The Big Lie (große Lüge) coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf is a lie so blatant people can’t believe someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” It’s a strategy Donald Trump has adopted with a vengeance.
Trump has demonstrably lied about the attendance at his inauguration, his massive landslide in the Electoral College, voter fraud that cost him the popular vote, his tremendous support from women, 14% of non-citizens registered to vote, his landslide victory in the debates with Hillary Clinton, 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., record levels of inner city crime, Barack Obama founding ISIS, his relationship with Vladimir Putin…and these are only the ‘pants on fire’ lies.
Lying about something in the past that can be obviously disproved befuddles most critics who question Trump’s rationality as a result. No one knows quite what to do with it.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
The quote is from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Rarely has a propaganda minister been so candid.
The technique is also known as gaslighting after the movie Gaslight (1944) where a woman begins to question her own memories, perceptions and sanity because of her husband’s lies and manipulation.
Remember the “memory hole” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? It was the mechanism for disappearing documents, photographs, or records distasteful to the regime, systematically replaced by the Ministry of Truth with a history more to their liking. It calls to mind the sudden disappearance of the White House web pages on climate change and LGBT issues when the Trump administration first took office.
Whoever controls the past controls the future. As Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto, wrote recently: “If you could say that you were going to do anything — and then rewrite it to be successful, noble, glorious, wonderful, no matter how much of an abject failure it really was, so that people believed you were smashing, awesome, amazing, the best — then you would have maximum power.” That’s the power of the Big Lie.
The Big Lie works by repetition. Repeat it often enough and people eventually believe it. Repeat it with enough authority and people will eventually believe it. The only defense is to refute it as often as it’s repeated.
The American press isn’t in a strong position to resist the authoritarian tactics of the Trump administration. They’ve long since abandoned the moral high ground for the swamp of popularity and vested interests. But this is the time when the Republic most needs an independent press focused on facts rather than hearsay and gossip.
I’ve heard it suggested that Trump’s future press conferences be broadcast on time delay, interrupting the feed to contradict demonstrable lies. It would be an extraordinary tactic for the press but these are extraordinary times. The U.S. has never been closer to slipping into despair and despotism.
As individuals, somehow we have to constantly confront the gaslighting of this administration. I’m not sure how, frankly. I’m feeling my way in this new world of alternate truths. One way, I think, is to better understand the mechanisms of propaganda—how to recognize it, how to translate subtext, how to separate fact from innuendo, and how to resist.