In the 13th Century, when the Mongols broke into central and then Western Asia, the result was a seriously depopulation of what is now the Stans + northeastern Iran. Every city or town that resisted the onslaught was utterly destroyed. Each soldier was given a quota of the wretches from the subjugated population to execute. After the conquest of the Khwarezmian capital, Urgench on the Amu Darya River, in what is now Turkmenistan, each Mongol warrior— in an army of around 20,000— was required to execute 24 people, nearly half a million people. The Mongols kicked off 1258 by sacking the capital of the Muslim world, Baghdad, executing the (last) Caliph-- wrapping him in a rug and having horses trample him to death-- and then basically depopulating the city by killing everyone they could lay hands on.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, 6 millennia later, no one had depopulating the country in mind. But we executed the country’s ruler and oversaw the deaths of more than 200,000 Iraqi civilians. Monday, writing for TomDispatch, Kelly Denton-Borhaug noted, in regard to American rethinking of the Iraq invasion, that “Only by digging into ethics and social psychology will we better understand why people deceive not just others but even themselves with lies, slippery rationalizations, or comedic attempts at distraction to cover up deeper dynamics that have to do with privilege and power, or what religious traditions sometimes call ‘worshipping false idols.’”
Moral psychologist Albert Bandera has explored some of the diverse mechanisms people rely on to morally disengage and excuse inhumane conduct. They shift their rhetoric and thinking to redefine and even rename what they are doing, “sanitizing” language (and their acts) in the process. In this way, they often shift responsibility onto someone else, minimize any damaging consequences for themselves, and dehumanize the victims of the violence they’ve let loose.
But there are other examples of moral disengagement that are even harder to understand. In such cases, people make decisions and act in ways that even undercut their own self-interest and values. For me, one of the saddest recent examples is Stephen Ayres, a witness at the House select committee’s January 6th hearings this summer. He had been part of the Trumpist mob that stormed the Capitol. A family man who, until then, owned a house and had a job with a cabinet company, Ayres came across in those hearings as a lost soul who couldn’t fully comprehend how he had willingly injured himself and his family by idolizing Donald Trump and his election lies.
His arrest for participating in the insurrection resulted in the loss of almost everything he had. With his wife sitting behind him, he testified about having to sell his house, losing his job, and struggling to come to terms with his actions. “I wish I had done my own research,” he said, trying to explain how he could have been so easily deceived by Trumpist lies regarding the 2020 presidential election.
Clearly, the social media bubble he slipped into that captivated and compelled him to head for Washington had given his life new meaning and an otherwise missing sense of excitement. He hadn’t planned to enter the Capitol building that day but was swept away by the moment. “Basically, we were just following what [Trump] said,” Ayres testified. In handing over his critical thinking to right-wing social media and a president intent on hanging onto power at any cost, he unwittingly also handed over his capacity for moral deliberation and, in the end, his very life.
In recent weeks, Liz Cheney, vice-chairperson of the January 6th committee, was questioned about a past moral choice of hers by Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview— specifically, how years ago she threw her lesbian sister and family under the bus for political purposes. It was a time when Cheney was struggling to get elected in conservative Wyoming. That meant coming out as anti-LGBTQ. Now, she says, “I was wrong” to have condemned her sister then.
Listening to her, I wanted to hear more about such moral grappling and how, in these years, her convictions had or hadn’t changed when it came to people, religion, family, political life, power, and the role her father played as George W. Bush’s vice president in those godforsaken wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, Stahl didn’t push her further.
I disagree with Liz Cheney on almost every policy position she’s taken in these years. Nonetheless, I find myself grateful for her rejection of Donald Trump’s mad election claims and her determined, even steely, leadership of the January 6th committee hearings. Cheney eventually discovered her moral bearings on her sister’s sexual orientation and family life. Now, I wonder if that past moral struggle influenced her decision to throw political expediency to the wind regarding her own House seat in a Wyoming primary that she might lose on August 16th. After all, by resisting the Trumpian tide, she’s become one of the few Republicans willing to do some serious truth-telling.
Today, Cheney finds herself in another league from most of her party’s leaders and power players. In the state where I live, Pennsylvania, Republicans are coalescing behind the candidacy of Doug Mastriano for governor. Candidate Mastriano not only wants to arm school employees, but according to my local newspaper, he even organized buses for January 6th, now “rubs shoulders with QAnon conspiracy theorists,” and until recently had an active social media account at Gab, a site well-known for its white supremacist and anti-semitic rhetoric.
Mastriano continues to spread Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, is a Christian nationalist, and believes in an abortion ban without exceptions, and the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, Republicans like Andy Reilly, a member of the state GOP national committee, rationalize their support for Mastriano by saying things like, “When you play team sports, you learn what being part of a team means… Our team voted for him in the primary.”
