I find myself thinking a lot about Lance Armstrong lately. Not so much about the fact that he was a doper—that’s run-of-the-mill stuff. Lots of athletes take PEDs. It was the way he denied the doping allegations—full-throatedly, in any forum, and with a sense of righteous indignation. He did Nike commercials, for Pete’s sake, where he explicitly addressed the rumors: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on,” he said in a voiceover, as we watched him vigorously train. “What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass, six hours a day.”
Think about that for a second. It’s one thing to do drugs. It’s even one thing to deny doing them. But to do a commercial where you ADVERTISE the fact that you’re clean and furthermore mock your accusers? That’s a whole different level of chutzpah.
I’ve always been fascinated by how people can manage to live with themselves when they do objectively horrible things.
But then I remember something actors are told early in their careers: Villains never know they’re villains. Everyone is the hero of their own story.
Still, the details here are worth exploring. How did Lance Armstrong convince himself he was the hero? How did he get in front of that camera, get on that mic, and tell a bald-faced LIE? Not just a denial. An actual lie, where he boasted about the opposite of the truth.
Well, I have a few theories.
Theory one: He gave himself a pass: As a cancer survivor, he believed that he had earned the right to enhance his performance. No other cancer survivors were out there winning the Tour de France. Doping was essentially leveling the playing field.
Theory two: He did work hard. He did bust his ass six hours a day. He somehow convinced himself it was the hard work, not the PEDs that made him great.
Theory three: He believed everyone else did PEDs, too. If everyone’s doping, it’s the same as if no one’s doping. Everyone has the exact same advantage. Okay, sure, maybe some cyclists didn’t dope. But that just meant they were too stupid or weak to take their bodies to the limit like he did. As for the people who get caught? Even stupider.
That still doesn’t explain the commercials. The sheer brazenness of them. Except for the fact that, once you believe you are morally righteous, anyone who comes for you is a hypocrite or a villain. Suddenly, you’re not the bad guy doing drugs to enhance your performance. You’re the good guy being singled out and persecuted by people trying to bring you down.
You’re a goddamn martyr.
Right now, my mind is on the brutal attack of Paul Pelosi, the husband of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. It should’ve been a time for all political leaders to come together to condemn violence and violent rhetoric in all its forms. After all, Nancy Pelosi has been the subject of particular vitriol on the right—from political ads taking place in a shooting range calling for her “firing,” to Marjorie Taylor Greene riling up a crowd by saying Pelosi should be executed for treason. But that’s not what occurred. I mean, those on the left condemned the violence, of course. But those on the right came up with cockamamie (and homophobic) conspiracy theories involving sexual trysts and the intruder in his underpants and a mysterious coverup. “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” tweeted Elon Musk—to Hillary Clinton, no less!—linking to a far-right, oft-debunked media site (he later deleted the tweet without any further explication).
When the rumors were plainly refuted by the police, new narratives emerged. Pundits and politicians on the right tried to blame Biden—he was soft on crime, and even softer on immigration (the suspect is a white Canadian . . .silly right wingers, it’s only brown and Black immigrants that you fear). The guy who attacked Paul Pelosi was crazy! Even if his recent social media posts were filled with right-wing talking points—stolen election, trans people taking over our schools, Jews controlling the global economy, etc. etc.—it was no one’s fault this happened. He was a nut job. If it wasn’t one thing that set him off, it would’ve been something else.
Those on the right felt no guilt about what happened to Paul Pelosi because they had already positioned themselves as good guys in their own minds. The villains were the Democrats, who were always so quick to blame the right, so smug, so self-righteous. “They think they’re better than us,” is a narrative that positively dominates right wing thinking. This is where THEIR persecution complex comes in. It’s so hard to be male and white and conservative in this day and age. The whole world has ganged up on us. Everyone thinks we’re racist or a predator or a white supremacist.
This is why calling someone on the right racist is an exercise in futility. They’ll never own up to it, reflect on it, interrogate their own behavior. They’ll say, “Oh, there goes someone on the left calling me a racist again!” The sin, you see, is the accusation, not the behavior that led to the accusation. Occasionally they’ll go as far as to say, “The left called me racist so many times, I had no choice but to become racist.” (That one comes up more often than you might think.) But in general, they just think the accusation is a sign of the derangement of the left, who see racism in everything. (I mean, a school district can’t even ban a book on slavery these days without being accused of being racist!)
There are other ways that politicians on the right, in particular, live with everything they’ve done—the COVID denial, the refusal to ban assault weapons, the election lies that led to January 6th.
Some, like Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are just true believers. They believe the election was stolen. They believe abortion is murder. That guns save lives. That liberal parents are forcing gender reassignment surgery on their children. And that, God help us, Trump was a great president. They’re indoctrinated in a way I can’t really explain, except to say, well, they’re not that bright.
But there are others: Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy, Lindsey Graham, et al. who secretly know the truth. They know the rhetoric emanating from the right is dangerous. They know guns kill people. They know COVID was real, that Trump lost, that climate change exists. Their rationalization comes in two forms: There’s the wink-wink, everyone knows not to take this shit seriously contingent. Those folks truly see politics as a game and simply believe they play it better than anyone else The Democrats lie, too; they cheat, too, they believe—we’re just better at it. (Mitch McConnell and his shit-eating turtle grin falls squarely into this contingent). This corresponds with Lance Armstrong presumably thinking that most athletes dope and those who don’t simply don’t have the cojones to do it.
Then there’s the “liberals are destroying America” brigade. They believe that America is dangerously lurching away from its white, Christian, patriarchal roots, that liberals have gone mad with cancel culture and wokeism so therefore, whatever they’re doing is to protect the American values (again, white, male, Christian) that they hold near and dear. So they’re righteous. When you believe you are righteous, you will excuse a lot. The ends justify the means and all that. When you believe you are fighting for the soul of America, you will let yourself off the hook again and again and again.
And yet still, like a chump, I keep waiting for that aha moment. When a young man in Buffalo went into a grocery store and killed 10 Black people, citing “replacement theory” as his motivation, I thought, briefly, that Tucker Carlson would have a crisis of conscience. After all, he had popularized a version of replacement theory on his FoxNews show. Surely he would feel guilty, mortified. Surely, it would lead to some sort of come to Jesus moment for him. But nope. Instead, he did all the things we’ve now come to expect. He said the killer was crazy, full stop. Not driven by any ideology. To blame him, Tucker Carlson, was bad faith opportunism—those who hate Carlson looking for an excuse to bring him down. In true Tucker fashion, he mocked those who would suggest he had anything to do with the shootings. I’m sure you’re all picturing his face right now: Mouth open, face red, in a kabuki performance of incredulity.
Everyone is the hero of their own narrative.
For Carlson to admit, hey, some of the imagery and language I’ve used on my show may’ve led to a mass murder—well, that would take a kind of humility, courage, and character that Carlson has never demonstrated.
So there you have it. Admitting you’re wrong is hard. Admitting your actions have led to horrible things is hard. Much easier is blaming and hating your ideological opponents, patting yourself on the back for winning the game, or believing that the ends justify the means.
Rationalization: It’s the right’s performance enhancing drug.
The opinions in this blog are solely my own.