Moyers on Democracy

Eric Alterman on Lying in State

Leading media critic tells Bill Moyers why Presidents lie – and guess who’s the worst.

Eric Alterman on Lying in State

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. Want to know why presidents lie – and which one is the worst? You’ve come to the right place. The prolific Eric Alterman is with us: historian, scholar, journalist and media critic, he has just published his 11th book: LYING IN STATE. That’s L-Y-I-N-G. And with it Alterman has won new praise for his colorful and engaging prose, his deep research, and his insights into our troubled present. A distinguished professor of English and Journalism for the City University of New York, media columnist for THE NATION magazine, and author of a biography of Bruce Springsteen, Eric Alterman’s life’s work has been to keep an unflinching eye on America’s flaws while marveling at its promise. Here to talk with him is Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Hello, Eric.


BILL MOYERS: Good to see you.

BILL MOYERS: Anyone who reads your book, LYING IN STATE would know that you have never doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah. It’s my second book on the topic. And this time I was shocked by how little regard everyone else seems to have for truth in a presidency.  So that recent surveys of historians and of the public itself rated presidents very high who were known liars, and other presidents who told the truth as very low. I read a biography of every single president that we’ve had to write this book. And very rarely did any of the historians focus on this issue. Because they just didn’t think lying was important. They thought it was just part of the job. Certainly, almost all politicians do some lying. The lying is part of a larger purpose that serves the policy preferences and goals and ideals of the presidency. But Trump lies because he has no regard for truth whatsoever. A lie is just as good as truth. In fact, he really can’t distinguish between the two. There was a case yesterday where Daniel Dale, who is a national hero for the reporting he’s been doing on lying. So much better than what you get in THE WASHINGTON POST, because it’s contextual.

BILL MOYERS: He’s a fact-checker for CNN.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Right. He pointed out yesterday, Trump bragged repeatedly about getting an award from the Bay of Pigs Brigade, which he didn’t get. Now, that’s not unusual. But they did endorse him, and there was a ceremony. There was no reason for Trump to lie. He could have said the same thing. He had a picture of them giving him a plaque when they endorsed him. And he could have gotten the story right, and it would have been just about as impressive. But he didn’t care to get it right. It’s not in the slightest– he has no interest in getting it right. It’s also true with regard to the coronavirus, and with regard to the hurricane in Puerto Rico, and with regard to immigration policy. In regard to terrorism policy. And it’s a disease because this fish is rotting from the head. It’s infected the entire government. You know, the education policy, environmental policy, economic policy, it’s all a catastrophe, and it’s all being lied about. So, all of these lies and our acceptance of these lies are laying the groundwork for something close to an American form of fascism if it comes to that.

BILL MOYERS: I wish every American, could read LYING IN STATE. It has the potential to shock, to inform, and to teach us how democratic politics really work.  But it’s a hard sell, isn’t it, lying from the top? Writing about it. Reporting on it. Analyzing it. Too many people seem just not to care.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, there are a lot of problems with it.  One is that even though most of us do some lying, none of us want to be called liars. And calling people in power a liar is considered very controversial, even if you report the fact that they’re lying. So, one big difference between my book and the NEW YORK TIMES and THE WASHINGTON POST and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL is that they won’t call anybody a liar unless they know the person’s intent, which is almost impossible to know, because you have to be a mind reader.

ERIC ALTERMAN: The thing is you can’t believe anything Trump says. Trump, at a meeting with Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada?


ERIC ALTERMAN: And he lied to him during the meeting about our trade deficit, or surplus with Canada. And then he came out of the meeting and he spoke to the press and he bragged about how he had lied to the guy. Now, what is the purpose of lying to another world leader if you’re going to announce to the world that you lied to the world leader?

BILL MOYERS: So, for Trump, the lying goes beyond the cost of doing business. It’s inherent in his nature?

