I’ve always loved the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz where, after the Wizard has been unmasked, we can see the mechanics of his deception. That takes the power out of it.
You would think that by now, in 2020, we would understand the mechanics of propaganda and the use of the “big lie” as one of the techniques of propaganda.
But apparently we do not.
The Big Lie
Although they are not necessarily the first or only people to concoct a big lie, the notion of the “big lie” was best articulated by – you guessed it – Hitler and Göbbels. Hitler wrote about it in “Mein Kampf,” in reference to the supposed lie that General Ludendorff was responsible for Germany’s loss in World War I, which “big lie” Hitler blamed on the Jews. This is the “Dolchstoßlegende,” or the “stab-in-the-back” myth, the belief was that the German Army did not lose World War I “on the battlefield” but was instead betrayed by the supposedly Jewish-led civilian government that overthrew the Hohenzollern monarchy in the German Revolution of 1918–19. The leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918 were branded as the “November Criminals.”
So Hitler (of course) turned the “big lie” on its head: the big lie is not that Ludendorff lost the war – which he certainly contributed significantly to losing – the big lie was that the Jews were responsible for promoting the notion that Ludendorff lost the war.
The idea behind the big lie is to tell a lie so “colossal,” so “impudent” that no ordinary person would believe that someone would create a lie that blatant. In the words of Josef Göbbels, “[i]f you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
In a psychological profile of Hitler prepared by the United States Office of Strategic Services, it was written that “[h]is primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
Which is an almost exact description of the rhetorical strategy of President Donald John Drumpf.
Let’s look at just four of the lies told repeatedly by Donald Drumpf. What all these lies have in common is that they all have one common objective: to flatter Drumpf and “legitimize” his rule.
- That the 2016 election was rigged, and that Drumpf actually won the popular vote.
- That Drumpf had a bigger turnout for his 2016 inauguration than Obama had in 2008.
- That the allegations of the Drumpf campaign’s collusion with Russia was a hoax.
- That Drumpf won the 2020 election “in a landslide.”
The 2016 Election
Let’s face it, 2020 wasn’t the first time that Donald Drumpf claimed that a Presidential election was rigged against him. No, the first time was 2016. Drumpf kept repeating that the vote was rigged because – as has been well established by now from many sources – Drumpf fully expected to lose. When he won, he had to change his tune quite quickly.
Despite his win Drumpf was, however, gutted that he did not also win the popular vote. So he began to make completely baseless allegations, such as that millions of “illegal” immigrants voted in the election, or that Massachusetts sent “busloads” of voters to New Hampshire to vote. Drumpf eventually formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was in existence from May 11, 2017 to January 3, 2018 and . . . wait for it . . . came up completely empty.
The 2017 Inauguration
Drumpf was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, and immediately claimed that it was the largest “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” Drumpf’s press secretary Sean Spicer accused the media of reporting false crowd estimates to “lessen the enthusiasm” for the new President.
The National Park Services does not publish crowd estimates, but the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reported 570,557 passengers for that day, lower than the average weekday ridership. Crowd counting experts estimated 300,000 to 600,000 people, or about one-third the estimated 1.1 million to 1.8 million people that attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The Nielsen Company ratings showed a TV viewership of about 30.6 million, less than Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 (38 million) or Reagan’s first in 1981 (42 million).
Nevertheless, Drumpf would not back away from his insistence that it was the largest crowd in history.
Why begin his Presidency with such an easily refutable and completely unnecessary lie? (It was all about ego, baby.)
The “Russian Collusion Hoax”
Drumpf has (of course) consistently argued that the allegations that his 2016 campaign colluded with the Russian government was a hoax. This argument is (of course) countered by the Mueller Report, which sets forth in meticulous (and often tedious) detail of how Drumpf obstructed justice and colluded with the Russians, before concluding that (as a sitting President) Drumpf could not be prosecuted.
Drumpf’s strategy in this matter is not to argue with the merits of Mueller’s report, but rather to just keep repeating the phrase “Russian Collusion Hoax” ad nauseum until his supporters started to believe it without really knowing why.
Drumpf’s objection to the allegations of collusion with the Russians was not premised on the notion that he obstructed justice – he couldn’t give a shit about legal niceties like that – no, it was premised on the notion that he could not have won the election without Russian interference.
The 2020 Election
Which brings us(of course) to the 2020 election and “stop the steal.” Having set up the notion that the 2016 election was going to be rigged – it was(of course) but in his favor – Drumpf set up the same scenario at least a year before the election, at a point in time when he still had a reasonable chance of being re-elected.
Drumpf’s strategy in this matter has not been to argue with the merits of the election process, but rather to just keep repeating the phrase “stolen election” ad nauseum until his supporters started to believe it, without really knowing why. (They had no evidence for it. They just believed it because their peers believed it.)
Drumpf and his administration loyalists have made so many efforts to overturn election results in court that it has resulted in an 18-page Wikipedia article just to track them all. It’s not just the lawsuits, but also the political challenges, like the attempted objections to the certification of the electoral college on January 6th.
At some point, you would think that even his supporters would recognize the mechanics of the deception: to just repeat, ad nauseum, a pithy lie that has absolutely no basis in fact.
But clearly we are not there yet.
The Riot Aftermath
The January 6th riots at the Capitol Building have(of course) driven a wedge into the Republican party. Some members (like Liz Cheney) are genuinely outraged; some members (like Mitch McConnell) see for a possibility to “rid” the Republican party of Drumpf; others (like Jim Jordan) are still true believers and still think it’s to their benefit to stay loyal to Drumpf.
The problem with the “big lie” is that it is not sustainable indefinitely. This much was acknowledged by no less an expert that Josef Göbbels, who explained once that “a lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and military consequences of the lie.” It “thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent,” Göbbels continued, “for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”