WAS­HING­TON FAI­LED. Not be­cau­se of Ame­ri­ca’s po­la­ri­zed po­li­tics, ra­ci­al di­vi­si­ons or we­alth ine­qu­a­li­ties. No, it wasn’t that comp­li­ca­ted. Was­hing­ton fai­led be­cau­se of simp­le lies.


Do­nald Trump lost the elec­ti­on but then said fal­se­ly that he’d won. He sued more than 60 ti­mes but couldn’t show any evi­den­ce in a sing­le case. The courts all ru­led against him, inc­lu­ding jud­ges Trump had ap­poin­ted. Courts de­ci­de who is tel­ling the truth. They de­ci­ded Trump lied. But that didn’t stop him from re­pe­a­ting his lies, over and over, un­til many pe­op­le be­lie­ved him. Tens of mil­li­ons of them.


Some pe­op­le un­ders­tood what the lack of evi­den­ce me­ant, inc­lu­ding many mem­bers of the U.S. Cong­ress who had a res­pon­si­bi­li­ty to tell the truth to the Ame­ri­can pub­lic. More than a hund­red of them didn’t. Trump’s al­ter­na­ti­ve facts were more con­ve­nient, so they re­pe­a­ted the same lies un­til the same tens of mil­li­ons of pe­op­le be­lie­ved them too.


What was the re­sult? The U.S. Ca­pi­tol was in­va­ded to “stop the steal” (a steal that ne­ver took place). The in­sur­rec­ti­o­nists didn’t care about courts or evi­den­ce. They proc­lai­med their lo­yal­ty to Trump, QA­non, the con­fe­de­ra­te flag and just about anyt­hing el­se ot­her than Ame­ri­can de­moc­ra­cy…or truth.


Many Ame­ri­cans were shoc­ked. They shouldn’t be. There was not­hing surp­ri­sing about at­tacks on truth by using lies. It was a fa­mi­li­ar tac­tic in Ame­ri­ca: Oba­ma wasn’t born in the USA, crime is cau­sed by Me­xi­cans, white sup­re­ma­cists are fine pe­op­le, pro­tes­ters for ra­ci­al equ­a­li­ty are thugs, the cli­ma­te hasn’t chan­ged and a tax cut for the we­alt­hy helps the wor­king class, to name just a few.


The di­vi­de bet­ween rhe­to­ric and re­a­li­ty kept get­ting wi­der. Trump said the co­ro­na­vi­rus would di­sap­pe­ar like a mi­rac­le. It didn’t. In lieu of le­a­ders­hip, of­fi­ci­al Was­hing­ton un­der­mi­ned doc­tors and scien­tists. Ame­ri­ca now le­ads the world in the sheer stu­pi­di­ty of its res­pon­se to co­vid-19 and in the num­ber of ci­ti­zens who won’t coo­pe­ra­te to fight the pan­de­mic’s spread. Some still be­lie­ve in Was­hing­ton’s downp­la­ying of the risks while ot­hers no lon­ger trust Was­hing­ton enough to get vac­ci­na­ted – both are re­sults of a fai­lu­re of Was­hing­ton to tell the scien­ti­fi­cal­ly known truth.


Not eve­ryt­hing from Was­hing­ton was a lie or a fai­lu­re. Some of it was high­ly ac­cu­ra­te, and some ac­ti­ons ta­ken in Was­hing­ton were very help­ful. But the lies out­num­be­red the truths, and far too many Ame­ri­cans now be­lie­ve that what’s cle­ar­ly fal­se is true and vice-ver­sa. De­moc­ra­cy can’t func­ti­on wit­hout a sha­red ba­sis among vo­ters about fact ver­sus fic­ti­on…or even a wil­ling­ness to care. Was­hing­ton be­ca­me a pos­ter child for in­dif­fe­ren­ce to truth, a mind­set that’s now been ac­cep­ted and imi­ta­ted by tens of mil­li­ons of Ame­ri­cans. That’s a co­los­sal fai­lu­re, and Was­hing­ton is to blame.


Has the failure of Washington doomed America? Perhaps not.

There’s still hope, with most of it co­ming from out­si­de Was­hing­ton. Ame­ri­ca’s bu­si­ness com­mu­ni­ty fi­nal­ly took a stand against truth de­cay. Many big bu­si­nes­ses, banks and trade groups will no lon­ger sup­port po­li­ti­ci­ans in Was­hing­ton who won’t abi­de by ob­vi­ous truths. So­ci­al me­dia will rest­rict con­tent that pro­mo­tes vi­o­len­ce or cri­mi­nal acts. Ra­ti­o­na­li­ty was im­po­sed by those with po­wer in the bu­si­ness world who re­a­li­zed that a suc­ces­s­ful eco­no­my re­qui­res a ci­vil so­cie­ty.


He­ro­es emer­ged far from Was­hing­ton. Some state go­ver­nors fa­ced the co­ro­na­vi­rus with tough ac­ti­ons. Front­li­ne wor­kers sta­yed on the job in night­ma­rish con­di­ti­ons. Lo­cal elec­ti­on vo­lun­teers and of­fi­ci­als, many of them Re­pub­li­cans, faith­ful­ly coun­ted bal­lots and cer­ti­fied the re­sults. Trump then pub­lic­ly cal­led them nas­ty na­mes, ur­ged them to find vo­tes that didn’t exist and, when they re­fu­sed, re­mai­ned si­lent about the de­ath thre­ats they re­cei­ved. They were or­di­na­ry Ame­ri­cans who ne­vert­he­less bra­ve­ly step­ped up to do and say what many po­li­ti­ci­ans in Was­hing­ton didn’t dare.


Will Pre­si­dent Joe Bi­den and Vice Pre­si­dent Ka­ma­la Har­ris be equ­al­ly cou­ra­ge­ous? They’ve pled­ged to reins­ta­te dai­ly press brie­fings, to con­si­der di­ver­se opi­ni­ons and not to an­noun­ce ma­jor po­li­cy de­ci­si­ons via surp­ri­se tweets. That seems pro­mi­sing, alt­hough their ini­ti­al per­son­nel choi­ces in­di­ca­te a nos­tal­gic pre­fe­ren­ce for ve­te­rans of the Oba­ma and Clin­ton ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­ons with li­mi­ted re­gard for new or com­pe­ting views, prog­res­si­ve or con­ser­va­ti­ve. So it’s still too ear­ly to say, but their star­ting point is to tell the truth al­wa­ys, good news or bad news, to the tens of mil­li­ons of Ame­ri­cans who will be­lie­ve them and the ot­her tens of mil­li­ons who won’t. That’s exact­ly what Was­hing­ton needs now. So does Ame­ri­ca.


Ko­lum­ni on jul­kais­tu SAM Ma­ga­zi­ne 1/2021-nu­me­ros­sa hel­mi­kuus­sa 2021.


Tom A. Lip­po is a Fin­nish-spe­a­king Ame­ri­can la­wy­er. Edu­ca­ted at Ya­le, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jy­väs­ky­lä and Stan­ford Law School, he is the foun­der of FACT LAW, an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law firm es­tab­lis­hed in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with of­fi­ces in both Fin­land and the Uni­ted Sta­tes. Tom has been a la­wy­er in Was­hing­ton, D.C., on Ca­pi­tol Hill for ne­ar­ly 40 ye­ars.