In spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, a new TV ad now airing in Washington, D.C., aims to paint attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions as a “civil rights champion.” The audacity of portraying a man whose record shows a staunch hostility to civil rights—including prosecuting black voting rights advocates and reportedly calling the NAACP “un-American”—as a champion of those rights is deeply troubling but not at all surprising, given what we know about the Trump team’s disregard for demonstrable facts.
If the facts don’t fit your narrative, the approach goes, just make up new ones. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway calls them “alternative facts.” The rest of us just call them lies.
This new pro-Sessions ad, which was paid for by a pro-Trump dark money group that has gotten much of its financial backing from deputy commerce secretary nominee Todd Ricketts, is particularly misleading. To begin with, it prominently includes a photo of Sessions standing next to John Lewis, a U.S. representative and a civil rights icon who gave impassioned testimony against Sessions during his recent confirmation hearings. In his testimony, after describing the brutal realities of the segregated South and the progress that still remains to be made on civil rights issues, Rep. Lewis said:
It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. We need someone who is going to stand up, to speak up, and speak out for the people that need help.
Yet less than two weeks after Lewis made the case for looking beyond a “friendly” image of Sessions that ignores his history of attacks on civil rights, this ad uses Lewis’ image to attempt to lend his credibility to a nominee whom he strongly opposed.
It is an approach exactly in line with that of the Trump administration, which in its first few days in office is already demonstrating its commitment to ignoring facts. On Saturday, Trump’s press secretary held a briefing devoted to pushing easily disproven lies about the size of the inauguration crowd. Defending the press secretary’s comments, Conway insisted that his falsehoods were merely “alternative facts.”
The administration’s strategy has frightening parallels to that of an authoritarian regime, daring people not to accept their brazen lies and distortions. But a presidential administration and its allies don’t get to invent their own reality. Saying an inauguration had the largest audience ever doesn’t make it true. Saying that a civil rights opponent is actually a civil rights champion doesn’t make it so. It is more critical than ever for the media, the public, and patriotic members of Congress—regardless of party—to be relentless in showing that we will not accept these lies.