Prior to his inauguration, Donald Trump predicted “an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout.”
A few weeks later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that Trump’s inaugural ceremony had drawn the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” Photos from the National Park Service seem to contradict this claim, as do statistics on public transportation ridership, as well as estimates of the number of television viewers.
During a “Meet the Press” interview, Chuck Todd asked Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway why Spicer would attest to such a “provable falsehood.” Conway responded that Spicer had given “alternative facts” — thereby coining a new term for “facts” that aren’t true.
In May 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to investigate possible connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government. While the report that was eventually released did “not conclude that the President committed a crime,” it plainly stated that “it does not exonerate him.” Nonetheless, Trump tweeted that there was “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed this untruth by repeating that the Mueller report had provided Trump “a complete and total exoneration.”
Using “alternative facts” to claim “exoneration” has since been parroted by other politicians. Disgraced former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, for instance, insists that he has “been completely exonerated” after the Missouri Ethics Commission dismissed all but two of the complaints directed at his 2016 gubernatorial campaign. However, not being charged with a crime is not the same as being “exonerated.”
While a consent order states that “the MEC found no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Eric Greitens, individually, and no evidence that Governor Greitens knew of the … violations,” as a result of the investigation, the “Greitens Campaign agreed to pay fines totaling over $178,000,” which isn’t exactly a sign of guiltlessness.
Furthermore, similar to how Trump has emphasized the part of the Mueller report that did “not conclude that [he] committed a crime,” while ignoring that “it [did] not exonerate him,” Greitens has latched onto the “no evidence of any wrongdoing” part of the consent order to profess his unconditional absolution.
For instance, when conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt brought up the former governor’s “multiple allegations of misconduct,” Greitens maintained that he’d “been fully exonerated” as the Ethics Commission “found no evidence of any wrongdoing.”
When Hewitt, a lawyer and law professor, pressed Greitens about conflating the Ethics Commission investigation of campaign violations with the GOP-led investigation by the Missouri legislature that culminated in a bipartisan report detailing graphic sexual allegations, Greitens continued to defend his innocence. Since that interview, Hewitt has stated that Greitens is “a deeply-flawed individual” and that it would be “a doomed race” if he emerged as the victor of the upcoming Republican primary for retiring Sen. Roy Blunt’s seat, which has been under GOP control since 1987.
In addition to Hewitt, many other prominent conservatives have openly doubted Greitens’s electoral prospects. For instance, six-term Rep. Vicky Hartzler frets that Greitens’s “problems in the past … could jeopardize [Missouri] from staying in strong, conservative Republican hands.”
Karl Rove, the political strategist often credited with George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, argues that “[a]nybody who breaks his marriage vows and conducts multiple affairs and has one with his hairdresser and ties her up in the basement of his own home and takes pictures of her … that’s not a winning message for Republicans.”
With a straight face, Greitens shamelessly declares that “[w]hen we’re able to look back with pride, we can look forward with confidence.” Since the advent of “alternative facts,” politicians like Trump and Greitens have shown a willingness to move beyond bending the truth towards peddling a parallel version of it.
During his term as president, Trump made more than 30,000 misleading statements. Greitens has followed in the footsteps of such dishonesty by promoting baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Instead of attending the Missouri Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Days event or a Missouri Cattlemen’s Association fundraiser, Greitens gallivanted off to Arizona in search of bamboo-laced ballots. He argues that there should be similar audits in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Greitens admits that his support for Trump is “more than a catch phrase.” This is because Greitens’s campaign rests upon his self-declared “exoneration,” which — like Trump’s self-declared “exoneration” — rests upon “alternative facts.” As such, the rehabilitation of Greitens’ political career is reliant upon accepting the upside-down reality that Trump has built. One consequence of this is that while other Senate hopefuls can focus on campaigning locally, Greitens is forced to chase conspiracies in other states in order to convincingly maintain the illusion that he has become entangled within.
According to Greitens, “[r]ight now, our country needs fighters,” and he’s “here to fight.” Given his own history of running from a fight by resigning as governor, rather than facing the prospect of being impeached by his own party, it appears that after four years of “alternative facts,” even Greitens is confused about what’s true.
Joshua Holzer is an assistant professor of political science at Westminster College and a resident of Columbia. This was originally published at Truthout.org and is reprinted with permission.