By Brigitte L. Nacos
“No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other,” Hannah Arendt wrote in an 1967 essay (“Between Past and Future”) published first in The New Yorker, “and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” At the time, she lamented about “organized lying, as we know it today….”
But even Arendt, a political theorist with particular interest and expertise in the nature of political power and the human condition, could not have imagined this year’s unreal political reality show, staged by a line-up of unlikely presidential hopefuls, in what seems a parody of a competition for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Even after the wacko Herman Cain’s departure from the campaign trail, the remaining six men and one woman continue to be an embarrassment for the Republican Party and for the whole nation. In spite of America’s long tradition of a stable and well-functioning democracy, the country’s current political soap opera is not only the laughing stock of late night comedians at home but of observers abroad as well.
The leading German news magazine DER SPIEGEL called the Republican candidates in a recent Spiegel Online commentary “a club of liars, demagogues and ignoramuses” and suggested that they “even cause their fellow Republicans to cringe.”
Many, perhaps the majority of Republicans do not like what they see and hear. But the power of the most extreme fringe of the Republican Party, mobilized by the Tea Party movement, has gained enormous influence since Barack Obama moved into the White House. Without the blessing of the Tea Party, without the nod of the most conservative faction in the Republican Party, no candidate can hope to win the coming contests or even place near the top of the field.
That is the widely-held perception and that explains why all candidates massage the truth about their records to fit the contemporary sentiments of constituents that dominate the primary contests. “Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade,” Arendt wrote. But today’s Republican candidates’ tool boxes seem filled with lies and half-truths.
That is certainly true for the current front-runner Newt Gingrich who during this campaign asked for the punishment of politicians that supported the controversial, government-sponsored Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae enterprises—although he himself collected at least $1.6 million for giving them “strategic advice” after he was hired “as historian.”
Or take Mitt Romney who claims that as businessman he has a proven record of creating jobs, whereas in the real world his take-over adventures were driven by profit imperatives at the expense of jobs. He also sticks to his denials that he did not change his positions on health insurance, legalized abortion, and other issues. Just as Gingrich erases his support for what now would qualify as liberal policies from his memory.
The more outrageous the positions, the greater the support from the Far Right and Tea Party crowd. In a speech at Harvard University, Gingrich called child labor laws „truly stupid“ and suggested that schools in the poorest neighborhoods “ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.” Since he took on unionized labor and poor children in one sentence, his support among Republicans has grown. No wonder that he defended his rejection of child labor laws during this week’s appearance with the oddest of presidential king-makers, Donald Trump, who promised to select ten apprentices (in an effort to sound sophisticated, Trump called them “apprenti”) from New York City schools to work for him.
There are millions of poor children in schools in poor neighborhoods in New York and elsewhere but the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination exploits his meeting with the most relentless publicity seeker of all times to masquerade as a benevolent public servant before cameras and microphones.
Gingrich describes the 2012 presidential race as “the most important election since 1860.” Obviously, he compares himself to Abraham Lincoln and casts himself as the savior of America as we know it just as he claims a major role in the defeat of communism with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Rarely was the conflict between truth and politics more pronounced and more troublesome than in today’s field of Republican contenders for the presidential nomination.