Frank Bruni

The Power of Lies in an Age of Political Fiction

Imelda Marcos’s sandals lived better than I did.

I just discovered that. I was reacquainting myself with that whole sordid history — with the unfathomable extravagance that she and her dictator husband, Ferdinand, indulged in before they were run out of the Philippines in 1986 — and found an article on Medium that said that her hundreds upon hundreds of shoes occupied a closet of 1,500 square feet. That’s larger than the Manhattan apartment that I called home until last July. I should have been an espadrille.

She personified greed. Ferdinand, who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades, epitomized authoritarianism and kleptocracy. The couple pilfered an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion from the country. And now their son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., better known as Bongbong, is poised to become its next president. In the election in the Philippines on Monday, he won in a landslide.

He and his supporters made that happen not by renouncing his parents’ legacy. They instead embraced it — or, rather, reimagined the Marcoses’ reign as some misunderstood and underappreciated Golden Age. They used social media to disseminate and amplify that gaudy lie. And the strategy worked.

To the most shameless fabulists go the spoils. It’s Vladimir Putin’s credo. Donald Trump’s, too. (I could add Tucker Carlson, but enough about him.)

Mendacity is as old as time. Propaganda is as old as language. But things feel different — more dangerous — now. The mendacity has a faster metabolism. The propaganda has more outlets, with fewer filters. And for all our inventions, all our advancements, we humans seem more partial than ever to convenient fantasy over thorny truth.

That wasn’t the only dynamic at play in the Philippines. Bongbong Marcos fashioned himself — and was perceived by many — as a pragmatist focused on quality-of-life issues. He talked about jobs, infrastructure, prosperity.

But the apple nonetheless had to flatter and redeem the tree, so some selective storytelling was in order. One of his campaign slogans, “Together we will rise again,” suggested that a return to the Philippines’ past was in order.

“In the Philippines, a Flourishing Ecosystem for Political Lies,” read the headline on an article in The Times just before the election that explained the forces propelling Marcos toward victory.

Supporters of his spread YouTube videos that lied about where his family’s wealth had come from, and they “flooded Facebook with false news about his opponents,” according to the Times article, written by Camille Elemia.

The Philippines is hardly some outlier. Putin’s successful (so far) plan for maintaining adequate domestic support for the invasion of Ukraine is the relentless peddling of a spectacularly false narrative in which godless Western nations and Ukrainian Nazis plot to smother Mother Russia.

And the same day that the Philippine election was held, The Times published a guest essay by the journalist Ted Genoways about Charles Herbster, a Trump-endorsed candidate for Nebraska governor with a rococo take on current events that, according to Genoways’s essay, went “something like this:”

The coronavirus was manufactured in a lab in China and released into the United States in early 2020 by “illegals” from Mexico who were also smuggling Chinese-made fentanyl across the border. One of the smugglers, he said, had enough fentanyl in a single backpack to kill the entire population of Nebraska and South Dakota. The goal of this two-pronged attack, he explained, was to create a panic, stoked by Facebook and $400 million of Mark Zuckerberg’s money, to justify allowing voting by mail. Then, through unspecified means, the Chinese government used those mail-in ballots to steal the election.

The head spins. The heart sinks.

Perhaps there’s hope to be wrung from the fact that Herbster lost in the Republican primary in Nebraska on Tuesday. Then again, he came within four percentage points of the winner, Jim Pillen, despite the fact that eight women had accused Herbster of groping them.

He disputed the truth of those accusations, but then his relationship with truth is tenuous. Which is perhaps just another way of saying that he’s a man of his times.

For the Love of Sentences
A swerve this week! I’m devoting this section to sentences from just four recent articles, all in The Times, because each had multiple nominated passages and emerged as an outsize reader favorite.

I’ll save prose from other articles for next week.

First up: Maureen Dowd’s column on the Supreme Court. Many of you absolutely loved it, but you cited different highlights, including this one: “Samuel Alito’s antediluvian draft opinion is the Puritans’ greatest victory since they expelled Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.” At another point, Maureen wrote that it’s “outrageous that five unelected, unaccountable and relatively unknown political operatives masquerading as impartial jurists can so profoundly alter our lives.”

She also noted that Chief Justice John Roberts “has lost control of a lost-its-marbles majority,” adding: “To borrow an image from the great Mary McGrory, Roberts seems like a small man trying to walk a large dog. At this point, he can’t even see the end of the leash.” (Thanks to Ricca Slone of Chicago, Sarah Charlock of Newport News, Va., and Mark Weinberg of Wilmington, Del., among many others, for nominating Maureen’s sentences.)

Another newsletter-reader favorite from the past week was Joe Drape’s vivid account of Rich Strike’s against-all-odds win in the Kentucky Derby. (If you haven’t seen the aerial view of the thoroughbred’s late burst into the lead, here’s a tweet of the footage from NBC Sports that’s well worth watching.)

