Big Lie

09.01.21 Publication:

America’s attempted revolution has failed. Donald Trump has failed. His opponents now
command a majority in both houses of the US Congress. Criminal prosecutions are likely to
follow, including perhaps of the outgoing president himself. Shocking as this week’s events
have been, this is comforting for those who hope that constitutional, liberal democracy can
now have a healthier future. Yet there is one huge caveat. It is that Trump proved that the
most dangerous tactic of all can succeed remarkably well: the Big Lie.

It was Adolf Hitler who in modern times catalogued and then weaponised this tactic
with the greatest success. In his notorious book “Mein Kampf” he explained how big lies can
be far more powerful than small ones, for people cannot imagine that colossal untruths
could really be fabricated, either by themselves or by others. This makes it possible to
convince people that there must be some real basis even for “the grossly impudent lie”,
especially when deployed by people in positions of power and hence credibility.

That is what Trump has been attempting in the United States of America, the world’s
capital not just of democracy but of the free media and the internet-based information age.
The narrative he has built up about the “stolen” November election, and which he has
continued to propagate even in his tweets and videos following the storming of the Capitol
building, is exactly that sort of Big Lie. And, just as Hitler did by building conspiracy theories
about supposed Jewish lies, Trump has made his own Big Lie more potent by having built up
the idea that his opponents’ claims and criticisms are themselves lies, “fake news”. So
evidence contradicting his lie can become, in the eyes of supporters, proof that it must be

Throughout Trump’s time in politics, both before gaining office and throughout the
past four years, media organisations have competed to catalogue his many small lies, using
cute labels such as “the Pinocchio index”, making Carlo Collodi proud. Egregious though
those lies have often been, most could be dismissed as evidence of Trump’s narcissism and
self-delusion. Supporters claimed that he should be “taken seriously but not literally”,
implying that not everything he says is true, but that he nevertheless has serious intentions.

What he has now proved is that one of those serious intentions has been to use
people’s willingness to believe what he says as a powerful political tool. What has been
remarkable about the Big Lie of the stolen election is how neither Trump nor his loyalists
have made any real effort to provide evidence for the claim. Even more remarkable is the
fact that when his own, generally loyal, Attorney-General, William Barr, announced that the
Department of Justice had found no evidence of systematic electoral fraud, this made no
apparent difference either to Trump or his base of ordinary supporters.

After every judicial setback, after every rejection even by Republican Party state
electoral officials, Trump simply shouted the Big Lie more loudly. One result was the crowd
of Trump supporters who heeded his call to go to Washington and “fight” for his cause by
storming the Capitol. But the most profound result can be seen in the opinion polls.
Following November’s elections, polls showed that three-quarters of Republican voters, and
so more than one-third of the electorate, believe the election result was somehow
inaccurate. A snap poll taken on the day of the invasion of Capitol Hill by the firm YouGov,                                          admittedly with a small sample of just 1,397 voters, showed an alarming 45% of Republican
voters supporting the storming of the seat of American democracy.

The potency of the Big Lie is shown in those polling figures. It was also shown in the
willingness of 139 Republican members of the House of Representatives and 8 Republican
Senators to vote against the certification of the election results on January 6 th , even after
they had been driven from their debating chambers by the trespassing protesters.

In the end, Trump and this attempted insurrection has failed. There is a backlash
against Wednesday’s tactics, especially from Republican-supporting businesses and
billionaire donors. But just as Hitler pointed out, “the grossly impudent lie always leaves
traces behind it.” The belief that the election was stolen will persist.

Even more important is the fact that this success in using a Big Lie to motivate and
mobilise a mass of supporters will be noted, now and in the future, by potential emulators.
Imagine what might have happened if Donald Trump had been a more competent politician,
rather than just a super-salesman? Imagine what might have happened if he had actually
had greater credibility with middle-of-the-road, independent voters? It could happen again,
in more skilful and ruthless hands than those of Pinocchio Trump.