Then as now, it began with lies.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s forces crossed the border into Poland. The German chancellor did so on the pretext that ethnic Germans were being persecuted. German operatives, disguised as Poles, even staged an attack on a German radio station, yelling anti-German threats into the microphone.
With that lie, the most devastating war in the history of the world began.
It is far too early to know how devastating this latest European war will turn out to be, how many will die, how many will be left homeless and stateless, how the repercussions will play out across the globe. There is, however, an ominous resonance in the lies from which it arose.
First, Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed he had no intention of invading Ukraine, even as he massed troops on that country’s border. Then he announced Russia would recognize two separatist regions. Finally, shortly before Russian ordnance began to pound the smaller country, he announced a “military operation” aimed at “peacekeeping” and “denazification.”
Now, as then, lies. And now, as then, what strikes you is not just the utter brazenness of them, but the threadbare flimsiness of them. Hitler, granted, put some work into his lie, but at the end of the day, was anyone really expected to believe that Poland, which had more horses than tanks, had suddenly decided to attack its heavily armed neighbor?
Putin’s lies are even shoddier. He would have us believe his forces were needed to keep the peace in a nation that was at peace and to evict Nazis from a nation whose democratically elected president is a Jew. These are the kinds of lies you tell when you don’t care what anyone thinks. Their very shabbiness is an expression of contempt.
And the fact that Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance, Steve Bannon and other denizens of the American right either lionize this liar — “Savvy,” Trump called him — or dismiss the suffering of his victims — “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine,” said Vance — is a clear, albeit superfluous indicator of just how broken our own country has become.
Like Putin, much of the right bears allegiance not to truth, much less to democracy, but rather, to the brutish power of the strongman to do as he pleases, unfettered by such niceties. That’s what they very nearly imposed in 2016. It is what they promise in 2024. And if you’re not frightened, you’re not paying attention.
This moment has been a long time coming. A little more than a quarter century ago, a House speaker named Newt Gingrich declared politics war and an upstart cable network called Fox declared facts optional. It was called a conservative resurgence, but it was actually the foundation stone for the kingdom of lies our country has become.
No wonder Trump likes Putin and claims the feeling is mutual. Each recognizes himself in the other.
What they recognize, what they have in common, is that transactional disdain for the truth and, more to the point, for anyone naive enough to expect it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart a red “reset” button, Russia accepted it, but kept right on being a thugocracy. TV pundits kept assuring us Trump was going to “become presidential” any second now, but to his last day, he remained a willful child. Now families seek refuge in Ukrainian subways, while Trump cheers their tormentor on.
Let no one be surprised.
What begins in lies tends to end in carnage.