Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz cited the fortune of our nation’s commitment to the rule of law as one of the major stabilizing components for development of a democratic nation, politically and economically. In opposition to the rule of law is chaos, a condition necessary for dictatorship or autocracy, often, as history dictates, a prerequisite.
A demagogue is defined as one who seeks the support of people by appealing to their prejudices and desires, largely by falsehoods, rather than to their rationality.
In Mein Kampf (1925), Adolph Hitler described the effect and function of the “big lie”: that a listener would be guiled to the extent that anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” As a master of the big lie, Hitler observed:
Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
At of the end of April, The Washington Post tallied more than 10,000 lies told by President Trump during his 691 days in office. A few days later, at a ceremony in the Rose Garden, the President commented to a gathering of religious leaders that, “One of the things I’m most proud of is the Johnson Amendment. We got rid of the Johnson Amendment. That’s a big thing.” In fact, the sole element of bigness applies to the reality that the statement is untrue. However, credit must be accorded to this big lie because on July 12, 2017, the President stated in an interview on the Christian Broadcast Network with Pat Robertson:
I’ve gotten rid of the Johnson Amendment…. I signed an executive order so that now . . . ministers and preachers and rabbis and whoever it may be, they can speak. You know, you couldn’t speak politically before, now you can.
As in so many other areas, Trump’s explanation of this is flat-out untrue.
The so-called Johnson Amendment was attached to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) provision that covers charitable, not-for-profit organizations, including religious groups, and prohibits them from participating in political activities. The penalty was loss of the code’s exemption from income taxes. As a practical matter, the IRS never applied the law to speech in favor of candidates but interpreted it to prohibit active endorsement or campaigning for candidates. The executive order issued by the President merely directed the Secretary of the Treasury not to enforce the prohibition, an act of prosecutorial discretion. The President lacks the constitutional authority to nullify an act of Congress. The statute remains in effect.
The United States conducts business through millions of organizations, in addition to its governmental ones, from business to community to a broad spectrum of institutions. Every one of these organizations operates with extraordinary degree of freedom supported by the rule of law. Charitable, or not-for-profits, operate within a public policy of freedom from income tax under the IRC, specifically section 501(c)(3), created to encourage the expansion of charitable activities such as schools, the Red Cross, and others. Churches and other religious organizations share in this exemption for the additional purpose to insure the clear Constitutional rule of sustaining a separation of church and state. For, if government could tax religious groups, it held the power to destroy them.
In 1954, this section of the IRC was amended to emphasize that the converse of religious freedom was protected by prohibiting their participation in political campaigning. The amendment also had a practical consideration; as the IRC prohibited taxation of income, it also allowed a tax deduction to donors and contributors, creating a potential monetary windfall for political activities. This was the Johnson Amendment – which stands today.
The consistency of the President’s falsehoods is remarkable—as is the degree to which the public has seemingly become inured to them—but no more so than that of Hitler. In this instance, however, Trump has falsely encouraged and urged religious leaders to break the law directly and indirectly by persuading them that the law no longer exists. His message nullifies the rule of law in favor of a political object.
The lesson of Men Kampf for expert liars thrives and threatens the stability of our civic culture, political society, and its reliance upon the rule of law. There is no other explanation, as Hitler suggested, but an avalanche of falsehoods that will leave traces long after the truth emerges.