ERIC ALTERMAN: In the beginning, when I started writing this book, I figured, well, he grew up in the world of New York City real estate, and in that world, it’s like buyer beware. You know, there’s no penalty for people not trusting your word. You’re expected to check out everything, and if you don’t, you’re the shmuck. But there’s something really sick about this guy that he just has no conception of truth. It is completely meaningless to him. Somewhere along the line – and I suppose Mary Trump’s book gives some insight into this – he just lost all conception of truth and just his words became 100% instrumental in getting what he wants. But the things that he wants are just things that he wants that minute. He might want something completely the opposite in another minute.

BILL MOYERS: You write in here that Americans tend to tolerate presidential lies as long as they get the job done.

ERIC ALTERMAN: In the beginning of the book I outline four different kinds of lies. There’s misinformation where they’re just giving you bad information because they haven’t bothered to get the truth. There’s disinformation where they’re purposely lying because they have a different goal. Can I say bullshit here?


ERIC ALTERMAN: Because I’m using it in the philosophical term, what Harry Frankfurt, the Princeton professor, wrote a book about it called ON BULLSHIT, where he describes– you just don’t care if something’s true or not. So, you just say whatever you want. And Trump does all three of those things. And then there’s a fourth one, and it’s the most interesting and difficult to get a handle on. It’s called bald-faced lying. And philosophers say that bald-faced lying is not always lying, because when you tell a bald-faced lie, the person you’re lying to knows your lying. And so they’re not deceived. You’ve got to assume that a bunch of them know that he’s lying. There’s no getting around it. It’s reported on. I mean a lot of them live in this bubble with only Fox News and Breitbart and whatever else they’re getting and they approve of it. They like his lies. They’ve either been convinced their whole lives that all politicians lie, and Trump’s no different, or they like the fact that he’s lying about people they don’t like, like Jews and liberals and immigrants and dark-skinned people and LGBTQ people. And people who they think are taking their country away from them. So, they don’t mind that he’s lying. They think it’s warfare.

BILL MOYERS: Is Trump the worst of the presidents you’ve studied?

ERIC ALTERMAN: There is no contest. Trump is something new. He’s a different animal.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the difference between Trump and other presidents?

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, other presidents have always lied with a purpose to their particular lie. Trump just lies about everything. Everything is a lie. You can’t believe anything he says. So there’s no ballast. There’s no foundation.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s one thing that’s different, it seems to me, from the past, is that not one Republican office holder has rebuked the president over calling America’s soldiers “suckers and losers,” or admitting that he kept the truth about the virus from the public. Not one that I can find. Not even, not even Romney.

ERIC ALTERMAN: You know, Donald Trump, it’s no secret– his personality cult has taken over the Republican Party. Ever since around 2010 the Republican Party ceased to be, like, a normal party. It got unmoored from policy and from truth over time. It became such that if you told the truth about key things, like, say climate change, you couldn’t have a career as a Republican politician. Its activists became married to a position that was divorced from truth, and this was supported by Fox News and Breitbart, et cetera. I would say this began initially with Ronald Reagan. It got much more intense with Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House. So that when Donald Trump said that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president because he had been born in Kenya, this was not a big leap from what Republicans had been saying for a long time. And in fact, if when the leaders of the Republican Party would go on the Sunday shows and they would be asked, do you think that Obama was born in this country? They wouldn’t answer the question. They didn’t want to take a position. Now, this got so bad that not only did a majority of Republicans believe that Obama was not born in this country, but a very significant percentage, approximately 40%, of Trump voters, I’m not kidding when I say this, believed that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington. And that’s because Trump and the Republican Party had been completely unmoored from truth. You know, American politics have always been a little unmoored from reality going back to the Indian Wars and slavery and white supremacy and expansion. There’s always been problems with it, and that’s, you know, what most of the book is about. The one thing that shocked me when I wrote this book was how important and how deeply entrenched the idea of white supremacy was. And how many policies were driven by the need to support the unspoken insistence and belief in white supremacy right up through the 1970s. And I say in the book that white supremacy and the need for expansion, which becomes an empire, which later becomes national security, are the two biggest reasons that presidents lied through the first 80% of our history. I would say that almost all presidents were trapped by this, by these two demands. That they uphold white supremacy, and yet pretend that they believe that all men are created equal. And presidents with the best of intentions could not avoid this trap, and it led almost all of them to lying.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a record at THE WASHINGTON POST of more than 20,000 lies that Trump has told since he became president. Is there some point at which that many lies, 10,000, let’s say becomes such a mass in the body politic, a big cancer in the body politic, that nobody knows how to get rid of?

