The Decade of Deception

As 2020 dawns, we’re still processing history’s latest swerve into systemic lying.

Lisa Van Dusen

December 28, 2019

Among the usual end-of-decade wrap-ups and best-and-worst compilations, the content commemorating the tick-over from 2019 to 2020 includes some that package the past ten years as the “Decade of Distrust” or mistrust. (Distrust is when you stop believing; mistrust is when you don’t believe in the first place).

This characterization of a period that began with a Great Recession precipitated by a contagion of financial scammery and ended with the impeachment of a president who has told more than 10,000 lies since his inauguration feels like the adjusted-for-scale version of a womanizer referring to his promiscuity as his wife’s trust issue.

Humanity did not suddenly wake up one morning afflicted by mistrust or distrust or untrust. It had a lot of help from the cavalcade of lies, misrepresentation and misdirection promulgated since the internet transformed our relationship to reality and certain interests discerned enormous value in the hijacking and corruption of that relationship.

From the frat boys of Facebook who somehow lured billions into the harvesting of their lives for surveillance and social engineering purposes by commoditizing the human desire for approval, to the manipulators of fateful social media bandwagons and backlashes, to the propagandists who’ve weaponized journalism, the mainstreaming of deception has been systematic and systemic.

To treat this phenomenon as a series of isolated developments would be akin to processing the unmentioned Maui hotel charges on your spouse’s credit card bill, his serial purchases of burner phones and his new passion for 24-hour-a-day, “indoor golf” as unrelated idiosyncrasies.

An epidemic of world-order transforming lying doesn’t simply happen, any more than an epidemic of opioid addiction and fatality just happens. It requires vast, non-theoretical conspiring, collusive hyper-corruption and covering up on a scale significant enough to be effective. In the case of the opioid epidemic, those elements — from China’s glutting of the Fentanyl market to the pharmaceutical industry’s turn as the ratings agencies of the piece in lying about the time-bomb properties of opioids to the role of Congress in disarming the Drug Enforcement Administration — have now been exposed in multiple criminal cases and lawsuits.

From the firehose of lies emanating from the White House to the coverage of that White House as if it is anything but preposterous; from the lies Boris Johnson has told about Brexit to the lies Narendra Modi has told about Muslims to the lies Bolsonaro, Maduro and Orban tell about everything; from the credulity-defying poll and election results that legitimize all of the above as the inexplicably masochistic will of the people; the epidemic of deception makes up for in sleaze what it lacks in sanity.

There have been previous periods in history defined by industrialized lying and they’ve never been good: the organized, systemic propaganda about Black people that sustained slavery for 400 years and whose multigenerational impact persists; the organized, systemic propaganda about Jewish people that rationalized and enabled the Holocaust, and feeds antisemitism to this day. These chapters tend to be about everything but what the lies pretend they’re about: usually, the consolidation of economic domination and/or political power in the hands of people who, in a functioning democracy, would possess neither, or certainly not in such decisive quantities.

Western intelligence agencies, which know something about deception operations and therefore may be busy marshalling their substantial post-9/11 resources to explore, explain and counter the causes of our current pandemic of bullsh*t, have so far been both silent and, apparently, helpless in the face of this democracy-degrading catastrophe, despite their unprecedented detection and disruption capabilities.

What we do know is that industrialized lying has always been undertaken to mask horrible truths: The exploitation, institutionalized sadism and corruption of slavery; the breathtaking evil of genocide; the epic abuses of unchecked political power that defined Stalinism.

As this decade of deception closes and the world continues to manifest its consequences, it might be worth contemplating the logic of assigning blame. The damage caused by Donald Trump and abetted by the Republicans in Congress is not the fault of the same citizenry that gave Barack Obama the two terms that mitigated and delayed the worst of what we’re now witnessing. Their mistrust is not the problem. If anything, perhaps they haven’t been mistrustful, distrustful or untrustful enough.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.