Will 2024 be the year Big Lies overwhelm our entire political system? Is that the goal the GOP is working towards now?
Trump’s people are promoting a new lie-filled fascist advertisement, which even the normally unflappable Frank Luntz called “disturbing.” It follows a fairly ancient pattern of destructive Big Lies that goes back to Renaissance Italy and even the Roman republic and ancient Greece.
German filmmaker Fritz Hippler, one of Goebbels’ most effective propagandists (he produced the infamous movie The Eternal Jew), said that two steps are necessary to promote a Big Lie so the majority of the people in a nation would believe it.
The first is to reduce an issue to a simple black-and-white choice that “even the most feebleminded could understand.”
The second is to “repeat the oversimplification over and over.”
If these two steps are followed, Hippler and Goebbels both knew, enough people will come to believe a Big Lie that it can change the politics of a nation.
In Hippler’s day, the best example of his application of the principle was his 1940 movie “Campaign in Poland,” which argued that the Polish people were suffering under tyranny — a tyranny that would someday threaten Germany — and that the German people could either allow this cancer to fester, or preemptively “liberate” Poland.
Hitler took the “strong and decisive” path, the movie suggested, to liberate Poland, even though after the invasion little evidence was found that Poland represented any threat whatsoever to the powerful German Reich. The movie was Hitler’s way of saying that invading Poland was the right thing to do, and that, in retrospect, he would have done it again.
The Big Lie is alive and well today in the United States of America, and what’s most troubling about it is the basic premise that underlies its use. For somebody to undertake a Big Lie, they must first believe Niccolo Machiavelli’s premise (in “The Prince,” 1532) that “the ends justify the means.”
Hitler, after all, claimed to have based everything he did on the virtuous goal of uniting Europe — and then the world — in a thousand-year era of peace, which he claimed was foreshadowed in the Bible. If you believe that a thousand years of peace is such a noble end that any means is justified to reach it, it’s a short leap to eugenics, preemptive wars, torture of dissidents and prisoners, and mass murder.
Believing that the end justifies the means is the ultimate slippery slope. It will kill any noble goal, because even if the goal is achieved, it will have been corrupted along the way by the means used to accomplish it.
In fiction, it’s the story of Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein’s attempt to conquer mortality, of Darth Vader’s misuse of the Force, and of the tragic consequence of the inquisitive Dr. Jeckyll’s attempt to understand good and evil going tragically wrong when, as Robert Louis Stevenson notes, he wrote, “I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde.”
In real life, it’s the story of the many tinpot dictators around the world who quote America’s Founders while enforcing a brutal rule, of fossil fuel executives pushing for lax CO2 rules to “help the American economy,” of the legion of lobbyists who work daily to corrupt democracy in the name of GMOs, pharmaceuticals, and the insurance industry (among others).
Here in the US it was used by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to lie us into murderous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when there was little consequence to them personally or the GOP, Republicans decided to continue the Big Lie strategy and are using it to this day.
Gandhi, Jesus, and Buddha all warned us about this, as did Tolstoy, Tolkien, Hemmingway, and Kafka.
Be it “small sins” like the Green Party and No Labels getting into bed with Republicans to get on state ballots, or “big sins” like rightwing think-tanks working to turn America into a strongman oligarchy with their Project 2025, trying to accomplish a “good” by using the means of an “evil” like a Big Lie inherently corrupts the good.
Now the Trump campaign and its allies are encouraging a new series of Big Lies to assail President Biden and the very idea of democracy itself.
With the smug assurance of damage done to the enemy, Republican governors are rewriting American history (the Big Lie that white children are injured by learning about Black history), criminalizing the LGBTQ+ community (the Big Lie that queer people are “groomers”), and throwing millions of people in Blue cities off the voting rolls (the Big Lie of voter fraud).
They are pushing and celebrating nakedly fascist policies, tropes, and memes.
Most recently, a Trump-aligned group rolled out an ad that strings a whole series of Big Lies together. It says:
If I was the deep state and I wanted to destroy America, I would rig the election with a puppet candidate, one that was so compromised that they would never say a word about it. I would create a false flag that allows for mail-in ballots. I would be in charge of the ballot-counting machines. I would create a false flag to blame all who question the results of the election.
If I was the deep state, I would prosecute anyone that went against me. I would sue and prosecute anyone that spoke up about the fraudulent election. I would use my powers to shut down all your internet businesses and bankrupt you.
If I was the deep state, I would make everyone an example why you should never question a Democrat ever winning an election. I would imprison my foes. I would use my corrupt DAs and blackmail judges to destroy you. I would make sure all crimes I ever committed never happened. I would prosecute my biggest competition. I would make sure they could never run for office ever again.
If I was the deep state, I would convince everyone that Ukraine Nazis were good, and women are men.
If I was the deep state, I would own every politician that mattered.
If I was the deep state, I would push my pedophilia ambitions on you.
If I was the deep state, you’d question your sexual identity, but not the medical establishment.
If I was the deep state, you would fear to ever resist me.
If I was the deep state, you would wish I was really the devil.
If I was the deep state, I would say mission accomplished.
Frank Luntz wrote of it, “This is the most disturbing political ad I’ve seen this year.”
Defenders of the Trump campaign are overrunning social media, defending the lies and threats in this new ad and Trump’s previous, “If you fuck around with us…” statements. They claim that Joe Biden is reviving our economy with “socialism and communism,” and Jack Smith and the DOJ prosecuting Trump and the January 6th traitors is some sort of “deep state tyranny.”
There is no equivalence, moral or otherwise, between the work the administration is doing to punish seditionists and rebuild our economy from the wreckage of the Trump years and these sorts of naked appeals to fascism.
Truths and issues — however unpleasant — cannot be weighed on the same scale as lies, threats, and character assassination, explicit or implicit.
Lee Atwater, on his deathbed, realized that the “ends justify the means” technique of campaigning he had unleashed on behalf of Reagan and Bush was both immoral and harmful to American democracy.
“In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his [Dukakis’] running mate,’” Atwater said. “I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me.”
But Atwater’s spiritual and political protégés in the Trump campaign soldier on. He and his GOP allies in Congress are using Big Lies with startling regularity, and old Big Lies are being resurrected almost daily, most on social media, right-wing talk radio, podcasts, and TV.
The most alarming contrast in the coming election of 2024 is between those who will use any means to get and hold power, and those who are unwilling to engage in a Big Lie.
History tells us that, over the short term, the Big Lie usually works. Over the long term, though, the damage it does — both to those who use it, and to the society on which it is inflicted — is often incalculable.
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