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The coup that succeeded

Richard Cohen on

The Wall Street Journal celebrated the new year with wonderful news. "We're pleased to report that there hasn't been a fascist coup in Washington," announced a Jan. 1 editorial. True enough, but as two Harvard professors point out in a new book, coups are so 20th century. Democracies perish, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out, by a kind of civic Alzheimer's. They forget to function.

This has been the case in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela and Turkey, to name just four countries under odious regimes. As for the United States, a kind of coup has already succeeded. Truth has been commandeered by the state and dispatched to a new gulag. It is called Fake News.

The first casualty of war, the saying goes, is truth. But with Trumpism, truth is not collateral damage, it is the enemy itself. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the senate's dwindling anti-Trump caucus -- Flake himself is about go into honorable retirement -- put his finger on a useful historical analogy. In an upcoming speech he likens Trump to Joseph Stalin. It turns out that the late Soviet dictator also liked to call the media the "enemy of the people."

Flake says he is about to expound on his insight in a senate speech. It is virtually a sure thing few of his colleagues will listen, because they will think, in the manner of the Wall Street Journal editorial, that the comparison is overdrawn. This is somewhat true. Trump has murdered no dissidents and has yet to airbrush deposed aides from official photos -- although Bannon's day may be coming.

Still, one has to zero in on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, to fully appreciate Flake's warning. In her demeanor and her willingness to straight-face the preposterous, she'd bring an appreciative smile to Stalin's face. He has seen her type before.

After Trump denounced a Wall Street Journal story as "FAKE NEWS!" Sanders followed up with a tweet of her very own. The Journal had quoted Trump as saying, "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un," the North Korean dictator. Trump, who was being interviewed by the Journal when be brought up Kim, quickly protested. He did not say "I," he insisted. He had said "I'd."

The White House provided a tape to substantiate its contention. The Journal then provided one of its own. "I?" "I'd?" Hard to tell. I'd go with the Journal, but Trump's version is not all that farfetched

What is, though, is the reason he gives for the Journal's account: "They just wanted a story." Then Sanders followed up: "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. FAKE NEWS IS AT IT AGAIN! FALSELY QUOTING PRESIDENT TRUMP."

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Now I must summon someone I will call Kurt. He was the Washington-based press spokesman for East Germany back in the Cold War days, and he helped arrange my trip to East Berlin. I found that city to be dour, gray and dingy, while just across the wall, West Berlin was, as Sinatra sang of Chicago, a "toddling town." Kurt protested, but when I asked him if he had ever been to West Berlin, he said no -- but he knew my account was false nonetheless. Was Kurt lying? Hard to say. He lived in an environment where truth was what the government said it was.

Sanders is a latter-day Kurt, mouthing the Trumpian party line. The newspaper she accused of publishing "FAKE NEWS" is owned by Trump's pal, Rupert Murdoch, who is an occasional White House visitor and counselor. The paper is capable of making a mistake -- what one isn't? -- but for it to purposely "FALSELY" misquote the president is as preposterous as Kurt insisting East Berlin outshone West Berlin.

In its new year's editorial, the Journal had a point. Some of the predictions for the Trump regime now seem a touch hysterical (Et tu, Cohen?). But the president has succeeded in blurring, if not eradicating, the distinction between truth and lies so that not only he but virtual bots such as Sanders or cabinet members -- those fawning intellectual Munchkins who would make Stalin himself blush -- utter lies as a matter of course.

This is the coup that has succeeded. The lie has been institutionalized. It is not the exception, but the run-of-the-mill response to any challenge. The lie no longer shocks. It often amuses, and complacent Republicans either look the other way or jump gleefully on the bandwagon of deceit. This, not the tax bill, is Trump's most consequential first year achievement. The fascists may not have taken over the government, but the liars have.

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Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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