Of the 59 inaugural addresses in American history, presidents have mentioned “truth” in only a handful, and invariably as a passing flourish: a “simple truth,” a “profound truth,” or a pleading reference to the Declaration of Independence’s “these truths.” Joe Biden broke tradition on January 20 by placing truth itself, and fighting disinformation, at the core of his speech.
“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” he said. “There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
How could he not invoke the truth? He was flanked by lies. Behind him was a crime scene, the Capitol, recently invaded by believers in the lie that the election was stolen. In front of him, along the National Mall, was a memorial to the then-400,000 Americans who had died from coronavirus, a toll exacerbated by lies spread by public officials and by disbelief in scientific fact. Above him, heading south on Marine One, his conspiracy theorist predecessor had just flown away from facing the truth that he’d lost.
Announcing a mandate for truth and to “reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured” is a bold, odd, precarious position for any politician to take, especially in hyper-polarized, social-media-dominated 2021. Not only does Biden lack a sterling record of pursuing truth, as president he’s going to lie. (Most presidents do, if not at Trump’s level, and Biden already has, about the Covid vaccine rollout). He’s been a serial embellisher, plagiarizer, and fibber since his career in Washington began in 1973, just as the lies of Watergate were coming to light, a time from which trust in government has never fully recovered. Today, “our trust in the United States’ entire information system—journalism, health care, education, science—is in tatters,” says Sam Woolley, director of propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement.
Still, Biden has no choice but to fight. “For four years, we suffered under an administration that wholeheartedly embraced the most pernicious sorts of spin-doctoring and lies,” says Woolley, “and it was extremely effective.” Seventy percent of Republicans believe the election wasn’t “free and fair.” About half of Americans say they’ll delay or refuse receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey. It is much harder for Biden to achieve the rest of his agenda—beating Covid, improving health care, combating climate change and racial injustice—if he cannot tamp out disinformation and restore trust in the institutions needed to enact it.
“Biden is right to stake a huge amount of his popularity on the notion that truth can matter,” says Larry Tye, author of Demagogue, a new biography of Senator Joe McCarthy. If there’s any single historical analog to Donald Trump’s four-year reign of lies, says Tye, it’s McCarthy’s four-and-a-half-year crusade against Communism, which began in 1950 when he brandished a list of what he unfoundedly claimed were 205 Communist spies in the State Department. And “if there’s any single black mark on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential record,” it’s spending much of his first term as McCarthy’s “enabler in chief,” which allowed not only for McCarthy to put elected and appointed officials through sham investigations but also for anti-Communist paranoia to continue to spread throughout America. Biden should be less like Ike, says Tye, and more like Margaret Chase Smith. Then the only woman in the Senate, in 1950 Smith defied her Republican colleagues by delivering a speech roundly denouncing McCarthyism before McCarthy on the Senate floor. Her “Declaration of Conscience” set in motion McCarthyism’s eventual downfall and remains hailed as Smith’s crowning achievement.