Musings: The Bigger the Lie

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The fifth and final season of The Wire, the deeply textured drama created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon that finds a way to explore every facet of an ailing city across five epic seasons, begins with a scene born from Baltimore police legend in which a team of cynical (but admittedly hilarious) homicide detectives concoct a fake polygraph machine out of a photocopier preloaded with three pieces of paper. Two of the sheets say truth, and one says lie.

The detectives have a witless suspect slip his hand onto the copier and ask him three questions, two of which are basic and easily verifiable. The third question traps the suspect into a confession. The scheme bewilderingly works, and two detectives turn away laughing. When one remarks that he can’t believe the suspect actually believed what they told him, the other just laughs and says something that has been ringing in my head in the final days of the Trump administration.

“The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”

I thought about that quote over and over again throughout the late fall of 2020, as Donald J Trump attempted his greatest sleight of hand yet and did his damndest to subvert democracy and reverse his loss to President-elect Joe Biden. I watched over and over as Republican officials, the same folks who endorsed Trump and stood by him through outrage after outrage for four long years repeatedly stared his lies in the face and called them what they were.

But the lies kept coming, and they kept getting bigger. Specious claims about the constitutionality of mail in voting in several states morphed into accusations of ballot harvesting that also had no basis in fact. When that didn’t stick, accusations of ballot harvesting turned into allegations of ballot shredding. Machines were supposedly flipping votes en masse, somehow escaping the notice of voters and election officials alike. 

The lies got bigger. The most rabid and disillusioned of Trump supporters dug in their heels. The bigger the lies, the more they believed.

The rogues gallery of cons willing to lie for Trump expanded and contracted like an accordion on speed, but as in any large scale criminal enterprise, Trump always had a few bag men he could count in his favor. For Trump, a man whose heart has never been called to serve a purpose higher than lining his own pockets, it’s easy to spot a fellow serpent when he sees one. All he had to do was scroll through his Twitter to see who was willing to stand spinelessly beside him in his quest to steal an election.

In a city filled with serpents, no one was more willing to carry the president’s water and repeat his lies than Ted Cruz. We Texans already know our junior senator well for being the national embarrassment that he is, but he somehow managed to sink to unfound depths of depravity last week by becoming the ringleader, witting or not, of an insurrection that trampled the hallowed grounds of one of our nation’s most treasured buildings, left five people dead and threatened to tear at the very fabric of our democracy and society. 

It is a dark and bitter irony that the figureheads of this failed coup in the U.S. Senate were themselves sons of the very elite for whom they readily espouse scorn in their quest to claim whatever remains of Trump’s pseudo-populist mantle in 2024. Cruz was educated at Princeton and Harvard Law, and Missouri Senator Josh Hawely did his undergrad at Stanford before his own trip to law school at Yale.

These are ivy league educated men, admitted to the bar to practice law. Cruz received broad acclaim in conservative circles for arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as Texas Solicitor General, and Hawley himself was Missouri’s attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate.

Their unwillingness to break from Trump reminded me of the street logic of another character from Simon’s universe, Slim Charles, who broke down the mechanics of a drug war as a parable for the war on terror with a mind bending alacrity.

“It’s what war is, you know? What’s you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie, but we gotta fight.”

The same question that warranted contemplation in that scene was likewise ignored by Cruz and Hawley. What are you fighting for, and at what cost? 

Cruz and Hawley, as well as our beleaguered and indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton ran that right light. We’ve all seen the footage. 

Paxton speaking at Trump’s rally as his wife, State Senator Angela Paxton, stood beside him, repeating the same baseless lies laughed out of courtrooms across the country, offering no evidence while helping whip the crowd into a frenzy.

Trump and his children riling up the crowd, imploring them to march to the capitol steps.

Hawley raising a fist to the insurrectionists as he entered the capitol. 

And then Cruz rose to speak and shortly after he finished grandstanding for the fundraising pitch he was pushing via digital ads and text messages, I watched in horror as a group of protestors morphed into rioters and then domestic terrorists in a matter of minutes. 

