trump’s entire time in office. As far as I am concerned, most of them are as complicit as those Trump appointees who willingly joined in his daily festival of falsehood. Hand-ringers like Susan Collins of Maine and cabinet secretaries who resigned in protest in the final weeks of Trump’s term. Where have you been, I ask? Did it really take a violent assault on the Capitol for you to wake up and understand the poison of the Trump administration?

The Muslim ban. Charlottesville. Shit hole countries. Believing the Russians over the CIA. Abandoning our allies. Sucking up to dictators. The wall. Child separation. Spewing hate and division on social media. Obstructing justice. Bribery. Extortion. Self-dealing. Ignoring the pandemic as hundreds of thousands of Americans die, gasping for breath, as the president plays golf. Coercion of state officials in an effort to overturn the results of a national election. Refusing to concede. Lying about the outcome. Literally delivering an un-peaceful transfer of power.

None of it mattered to the hand-ringers and enablers. None of it mattered until five people lost their lives in an attack on the Capitol the day the vote was being certified in favor of Joe Biden. And let’s be honest; even now, there are Republicans on Capitol Hill who are equivocating. Still not sure we should punish Donald Trump for all the damage he has brought on the country. Still trying to be fair and understand the full context. Still allowing a corrupt man to succeed by standing by in silence, or worse, making excuses. Finding others to blame.

A few weeks ago I saw a headline on an opinion piece asking private sector companies to deny jobs to anyone who worked in the Trump administration. Especially those who helped shape and deliver Trump’s dishonest and damaging messages to the American people. This is an appealing policy, but probably unfair to many. So we do not become the very thing we despise, those who have always seen through the lies should extend a level of fairness to at least some former Trumpers; fairness they may not deserve. Let the market decide the future on a case by case basis.

If you served in the Trump administration, or helped his campaigns in 2016 or 2020, you should expect to be viewed with professional skepticism for the rest of your life. After the first few months of the administration it was more than evident what kind of man was occupying the Oval Office. Nearly every week presented an opportunity for people of conscience to step forward and do the right thing. If you stayed on without protest, if you defended Trump in the news media or other public forums, then you were complicit in all he did to tear down the country and there is no escaping that fact with further lies.

I worked for a politician who was accused of corruption, was forced to resign, and served time in federal prison. He did nowhere close to the damage to his state or the nation Donald Trump has done. When it came to a point where I could no longer honestly defend what I saw happening around me, I left. I quit. I resigned. Too many in the Trump administration failed to make that decision. Too many, through their silence and misplaced loyalty to a man who offers no loyalty in return, and has never had any understanding of public service, were willing participants in his thoroughly corrupt enterprise.

I am not sure we need to promote policies that officially deny a professional future to anyone who worked in the Trump White House or on the Trump campaign, but I do know they should forever be forced to explain themselves, because they were at the scene of the crime and for the most part did too little to stop it.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.