“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth; the real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
This chilling line, the first of HBO’s award-winning miniseries Chernobyl, has never had more relevance in American history than right now. Spoken by Valery Legasov, the show’s hero played by Jared Harris, this line finally put into words what I have been feeling so much lately. As I start this writing, we are about to surpass 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the United States, but the war on truth goes back farther than that.
While President Barack Obama was in office, which was also the time I was getting old enough to understand news and world events, Fox News was essentially just an easy punchline. People on the left have always known of their biased and wacky reporting that is best exemplified by the “Obama Tan Suit Scandal”. Many of us look back at this with nostalgia, longing for a time when that was the dominant story in the news cycle. This persistent hounding of Obama throughout his presidency, and the millions of dollars spent trying to find anything criminal about Benghazi or “her emails”, allowed the GOP and Fox News to be perceived as dedicated to accountability and protectors of the taxpayer’s hard-earned money. Even the many rebukes of Trump from people who now claim to be old friends of his (looking at you, Lindsey Graham) led voters to believe they were still committed to Reagan values. However, the only thing that any of these events built was a house of cards destined to be toppled.
Almost immediately, the capitulation began. Sean Spicer’s attempt to convince us that our own eyes were wrong and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”, all in the name of preserving the infant-in-chief’s bottomless ego, occurred before the sun set on the first weekend of Trump’s presidency, but they would prove to be the tone-setters for his entire presidency. The lies that had stacked up throughout a campaign that seemed like it was actively trying to lose had begun as soon as the oath of office had been taken, destroying any last thread of hope of a “presidential” Donald Trump with a “new tone”. Not only had the lies continued, the “alternative facts” train did not even slow down as it came through the station that was the oval office. As of the end of May, the lies number over 19,000. There are so many that an entire database, filterable by topic and source, can be made from them. Needless to say, Joseph Stalin would be proud.
So, what happens when lies pile up so quickly in such an incredible volume? As Chernobyl proves: disaster.
Legasov, in a courtroom scene designed for maximum entertainment value but based on the slow drip of information over the course of years, emphatically states that “when the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” The cause of the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was the boron control rods, meant to stop the reaction, getting stuck inside the reactor. How does something that was meant to stop the reaction cause an explosion? Since they were cheaper, the Soviet Union used graphite-tipped control rods, and graphite actually increases reactivity of a nuclear reaction. Trapped next to the uranium, Reactor 4 became a pressure cooker bomb, ending in an explosion. Sure, the operators pushed the reactor to its limits, against all known scientific rules regarding nuclear power, but that was not the ultimate cause. These operators did not know that the control rods were tipped with graphite, meaning they did not know this dangerous increase in reactivity could occur. Worse still, they did not know because it was actively covered up by Soviet officials. They were lied to.
Since they did not know any way a reactor could explode, the operators directed a faulty response that addressed the wrong problems, leading to acute radiation that killed plant workers and first responders either immediately or shortly thereafter. Even when they had the full picture, the Soviets’ first instinct was to double down and project normalcy. They did not evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat for over a day, and they had no intention of telling the rest of the world (they had to find out through a freak sequence of events involving another nuclear power plant in Sweden).
So how does this compare to America’s response to the coronavirus? Donald Trump’s whole political life has been built on lies. From “we’re going to build the wall and Mexico will pay for it”, to saying the call with Ukraine was “perfect”, to the daily coronavirus press briefings morphing into an infomercial for hydroxychloroquine, Trump has lied in order to try to create his own reality. The GOP’s total willingness to go along for fear of being defeated in a Republican primary, along with Fox News’ transformation into state run media, were the exact accomplices that Trump needed to pull off this ultimate crime.
The scary part is that it almost worked. Through it all (firing FBI Director Comey for investigating Russia’s meddling, Robert Mueller essentially saying there was collusion, even an impeachment), Trump emerged bloodied, but he still occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This Don appeared to truly be made of Teflon. These enemies had all been relatively political, and with the help of his vast propaganda machine, Trump could spin them away. However, the one thing that could make the GOP’s house of cards, and Trump’s perceived invincibility, come crashing down was death, and lots of it.
Even in January, when they learned how bad the coronavirus could get, Trump and Fox News seem to reassure each other that they could make it through this together too. So, all the usual suspects on Fox News started to proclaim that this was just a slightly worse flu that was inflated by Democrats to hurt Trump (as if the whole world was also conspiring with them to pull off the hoax). This cycle of lies was capped off by three moments from Trump himself: actually saying at a rally in February that the virus was a hoax made up by the Democrats, claiming that the 15 cases would drop to zero, and that it would disappear like a miracle in April when it got warm. Each of these statements are as ridiculous as the next, but all Fox News watchers and Trump supporters believed it nonetheless because it came from their “reliable sources”. But, like a radioactive cloud with off-the-charts readings, Trump and his accomplices could not lie away the bodies. The virus started claiming the lives of real people, with real families and friends, and those families and friends quickly saw that what the president was saying did not match up with reality.
Even still, Trump’s instinct was to double down just like the Soviets. He started promising that everyone who needed a test could get one, deaths would top out around 60,000 (!) because Trump himself had prevented millions, and daily coronavirus press briefings morphed into infomercials for hydroxychloroquine. While he did manage to convince some weak-minded, wannabe Rambos with AR-15s that they absolutely needed to go to Home Depot ASAP, polls consistently showed the majority of the country welcomed the stay at home orders as necessary evils. Each day brought more death and more stories about the administration’s failures to prepare for the virus. There is compelling evidence that they even tried to cover it up. Trump realized he had lost all control of the narrative. The illusion was over, the curtain had fallen. Desperate to distract the media, Trump appears to be gleefully willing to start a race wars. As Captain Price said in Modern Warfare 2: to put out a fire, sometimes you need to start a bigger one right next to it to stick out the oxygen and sniff the flame.
While we don’t know how any of this will end, Gorbachev actually did consider Chernobyl to be the beginning of the end for the entire Soviet Union. Will it be the event that pierced Don’s Teflon? Consider the fact that Legasov, a scientist, had to work to keep Gorbachev and other leaders happy while also containing the situation. Now substitute Dr. Fauci’s name for Legasov and Trump for Gorbachev, and the similarities become even clearer. For the sake of our country, I’m hoping that this will be the beginning of the end of Trump’s movement and way of thinking.
The series ends with a warning from Legasov, saying that “we are so focused on our search for truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it, but it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions; it will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Though I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask…what is the cost of lies?”
The Chernobyl series, written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, is available on HBO. For more on this topic, including my review series on the show, visit quicknewsdaily.com or listen to the Quick News Daily Podcast for free wherever you get your podcasts.