As I watched the insurrection I couldn’t stop asking myself how we became unworthy of our nation’s promise. How we collectively, as a country, didn’t do enough soon enough to assertively rid our country and our politics of this fecklessness and thuggery.

No one loses their birthright in a moment or a day. The events of January 6th, which will likely be the lone memory that the words Donald Trump call to mind for most Americans for the rest of our history, didn’t happen in a vacuum. This was not a sudden wildfire sparked by irresponsible fireworks.

What we were forced to withstand on that fateful day was the culmination of a long decline for which we all bear at least partial responsibility, and as I rewatched The Wire over the final days of 2020 and the first days of 2021 I was once again struck with a pit in my stomach at the realization that the warning signs were there along. 

Those signs have been evident in the way we’ve slowly surrendered everything from corners to communities to addiction, yes, but also a deep unabiding despair for the working people that live there. We’ve seen it in the way we’ve continually, year after year, short changed our schools and failed our children. We’ve watched it for generations and in real time in the way police departments and their tough on crime stances fracture neighborhoods and eradicate avenues to opportunity, and even cost human lives. The way we’ve turned our backs on unions and institutions that strengthened entire generations of our working class.

Perhaps most fatally, we’ve seen the signs of our decline in the way our media ecosystem has withered and contracted over the last twenty years, which is the basis for much of The Wire’s fifth and final season. Introducing characters who work for The Baltimore Sun, Simon incisively guides viewers through the on-the-ground consequences of the digitization of media. 

When the profit centers of major newspapers shifted from distribution of their print editions to clicks and views on their websites, it created a fundamental chasm between the public good nature of most news reporting and the corporate motivations that lead to sensationalization. 

As lies got bigger, newsrooms got smaller. Newspapers that had been cornerstones of communities across the country were either bought out by larger corporations or shuttered entirely. Social media and our deepening political polarization created a new market in media that was less reliant on facts and more reliant on big personalities that served as factories of confirmation bias.

That’s why we launched Texas Signal two years ago. We knew the proliferation of right wing media and the decline of access to fact based reporting for large swaths of Texans was bad for our politics and bad for our society. We’ve been proud to bring you reporting that touched on the lives of real Texans, shed light on new issues, and aimed to hold elected officials accountable.

We also bring you opinion columns like this one, because we believe in providing a platform for a new generation of Texas activists, thinkers and leaders. It is a unique privilege that I have, that I’m allowed this space to escape into the deeper recesses of my mind and tell you what I’ve been thinking and feeling.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to work for incredible women and men who have believed in the power of government not just to do good for people, but to do what’s right for people. That awesome opportunity has only reinforced a responsibility that I’ve felt since I was a child, a responsibility to believe in the promise of our country and make whatever small contribution I could to further perfecting it. 

What I would like to posit to you today, dear readers, is that the perfecting of our union will never be complete if we allow carnival barkers and charletons to invite dishonor and division and insurrection on the places and institutions we’ve all been taught to hold sacred.

I deeply believe in the need and calls for unity that many are espousing. But how could we possibly unite and move past these painful moments and memories if we allow these men to retain their seats in our highest legislative bodies?

We must move past calls for Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ken Paxton and the sixteen seditious Texans in Congress and over hundred more that joined them. We must call on Chuck Shumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic majorities in Congress to work with any Republicans that still believe in our country and our democracy and immediately work to expel them all from Congress. The Department of Justice must seriously weigh their roles in what happened last week and pursue any and every appropriate legal remedy.

It is also incumbent upon all Texans to pay attention to what happens in the legislative session beginning tomorrow. In an ocean of big liars, Republicans in the Texas Legislature have often been among the biggest. The work of holding them accountable is another sacred obligation that we all share as Texans.

Our reporters and columnists will be watching, and we will be doing everything we can to make sure you understand what elected leaders are trying to do in your name.

As we all saw last week, the cost is too high. All that we have to lose is everything we’ve ever believed in as Americans. We must all take a deep breath and look inwardly, and remember the sage advice of Simon’s street poet, Omar Little.

A man, and in this case a country, must have a code.

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