What enables such self-deception? According to journalist Mark Leibovich, author of Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, what “made Trump possible” even after the January 6th insurrection was “rationalization followed by capitulation and then full surrender.” Reviewing Leibovich’s book, Geoffrey Kabaservice added this: “The routine was always numbingly the same, and so was the sad truth at the heart of it. They all knew better.” In other words, “knowing better” doesn’t assure anyone of doing the right thing. Instead, too many Americans were swayed by “greed, ambition, opportunism, fear, and fascination of Trump as a pure and feral rascal.”
Tim Miller, author of Why We Did It: Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, adds “hubris, ambition, idiocy, desperation, and self-deception” to the mix of reasons why so many politicians do what they do. “How do people justify going along?” he asks. But he, too, played that game once upon a time. A Republican gay man with a husband, he rationalized helping the GOP pass anti-LGBTQ legislation by “compartmentalizing” his personal life from his professional one. As he now says, “Being around power, being addicted to power,” along with the insatiable compulsion to “be in the room where it happens,” is a recipe that leads people to act self-deceptively, while deceiving others.
It’s like placing sales over your own eyes and those of others, to blind as many people as possible, yourself included, to the immorality of your acts. And some lie even more to themselves, claiming that they can resist the worst tendencies of destructive power-mongering. They say, “We need to have good people in the room” to stop the worst from happening, even as they capitulate to power players and justify what should never be justified.
Many of us are waiting to hear an “I was wrong” from so many politicians (though I can’t imagine Donald Trump ever succumbing to honesty), including most of the Republican leadership. Just for starters, I’d like to hear “I was wrong” regarding Muslim bans, the demonization of immigrants, the refusal to seriously address gun violence, the denial of women’s human rights, the gerrymandering and weakening of voting rights, religious nativism, and sidling up to white supremacy, not to speak of the supposed “steal” of the 2020 election. But given the likelihood that people in power will lie to themselves and others, I’m not holding my breath.
What I’m also waiting for is an “I was wrong” from both Democratic and Republican politicians in Washington who, year after year, support ever more outlandish military budgets, despite so many other existential crises in our country and on the planet, despite the death-dealing costs of war to the servicemembers Americans claim to highly esteem, and despite the fact that our violence abroad simply hasn’t worked.
Remember that the United States spends more than half of its entire discretionary federal budget on militarization and war, a tally greater than the military budgets of the next nine highest-spending countries combined. Tragically, it doesn’t appear that this will change any time soon.
According to an analysis by the anti-corruption group Public Citizen , in 2022, the congressional armed services committees only added to the already gigantic military budget the Biden administration requested for 2023. The House added another $37.5 billion, while the Senate added $45 billion. Our leaders refuse to learn from the last decades of unremitting war. Instead, power and privilege continue to hold sway.
As the same report explained, after military-industrial-complex corporations donated $10 million to congressional armed services committee members, “the Department of Defense received a potential $45 billion spending increase.” This was in addition to the president’s $813 billion recommendation. The report concluded, “The defense contractors will have clinched a return on its $10 million investment of nearly 450,000%.”
It’s discouraging to see how deception and rationalization so regularly undermine truth and moral courage. It’s also sobering to witness individuals who willingly lie to themselves and, in doing so, subvert their own and others’ wellbeing. But I’m also encouraged by times when, as with Liz Cheney on that committee, some of us demonstrate what it means to dig deeply for moral clarity against the prevailing headwinds of moral disengagement, disinformation, power, and privilege.
The fact is that truth-telling and confession, while difficult, are good for the soul. I wish for more and hope it will be enough. God knows, all of us and this beleaguered planet truly need it.
Last night, Josh Dawsey and Isaac Arnsdorf showed just how hollowed out the Republican base has become. Trump’s e-mails to his supporters with his latest grievance— the FBI invasion of Mar-a-Lago— has paid off bigly. On a couple of days he brought in over a million dollars and his average daily haul went from $200,000 to $300,000. “The influx,” they wrote, “comes at a crucial time for Trump as he considers an early announcement for a 2024 presidential campaign and has seen dwindling returns on his online fundraising solicitations earlier this year. The former president’s PAC brought in $36 million in the first half of the year, dropping below $50 million in a six-month period for the first time since he left office, according to Federal Election Commission data. The cash bonanza also provides a concrete sign that Trump is reaping some political benefits from the revelation that he is under investigation by the Justice Department for potential violations of laws including the Espionage Act. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly boasted in emails, social media posts and right-wing media articles that the search warrant would backfire on President Biden and rally Republicans around Trump. The search prompted sympathetic statements from politicians such as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and former vice president Mike Pence, who are not reflexively full-throated in defending Trump. And on Tuesday, Wyoming primary voters delivered a resounding defeat to Rep. Liz Cheney, whose leadership as a Republican on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol made her a top priority for Trump to unseat.” Too bad Matt Gaetz turned on him and snitched.