ERIC ALTERMAN: First of all, just so that we’re 100% accurate, THE WASHINGTON POST doesn’t call them lies. They call them false statements because they don’t take a position on lies. THE WASHINGTON POST has maybe once said that Trump was lying. NEW YORK TIMES also. Maybe once in the news columns. The op-ed pages they say it, but not in the news column. And I’m glad that THE WASHINGTON POST is doing my research for me, but their method is not helpful, because it’s decontextualized. They say, Trump said this, here’s the truth. Trump said this, here’s the truth. But on the news pages, they print the lie. And there’s no history of Trump’s lying. The thing I love about Daniel Dale is he says, this is the 300th time Trump has told this particular lie. He tells it in these situations and here’s why it matters. It’s a very different act of journalism. My biggest criticism of the press – and it’s hard to cover Donald Trump, for a lot of reasons – but my biggest criticism is that everybody knows he’s lying, people accept the fact that Trump lies all the time now. It’s not news. But the problem is lying is what got us here. The fact that we allowed politicians to lie so much is what allowed Donald Trump to become president, because everybody knew he was a liar when he was elected. Everyone who cared to know. But Trump is– you know, the lies are just a big part of it. He’s threatening to destroy our democracy. The things he says are not just lies. They’re just so completely divorced from reality that it is scary. Twice in the past two days, he has said he deserves a third term as president, and he should be given it. He’s undermining not just the health industry, but the military. And he hasn’t said that he will accept the results of the election. And he’s undermining voting rights. And he’s undermining the post office. he’s laying the groundwork for the functional equivalent of a coup. It’s not clear if our institutions will be able to prevent it. Nobody’s sure.

BILL MOYERS: How has Trump, who has used just about every tool of power available to the president to destroy environmental protections, how does he, just weeks before the election, snap his finger and proclaim that he’s the number one environmental president ever. And gets very little rebuke from the press corps.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, because nobody takes his word seriously anymore. You know, when we had that explosion in Beirut, the very day that it happened Trump said that he had consulted with some very great generals. That was his phrase. And they had assured him that it was a bomb. That it was an attack. Right? Terrorists. Did you even know that?

BILL MOYERS: I heard his statement three or four minutes after I heard the wire report about the explosion, so it—

ERIC ALTERMAN: Right. But nobody took it seriously. Can you imagine if any other president said there was an attack on– killed all these innocent people, and it’s done by terrorists, you would say, well, what are you going to do about it? You know, we can’t have this. But in fact, everybody says, oh, so what. Trump said this. It’s nonsense. It won’t matter tomorrow. Everything he says doesn’t matter tomorrow. He’s destroying the value of facts and truth.

BILL MOYERS: Have you ever thought about what you would do as a journalist if every time you asked the president a tough question at a briefing at the White House, he puts you down by saying, oh, that’s an awful question. Fake news. And turn to another reporter. I mean are you beyond humiliation? Would you keep coming back to the press briefings?

