Swift Predicted Trump’s Lies

Gustave Doré, Satan rallies his troops


Washington Post satirist Dana Milbank has alerted me to a Jonathan Swift essay on “Political Lying” that is only too relevant. Political lying took some of its modern forms in the 18th century with the rise of political parties, and the great satirist, ever alert to change, captured some of its characteristics. Even Swift, however, could not imagine a liar as blatant and shameless as Donald Trump.

Milbank turned to Swift while describing a lie that Trump propagated about a dead border patrol agent. Rogelio Martinez died after his car ran into a culvert—it may have been sideswiped by a tractor trailer truck—but that’s not what Trump and Trump wannabes said:

President Trump and his allies saw an opportunity to whip up anti-immigrant fervor. At a Cabinet meeting Nov.20, Trump announced, with cameras rolling, that “we lost a Border Patrol officer just yesterday, and another one was brutally beaten and badly, badly hurt.... We’re going to have the wall.” He also issued a similar tweet.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, offered a reward “to help solve this murder” and to “help us catch this killer.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) declared the incident “a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses.

And then there was Fox News, reporting that “a border patrol agent was brutally murdered” and going with the headline “Border Patrol agent appeared to be ambushed by illegal immigrants, bashed with rocks before death.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported that Martinez was “attacked at the border in the most gruesome possible way.”

The FBI determined, however, that no murder had been committed. When no one issued a retraction, Milbank turned to Swift:

It has been more than 300 years since Jonathan Swift wrote about the utility of falsehood: “If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect... like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

This is pretty much how Trump does business, and he has inspired other Republicans to follow suit. After all, in a world where there is no accountability, what’s the downside? This helps explain the GOP assault on institutions tasked with fact-finding, such as the media, universities, research institutions, and governmental agencies. Meanwhile rightwing evangelicals, who should value truth, have become Trump idolaters.

Noting that Satan is the follower of lies, Swift describes him in a way that we will find familiar. After all, the percentage of angels that Satan seduced to his side is roughly the same as Trump’s loyal base:

We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from Heaven, where (as Milton expresses it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.

Swift then observes that those who came later surpassed the father:

But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.

Political lying, Swift says, can be used both to gain power (think of the 2016 election) and to revenge oneself after having lost it (which we are sure to see if the GOP loses the House in 2018 or the presidency in 2020):

But here the moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.

Swift very much captures Trump with regard to consistency. Although the president claims to have a great memory, Swift notes that great liars easily forget what they said previously:

There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary, according to the various occasions he meets with every hour of differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal. 

Swift’s subsequent comments concern Prime Minister Robert Walpole, but he could just as easily be talking about Trump:

The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think fit to refine upon him, by interpreting everything he says, as we do dreams, by the contrary, you are still to seek, and will find yourself equally deceived whether you believe or not: the only remedy is to suppose, that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all; and besides, that will take off the horror you might be apt to conceive at the oaths, wherewith he perpetually tags both ends of every proposition; although, at the same time, I think he cannot with any justice be taxed with perjury, when he invokes God and Christ, because he hath often fairly given public notice to the world that he believes in neither.

I don’t think Trump invokes God or Christ in his lying—he is much more likely to introduce his lies with “Believe me”—but otherwise Swift’s description applies only too well. In response, many Americans do indeed regard the president’s pronouncements as “inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.”

Swift only misses the mark in thinking that a liar is beyond being shamed or, as he puts it, rendered “notorious.” He seems to think that, if a liar is exposed, there will be consequences. Even Swift could not imagine a man openly telling falsehoods that can easily be checked.

But then, he did observe that liars surpass Satan with their “continual improvements,” so Trump might not surprise him. Swift would conclude that he has made his master proud.

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