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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Duplicity sculpted into an art form 

Immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as

Immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, in Washington.  Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

The tale starts like a whodunit, with the estranged daughter rummaging through her deceased father’s house when she stumbles upon a plastic bag of computer hard drives and thumb drives containing secrets.

But there is no frisson of delight when the mystery is solved, just a dull anger that stirs as you realize you’ve been duped again.

The father in the story as told by The New York Times is Thomas Hofeller, the legendary Republican maestro of gerrymandering whose devil’s art in countless redistricting cases set in stone the GOP’s electoral dominance all over the country. And the information on his drives exposed the lie girding the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

It showed Hofeller had concluded that adding such a question would help Republicans by suppressing minority responses, allowing the party to draw district lines even more skewed against Democrats. And that he brought the idea to the Trump administration and lobbied for it. And that he wrote the justification for adding the question used by the Department of Justice — that it was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when it actually was intended to disenfranchise voters.

Besides tossing a giant monkey wrench into the case before the Supreme Court, which is about to rule, Hofeller’s digital papers also confirmed what has become dreadfully obvious:

We live in duplicitous times.

To be fair, duplicity itself is not unprecedented. We’ve seen it at all levels of government for as long as there has been government, and in presidential administrations from Barack Obama’s Operation Fast and Furious scandal back through prior administrations of both parties. We’ve seen it in business, sports, the arts and, yes, journalism.

What’s different now is the volume and velocity of duplicity. Deceit has become an M.O.

It starts with President Donald Trump, of course, who has passed the 10,000 mark in false or misleading claims, as tracked by The Washington Post. It continues with Attorney General William Barr, who has repeatedly mischaracterized and lied about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings in the Russia investigation.

The Trump administration also is looking at changing how poverty is measured; it won’t reduce the number of poor people, but it will make it look like the administration has lifted more people out of poverty and allow it to kick more poor people off safety-net services like food stamps, Medicaid and Head Start. 

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to tinker with the model that predicts how many people will die of pollution, so it can lessen that number on a stat sheet as it rolls back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. As greenhouse gases rise, the administration will no longer report the long-term effects of climate change, only those projecting to 2040; end-of-century impacts will be far more dire, but you won’t hear about them from Trump’s staff.  

It’s not just our federal government. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration tried to block the release of emails with outside advisers and public relations firms by referring to them as “agents of the city.” Factories in China hid the truth that they were using a banned ozone-destroying chemical.

Duplicity is bad on its own, and erodes one’s faith in government. Set in a digital world of fake videos and online misinformation and abetted by our own gullibility, it grows very worrisome. That’s how you get increases in anti-vaxxers and those who accept outrageous conspiracy theories. And how you get Texas Tech University researchers finding that videos on YouTube sparked a startling rise in the number of people who believe the world is flat, hundreds of years after that preposterousness was debunked. And how, maybe, you influence a presidential election.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.