ERIC ALTERMAN: These journalists, they’re stuck in the idea– they’re stuck in a time where, you have to speak to the president respectfully. You have to use sources inside the White House to get that tick tock of what happened, of how decisions were made. I mean how many times have we read stories about how Trump screwed up the coronavirus response, with, you know, defenses of his actions from Kellyanne Conway, et cetera. Mike Pence and other people inside the administration. Without anybody saying, why is he doing this? Why does he not care about all the deaths that he’s causing? What’s going on? And objective journalism just doesn’t work. Trump said this. Nancy Pelosi said this. You the reader, you the viewer decide what’s true. That doesn’t work anymore, because you’ve already granted something that’s completely crazy, and denying it doesn’t make it go away. I mean you lived through Joe McCarthy, right?


ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, McCarthy was also kind of a genius and also a dope at the same time. McCarthy understood that he could exploit the rules of objective journalism by just making stuff up about people all the time. Saying, this guy’s a communist. He had no evidence for it. And in fact, McCarthy never discovered a single communist his entire career. But he said, I have a list of communists. And he would name them. And then the reporters would go to the people who were named as communists, and they would say, are you a communist? And they would say no. And so, the next day it would say, Senator from Wisconsin says this guy’s a communist. Guy says he’s not a communist. You decide. Well, you can’t decide that. And this is the problem with objective journalism. It has no bias in favor of truth. Well, Trump has exploited that to the nth degree. He’s exploited the respect for the office of the presidency. He’s exploited the belief in objective journalism on the part of the mainstream press. And in addition to everything else he has done, he’s made it impossible for reporters to make sense of what he’s doing, except in very long articles that are only read by liberals. And they’re mocked for that.

BILL MOYERS: We both knew the long time and legendary editor of THE WASHINGTON POST, Benjamin Bradlee, who said that, quote, “Even the best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face.” How do you think he would respond to Donald Trump?

ERIC ALTERMAN: I didn’t know Ben Bradlee well, but he was very invested in this issue. And he really cared about it. And it was very important to him. But he couldn’t figure out how to solve it. There was no newspaper that could say, “The president said this in a lie today.” And in fact, you know, THE WASHINGTON POST had a rule that you couldn’t call Nixon a liar in THE WASHINGTON POST after Watergate. You couldn’t criticize Nixon in any disrespectful way. They were especially respectful of Richard Nixon, because they were so nervous about what they had accomplished in Watergate. And Bradlee later said, this is one reason we went so easy on Ronald Reagan, because people didn’t trust us after we were given credit for taking down Nixon, and we were out of sync with the country. So, we purposely went easy on Reagan.

BILL MOYERS: Over the years, Eric, you’ve documented the rise of an entire universe of media outlets, radio, print, cable, social media, devoted to promoting disinformation and lies. Things that have no connection to reality. Talk about their role in Trump’s lies.

ERIC ALTERMAN: I go back on this story to 1964, when the Republicans were so badly defeated by Lyndon Johnson. They said to themselves, we’re never going to win again as long as the media doesn’t take our ideas seriously. So, the Republicans, the conservatives, the billionaires and the corporate guys, they invested a fortune in patient, long-term money to build a structure in the media and in the world of academia and ideas and policy that would challenge the assumptions that they felt were keeping them down. And they did just that. Fox News, eventually all these websites, talk radio. And they eventually got, in many cases, more viewers and readers and listeners than the mainstream media did. They certainly got more profits. Fox News just prints money in the basement. So it became profitable to reach these people, because these people just cared deeply. They were so dedicated. And there were two results of this. One is the people who live in this bubble and only get their information from the liars on Fox News, and Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh, et cetera. And the other thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the gravitational effect it’s had on the mainstream. I write about this all the time. People refer to MSNBC as the hard left, and CNN as the center. I’m serious. MSNBC has 15 hours of a former Republican congressman every week in the morning. And then another ten hours every week of George W. Bush’s former press secretary. That’s the hard left in this country. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, he hired Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, out of nowhere. She was a law student. He hired Corey Lewandowski at the same time that Corey Lewandowski had signed a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement with the Trump campaign. So he was legally enjoined from telling the truth, and yet, that was still good enough for CNN. And as a story broke this week from Michael Cohen’s book, that Zucker was planning to give Trump his own show on CNN until he decided to run for the presidency. That was in the works. The right wing gets things out there. They make stuff up. They get a little piece of something and they blow it out of proportion. Lately they have more and more made stuff up. And then it becomes out there and the gravitational pull of these lying right wing sites is so strong, and the profits that they make are so impressive, that the mainstream media can’t resist them.

