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Lies are not always easy to prove. Sometimes people misremember details. Sometimes people are just plain wrong.
For someone to lie, as opposed to simply being incorrect, they must believe or know that they are saying something incorrect and still say it anyway. To borrow from Merriam-Webster, lying requires an intent to deceive.
Every so often, we receive letters to the editor or guest columns that accuse people of lying about this or lying about that. And often, we won’t print that accusation as is, because the intent of the person accused of lying is not always clear. Again, it can be difficult to prove that someone is actually lying, and we tend to err on the side of publishing accurate, provable information.
Once in a while, however, a public official lies in such spectacular fashion that there can be little doubt of their intent. And right on cue, Rep. Kevin McCarthy has entered the chat.
The Republican House Minority Leader from California was caught in a lie recently about his reaction to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The New York Times reported that McCarthy told colleagues shortly after the attack that he planned to urge then-President Donald Trump to leave office. McCarthy called that reporting “totally false and wrong.” Then the reporters produced an audio recording of the conversation where McCarthy had in fact said that. He still won’t admit that he said he planned to talk to Trump about resigning.
That, folks, is lying.
Of course, it is nothing new for powerful people — politicians from both parties — to lie. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton lied under oath, for example, and was impeached for it. What we find most concerning about the McCarthy situation is not even the underlying lie, but the response to it.
This situation put McCarthy at political risk, not because he lied, but because the exposure of the lie had the potential to make him seem insufficiently supportive of Trump. In today’s Republican Party, that seems to be a worse offense than lying. And that should scare people. It certainly scares us.
You can draw a straight line from Trump’s deployment of “alternative facts” and disproven election claims, his refutation of evidence and the rule of law, to the violence seen on Jan. 6. McCarthy, based on the recently released recordings, seems to have understood that at one point. But now he won’t admit it.
It would almost be fitting that he is lying about not fully embracing Trump’s lies, if it wasn’t so alarming. This dangerous know-nothingism makes a serious doctrine out of the George Costanza “It’s not a lie if you believe it” joke from Seinfeld. It demonstrates a commitment to self-delusion and collective delusion that has become more important than a shared commitment to the truth.