What would Superman say about 'truth, justice, and the American way' in the Trump era?

What would Superman say about 'truth, justice, and the American way' in the Trump era?
© Getty Images

Our modern incarnation of superheroes seems to have abandoned the age-old practice of catch-phrases. In the grittier reimagining of comic books, such cliches are incongruous. But the superhero catch-phrase was often a reflection and reinforcement of common American values. Take, for example, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

That phrase rang out on TV sets across the country, drilling into impressionable minds the inextricable link between America, truth, and justice. It became part of the ethos, in part because it reflected a clear, but often overlooked fact: American liberty is predicated on truth.

That’s precisely why truth was the prime target in the Kremlin’s attacks on our elections. They knew that if they could blur every line, distort reality, and deceive voters, they could steer our republic in the direction they preferred.


Truth is an essential foundation of our very way of life. Without it, we cast our votes blindly, and our elections are little better than a crap shoot. Without truth, we cannot know what our elected leaders are doing. And without the truth, we cannot hold them accountable for their actions.

It’s not that there aren’t shades to the truth, especially in politics. Campaigns often resort to hyperbole, loose interpretations, and slanted opinions to advance their candidates. But where truth in campaigns has always lacked clear definition, it has at least maintained a recognizable shape, with lines that should not be crossed.

In their attacks on the 2016 elections, Kremlin operatives worked relentlessly to obliterate any recognizable form of truth, opening the door to even the most absurd conspiracies and lies. They invented whole persons and organizations. They helped convince parents to put their children at risk by spreading lies about vaccines. They persuaded people that victims of shootings were paid actors, and spread insane conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate.

Their intent was to help the Trump campaign, and the Trump campaign was certainly happy to have the assistance. Many high-ranking members of the campaign readily shared disinformation from Kremlin trolls, and the president’s own fondness for conspiracies is well documented.

As the American people debate the results of the Mueller investigation, it’s clear that the Trump campaign was a willing enabler and participant in the Russian scheme to undermine our election. Republicans quickly jump to the most legalistic defenses, as though prosecution is the sum total of what’s at stake. Even short of a criminal conspiracy, Trump’s complicity in the Kremlin’s attack goes beyond meetings and public appeals for help; it lies in his open embrace of their tactics for his own personal war on truth in America

Too often, we shrug at literally thousands of lies from the Oval Office and accept them as inevitable. But the president’s own assault on the truth acts as a force-multiplier for the Kremlin’s attacks. Whether intentional or not, his eagerness to lie about even the most inconsequential matter only helps foreign adversaries who want to undermine and control our elections.

It isn’t coincidental that the president shares the tactic of disinformation with our attackers. They share the same goal, to so thoroughly distort national perceptions as to make objective truth inconsequential and unrecognizable. The less the truth can be readily discerned, the easier it is to wash away controversies, cover up misdeeds, and supplant earnest conversations with your own, self-interested narratives.

Mueller may not have been able to prove a criminal conspiracy with the Russian government, but Trump himself has nevertheless worked hand in hand towards the same, deceitful goal. And while the president pursues this strategy to empower and protect himself, he does so at great cost to the American republic and to democracy writ large.


Look no further than the Attorney General, who swore to Congress and the American people that he did not know if Mueller or his team objected to his characterization of their work. We now have a letter signed by Mr. Mueller proving his statements to be false. Barr has hidden behind technicalities and definitions (his insistence on defining even common words was worryingly reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s grand jury defense). But where the law may not convict Barr, common sense certainly does: He deceived and misled Congress.

The president’s disdain for truth and accountability is corrosive and infectious. Barr’s performance proves just how deep the rot goes. But we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture, that the administration’s reliance on deception, evasion, and disinformation perfectly mirrors the arsenal wielded against us by our foes.

Those attacks are an existential threat on our liberty, which is precisely why Putin has carried out similar attacks against other western democratic allies. But rather than stand up to those assaults, the president aims his own conspiracies and lies at our country, assailing the foundation of our democracy. We are under fire from within and without.

That’s why we cannot reluctantly accept Trump’s deceitfulness as a mere character flaw. It is far more serious than that. It is a concerted effort to undermine, discredit or control information itself, to ensure that he cannot be held accountable for his own actions.

So when the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, incoherently exclaimed that “truth isn’t truth,” he unintentionally created a new catch-phrase to reflect the ethos of the administration. Truth isn’t truth. That’s not the American way, that’s villainy.

Mike Ongstad is a former speech writer to Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Booker, Cornyn introduce bill to fund school nutrition programs Three Senate primaries to watch on Super Tuesday MORE (R-Texas) and presidential campaign adviser to Evan McMullin/Mindy Finn. He is currently the communications director for the pro-democracy organization, Stand Up Republic. Follow him on Twitter @MikeOngstad.