BILL MOYERS: What about some of the specific media cheerleaders who see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil about Trump’s lies? Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson. Either they take their own scurrilous accusations and paranoid fantasies from Trump, or he takes his from them. I mean the other night Lou Dobbs devoted big play to Trump being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is a farcical exercise.

ERIC ALTERMAN: All four of those people you mentioned, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs. They’re all paid between $10 and $30 million a year. I mean maybe Tucker’s only making $10, and maybe Laura’s only making $15. Hannity is up there at $30. And O’Reilly was making this kind of money, too, $20 to $30 million. It’s incredibly profitable to be on this wavelength. To be the spokesperson for these lies. And Fox is not giving them money to be nice. It’s giving them money because they bring in a lot more than that for the company. So, there’s a fantastic amount of money in serving up these lies for a right-wing audience. But the second thing is they’re not yes men necessarily. They have their own agendas, which they’re using the president for. Trump doesn’t really stick to anything. You know, he doesn’t have the patience to. But these people, particularly Rupert Murdoch, who’s ultimately responsible. They have a long-term agenda. And the fact is, there’s a symbiosis between this right-wing Borg of media and the politicians who are answerable to it. So sometimes it’s the media following the politicians, and sometimes it’s the politicians being answerable to the media. If they don’t follow the lead that Fox News lays down, they’ll hear it and talk radio is very important. Rush Limbaugh is, if anything, more powerful than these people.

BILL MOYERS: I hear you saying that partisans who have bought into their leader’s big lies have every incentive, including financial, not to admit that they are lies. They even have a big stake in not just accepting the lies, but demanding them. Otherwise, their world view would collapse, and with it, their financial fortunes.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Right. The upshot is that, for 20 or 30 years, no Republican has been able to say, yes, climate change is real, it’s dangerous and we ought to address it. Because that will end their career. That’s been true for a long time. But lately, you can’t say anything bad about Donald Trump, because that will end your career.

BILL MOYERS: Why is it there’s no counter-force in this democracy to the powerful entities that have come up to promote, incentivize, and thrive on lying?

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, the first and most obvious reason is that there’s no money in it. It’s very profitable to be Fox News. It’s not profitable to be Air America. The second reason is that we are very uncomfortable as a society, particularly in the media, identifying lies as lies. So, liars can get away with lying because they’re not called on it. But I have to say, Bill, I’m more optimistic today than I was when I wrote this book. It was supposed to be out in June, and it was held back because of the crisis in the book world. And in between, Black Lives Matter movement arose. And all over the world, but also all over places where it was mostly white folks were marching, because they said, we’re just not– I don’t think, I mean it was definitely people were upset and angry by the pictures surrounding George Floyd and all that it implied. But I think those marches were about something very different, which I personally was shocked and surprised and heartened by, which is people saying, we’re not going to accept this as normal anymore. This is our country too, and we’re going to take action. People were saying, enough, and I’m going to put myself on the line, somehow. I think it goes all the way back to the founding of America. There’s two cultures in this country. One was founded in Virginia and one was founded in New England. And they’ve never really gelled together. What we’re seeing right now, I mean Trump is really running as the president of the Confederacy. And yeah, we are a single country, and he does have the power of the federal government. And it’s unacceptable that we should be run by people with these values who think the murderer in Charlottesville are good people. And that a 17-year-old kid who shoots and kills a protester, well, that’s just what people do when they’re 17. That’s what Donald Trump Jr. said. Because who hasn’t done stupid things when you’re 17? Like murdering people with an assault rifle. So, what I’m seeing now is the other culture. People are saying, no, we’re not going to let them take away the country from us. It’s gone on too long. Too much has happened. And they woke the media up to this and now there’s a whole different attitude. People are much more aware and much more dedicated. They see the voter suppression going on. Fighting it. Even if Trump is allowed to steal the election, and I can’t imagine that he can win without stealing it I don’t know that he won’t be successful. Nobody does. I still feel much better about living amongst people who have been awakened by this movement, and everything that the movement implies. It’s not just about police brutality and Black Lives Matter. It’s about what kind of people we are, and how much we’re going to take. And we’ve taken enough. If I had written the book after the protests started, that would have been my conclusion.