Joe described that burst, jockeyed by Sonny Leon, this way: “Leon started guiding his horse through the pack, zigzagging like someone late for work on a busy Manhattan sidewalk.” Joe also savored the sweetness of a triumph by a contender whose trappings and patronage were less gilded than those of his equine rivals: “Thoroughbred races have increasingly surrendered to the sheikhs and princes, the hedge fund wizards and industrialists, the fat cats who could plunder their vaults and pay whatever it took to secure a regally bred horse who, they hoped, could run a hole in the wind.” (Jeanie Camp, San Diego, and Pete Browne, Kansas City, Mo., among others)

Ticking off the surprising victories in Real Madrid’s magical soccer season, Rory Smith mentioned the “comeback against the glittering array of Instagram influencers arranged in the vague shape of a team by Paris St.-Germain.” (Charles Kelley, Alexandria, Va., and Sheila Bourke Tagliavia, Perugia, Italy, among others)

In that same article, Rory wrote that it’s not “too florid, too ethereal, to suggest that Real Madrid does not so much beat teams at soccer as overwhelm them by harnessing some elemental force.” He went on to add, “At times, it resembles a form of alchemy, the transformation of a succession of base metals — a smattering of garlanded veterans, a couple of raw hopefuls, a coach with an expressive eyebrow and an easy charm, a team with no recognizable, cogent plan beyond a pervasive sense of its own destiny — into something precious.” (Paul Oliver, Washington, D.C., and Eugene Hunt, North Andover, Mass.)

Finally, Jeff Maurer’s guest essay about what he perceives to be the Democratic Party’s “image problem” focused on Democrats’ vulnerability to certain negative criticism about student loan forgiveness.

“Republicans,” he wrote, “will portray us as fancy little Fauntleroys ensconced in our twee nursery of upper-middle-class desires, deaf to the needs of the struggling masses.” He hypothesized: “The case study will be some tragic dweeb who took out $400,000 in loans to get a Ph.D. in intersectional puppet theory from Cosa Nostra Online College and who wrote his dissertation about how ‘Fraggle Rock’ is an allegory for the Franco-Prussian War.”

And he ended his lament with a plea to party leaders that they not “let the notion that Democrats are singularly focused on the needs of pampered, navel-gazing pipsqueaks who won’t drink coffee brewed using fewer than 26 steps be indelibly burned into people’s brains.” (Consuelo López-Morillas, Bloomington, Ind., and Roy Christianson of Madison, Wis., who wrote that he was going to nominate multiple sentences from Maureen’s column, “but there were so many good ones I gave up, fearing massive hand cramping would ensue.”)

On a Personal Note
On Sunday morning I had the honor of delivering the commencement speech at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The previous afternoon, I dropped by the stadium in which the event would take place so I could size up the lectern and the teleprompters. Given my compromised eyesight, I wanted to be sure that I could see the scrolling text and that the lectern’s surface was big enough to hold a printed copy of the speech, just in case.

It was a quick chore, tucked into a chaotic day, and I approached it in a businesslike fashion. But as I stood on the stage, gazing out at the seats and at various insignia evocative of my college years, I had to set my jaw and close my eyes to hold back tears. I was suddenly a dam on the verge of breaking. And I indeed broke, 10 minutes later, back in my car. That’s also when I understood the surge of emotion.

I was something of a mess in college. Not on the outside, and not by the usual yardsticks, which are crude ones: I got excellent grades. I wrote frequently for Carolina’s principal student newspaper and was one of its top editors for a while. I landed good summer internships. I was on a path.

But I was often terrified that it would lead nowhere. Or, rather, that I’d stumble badly before I got much further along. My insides were always roiling, and my brain was frequently on fire with doubts about my ability, worries about my stability and a puerile anger about the lack of any assurances in this life. How was I supposed to stay calm in the face of so much uncertainty? I didn’t stride, lope or sprint into my future. I tiptoed toward it, not trusting it for a second.

All of that came back to me in the empty stadium. I remembered it keenly. And when I put that state of mind next to where I was standing, and why I was standing there, and what that meant about how the years had in fact played out — well, I was overwhelmed. I felt foolish for having been such a pessimist. I felt ashamed about the narcissistic component of my dark self-obsession at the time.

But my tears, I soon realized, reflected something else: a mixture of profound gratitude and enormous relief. My nerve-frazzling future was now, three and a half decades later, my richly satisfying past. While there’d been rough patches in my journey from there to here, they’d proved survivable, and the disappointments had paled beside the delights. While I still wasn’t striding — that’s just not in my nature — I also wasn’t tiptoeing, nor was I trembling.

I didn’t share that, not in so many words, with the students I addressed on Sunday. I had different remarks prepared. (If you’re interested, you can read them here, on my website.) But to all the young people who are just finishing one chapter and beginning the next one, I would say:

The unpredictability of what happens next is no curse or taunt. It’s just life, ever maddening, ever mysterious. If you’re frightened, you’re not alone, and a shortfall of confidence is no harbinger of doom. Shoulders back. Chin forward.

You’ll be tripped up by unforeseen obstacles and setbacks. But you’ll also trip across unanticipated bounty and blessings. You’ll quite possibly find yourself someday in a place and role you never expected. You’ll be moved by that.

And you’ll realize that the journey to that point was all the more interesting for its refusal to be scripted, and for its absence of any firm guarantees.

The New York Times