There’s an old saying that goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” To an extent this somewhat corrupt approach to arguing a point has always been part of our politics, but like everything else about the national discourse what was once on the fringe is now the totality of who we are. We expect politicians to bullshit us and occasionally even to lie, but we also expect that they know and will acknowledge when they’ve lied to us — that once busted and their sins dragged out into the light, they’ll feel enough shame or calculate the political cost to where they’ll apologize or attempt to correct themselves. It used to be that way. But it’s not anymore. At the very least, politicians now know they’re not necessarily required to fess up to a lie because the truth isn’t written in stone anymore. It’s just a matter of perspective.
Which brings us to Carly Fiorina.
A couple of weeks ago, during the second Republican presidential debate on CNN, Carly Fiorina lied. Actually, maybe that’s a little too modest. She didn’t just lie — she told one absolute whopper of a bullshit story, the kind of thing that isn’t even tangentially tethered to reality. In case it was so shocking to you that your brain actually rejected it and you can’t remember what I’m talking about, Fiorina looked directly into the camera and with steely indignation said she had seen a video clip from Planned Parenthood that showed “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” The claim was meant to reference the recent series of videos created by a pro-life group which contend that Planned Parenthood is illegally harvesting the organs of aborted fetuses for money. Those clips have been entirely debunked anyway, but what’s most interesting about Fiorina’s take is that the specific scene she detailed at the debate wasn’t featured in any of them. Put simply, what Carly Fiorina says she saw with her own eyes couldn’t have been seen by her. There was no way she could’ve seen it because such a thing doesn’t exist.
So fine, Fiorina loves defenseless fetuses so much that she got a little confused and went off script. It can happen. All somebody had to do was point out the mistake and she’d cop to it. It’d be forgotten in a day. But that’s not what happened — that’s not what’s been happening over the past two weeks. All kinds of fact-checkers have called her out, including a one-on-one with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, and this past Sunday Chuck Todd immediately lit her up during her interview on Meet the Press, but Fiorina hasn’t budged. She insists she’s seen this video clip that she can’t produce because it doesn’t exist. She’s been caught in a lie and rather than accept it or even attempt to hedge or spin, she’s just gone right on proclaiming that she’s right and everyone else is wrong. It’s a tactic that’s as frightening as it is brilliant. It’s frightening because she’s demagoguing on an issue that she’s lying about and it’s brilliant because — well, because she knows that lying so blatantly throws her critics completely off balance because they don’t know how to respond and even if they could, the truth doesn’t have the kind of currency it used to.
And that’s what it really comes down to. The people inside the right-wing echo chamber hear nothing they don’t want to hear and believe nothing they’re not already inclined to believe. As far as they’re concerned, Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetus parts and no amount of debunking or contrary evidence will change their minds. In their heads, they’ve already pictured precisely the scene Fiorina swears she saw with her own two eyes so they’re not going to penalize her, even if she is stretching the truth a little bit. As for the people attempting to call her out for it, they’re all part of the liberal media and therefore can’t be trusted anyway. Fiorina has already proven she’s “one of us” in their eyes and that status has to be defended at all costs in the face of the “libtard” onslaught. Back in 2012, Mitt Romney knew Republicans thought this way and he likewise knew that if you’re not limited by having to tell the truth you can throw your opponent all the curveballs you want and get away with it. His entire campaign was based on this approach. His willingness to unscrupulously lie over and over again was exactly what allowed him to stun Barack Obama in the first presidential debate against him.
Stephen Colbert famously coined two hugely influential terms during his time on The Colbert Report. One, of course, was “truthiness,” which applies perfectly to Fiorina’s political philosophy because it denotes something that feels true even if it isn’t. To Republicans, Fiorina’s baldfaced lie about seeing a video clip of a fetus on a table while Planned Parenthood workers talk about harvesting its brain is 100% “truthy,” and that’s good enough. The other Colbert word, which also applies here in the larger context, is “Wikiality,” which is used to describe the fact that in our current culture, if enough people agree that something is true then it is. We can literally adjust reality by taking a vote on it. The truth doesn’t mean a damn thing since it’s apparently nothing more than a construct of the majority anyway. Fiorina is counting on this kind of thinking to win. She’s counting on people not caring what’s true as long as they care what’s “truthy” and she’s assuming “Wikiality” will come into play and her version of the truth will become the accepted truth.
But it shouldn’t be. The truth matters. Facts have to be the same for everyone, no matter what Fox News is telling the people inside the bubble. We can argue over opinions all we want but we have to keep going back to the same well to get the facts that inform those opinions. There has to be common ground — even if, more and more, there’s less and less these days.
The fact is — the truth is — that Carly Fiorina shamelessly lied. She’s entirely full of shit on this. And she shouldn’t be able to get away with it.