BILL MOYERS: You say in the book that he’s a Frankenstein of the American system.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Frankenstein monster. Don’t blame the scientist. The monster.

BILL MOYERS: Okay, fair enough. Indicating that you think Trump’s lies have not only eaten our souls, but they’ve undermined the values and threatened the future viability of the democratic experience, fragile as it is. And you warn that these lies could bring on a descent into lying as a way of life. I think we’re close to that. I think lies are so paramount and prominent in almost every sector of American life today that Trump is unintentionally, or intentionally, giving validity as the president, the top elected official in America, to lying as the cost of doing business, or living in America.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, Bill, do you spend any time on Twitter? Twitter is very problematic in a lot of ways, and I don’t want to endorse it. But I curate, and most people I know, curate their Twitter feeds quite carefully. And the hundred or so people I follow on Twitter, they’re all about how crazy this liar is and how we can’t accept a thing that he says. There’s a whole culture of people who understand how dangerous everything you’re talking about is. And it allows you to feel a sense of solidarity. They make you feel that there’s a significant portion of this country that has said, “Enough.” That these lies are too much. That the values are too offensive. And in this world that one sees on Twitter, it can give one a false sense of security, but it also can show you that you’re not alone. That there are people who feel the same way. You know, before there was an internet– the internet is, again, problematic in a million ways, and one of the ways it’s problematic is that it puts people in silos so that they don’t speak to each other or hear one another, and it’s kind of destroyed the idea that we are even one country, on one hand. But on the other hand, it tells people that they’re not crazy for having a different view than the view that the mainstream media are giving them. And it provides a legitimatization of an alternate understanding of the world.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about our descent into a culture of lying. That’s happened before. As I’ve told you, I grew up in a Deep South culture that drove the truth about slavery out of the newsroom, the pulpit, and the classroom, resulting in a bloody Civil War, and nearly the destruction of the Union. I was part of an administration that drew the wagons around our own account of the war in Vietnam and refused to admit reality until it was too late. The result was millions of dead and wounded for all the parties of the war. And here at home America, as you know, came unhinged. This is my prelude to asking, what do you see in the middle of the night, after you’ve finished writing, if this deep culture of lying that now grips American politics and American life continues?

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, Bill, like a lot of people, the pandemic gives me nightmares that I don’t really understand. I don’t really like going to sleep, because I don’t understand my dreams. And I like waking up, even though I wake up very early in the morning. Because my life is better than my dreams are. But every morning when I wake up I remember that there is a pandemic. I remember that Donald Trump is president. I remember that there’s this whole media structure supporting his lies. And it makes me feel a little bit helpless. And scared. And to be honest, I have two thoughts. I don’t know why I’m admitting this to the world, but I am. I have two thoughts. One is, I remember that I am going to be fine. You know? They’re not going to come after me. I mean, maybe if they put writers in concentration camps they will. But I have a lot of good things in my life. My daughter will be okay. My partner will be okay. My neighborhood will be okay. And the second thing is, I don’t allow my mind to go where you’re asking it to go. It’s too disturbing. It’s too worrisome. I don’t want to live with that thought. I’ll deal with it if I have to when it comes. It’s too awful. I was a jerk four years ago, in that, I thought of all the Republicans, I thought Donald Trump was the best one because he was so unserious he couldn’t possibly be president. It was too ridiculous. And if he’d got elected somehow, it would be too crazy, it would be just a big circus. I didn’t realize how weak our institutions were and all the damage that could be done, how horrible it would be for the for the culture to have a president who says that there are good people on both sides in Charlottesville and that kind of thing. I didn’t think he was serious about going after immigrants and poor people the way he has. You know, I didn’t take the threat seriously enough. And I don’t know how to do it this time. I don’t know where it can go.

BILL MOYERS: I asked the question I asked you, because you led me there in the last chapter of your book.

ERIC ALTERMAN: The final chapter of my book where I talk about the threat of fascism, I’m rely on other writers who have done a better job of pointing out the confluence between what Trump does and what fascists have historically. And I didn’t want to write that chapter. It sounded hysterical to me when I first thought of it.  I actually cut it out and put it back in. After I wrote it I said, “No, I don’t want to be this shrill guy.” And then as it went on, I couldn’t live without it. I had to put it back in.

BILL MOYERS: You followed the evidence. And you quote Hannah Arendt, the philosopher, quote, “… the ideal subject of a totalitarian state is the person for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist.” And there you have – and I don’t like going here either – the makings of a totalitarian state.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, you know, Bill, it happened before. As you know, as everyone knows. And there were very few clues at the time. But people are capable of this. People are capable of all kinds of things that we don’t like to think of the people around us as being capable of. As little regard as I had, for the Republican Party in the years 2008 through 2015, I don’t think any of us would have suspected that they would sit still for this, for what they’re doing. You know, I think of myself as a historian who is using that tool to analyze the present. That’s my job. It doesn’t give you much confidence in your predictions of the future. And certainly, Donald Trump has destroyed whatever confidence most of us have had about predicting the future.

BILL MOYERS: What happens if Trump loses on November the 3rd but doesn’t accept defeat and insists the election was rigged? How would you like to see the media respond to that story?

ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, there’s three possible primary dangers. One is that Trump is ahead, because Republicans are more likely to turn out on election day, and declares victory. So, there’s been a lot of effort to try and get the media to understand that there’s not going to be a winner– we’re not going to know what the outcome of the election is for a while after election day. And they have to get away from trying to call things as quickly as they can. Because if Trump declares himself the winner and he’s ahead, they can screw with all the mail votes, and say that they won. And there wouldn’t be much to be done about that. A second danger is the election will be thrown to the House of Representatives, because so many states will just say, we can’t send electors to the electoral college, because we don’t know who won. And if the election goes to the House of Representatives, then each state gets one vote. New York gets one vote, Wyoming gets one vote if they try and throw out the actual election. That’s the second danger. The third danger is that Trump loses the election, he clearly lost the election, and he says it was rigged, it was fixed, and he calls out those people saying, don’t let them get away with it. Come out with your guns. Come out with your weapons and save the country from them stealing the election, when he’s in fact stealing the election. So, at that point, as I understand it, it’s up to the governors to call out the National Guard and put down what would be a right-wing insurrection. It’s hard to imagine. I just try and understand as best I can.  What I do for a living is I provide historical context and I make connections to the past and to other cultures, in some cases, that you never see in the mainstream media. And it’s not news. But what I do is I show people who feel like they are going crazy that they are not going crazy, that there there’s a whole other way to look at this, and that there’s a history to it. And that’s all I can really hope for.

BILL MOYERS: Eric, thank you very much for taking your time, and thank you very much for this remarkable book, LYING IN STATE: WHY PRESIDENTS LIE – AND WHY TRUMP IS WORSE.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Thank you, Bill. I appreciate it.

ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to Moyers on Democracy. At our website, explore Alterman’s four kinds of lying. Until next time, you’ll find all this and more at