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“Decency, Democracy and ‘Big Lies’”

On Wednesday December 2, President Donald Trump posted on Facebook a recorded speech containing 46 minutes of lies, ugly fantasies and fabrications claiming that he had won the November 3 national election. In fact, he lost to Joseph Biden by more than 7,000,000 votes, the largest vote margin by a challenger over an incumbent since FDR emerged victorious over Herbert Hoover in 1932.[1] Trump also lost the Electoral College to Biden by a 306-232 tally, a total Trump called a “massive landslide” when he won by the same margin in 2016.  Trump’s absurd conspiracy claims were well summarized by Philip Rucker in The Washington Post:

Trump delivered in person many of the claims he previously has advanced on social media or that his lawyers have brought on his behalf in courts, which have been debunked or summarily dismissed because there is no evidence to support them. Trump claimed in Wednesday’s video, again without evidence, that ‘corrupt forces’ had stuffed ballot boxes with fraudulent votes. He claimed the fraud was ‘massive’ and ‘on a scale never seen before.’ He called on the Supreme Court to ‘do what’s right for our country,’ which he suggested entailed terminating hundreds of thousands of votes so that ‘I very easily win in all states.’[2]

Trump’s lies aside, I continue to reflect on why millions of Americans have indicated they believe what is clearly claptrap, and why.  When I was in high school, we spent some time learning about the character of propaganda and what Adolf Hitler called the Big Lie. The Nazi dictator propagated the cruel lies that those of supposed Aryan descent constituted a Master Race and that Jews were responsible for Weimar Germany’s economic woes and for “polluting” that nation’s gene pool. Daniel Goleman has observed that Hitler argued, “That people would believe anything if it was repeated often enough and if disconfirming information was routinely denied, silenced, or disputed with yet more lies.” [3]

The United States is now deep in a governance crisis occasioned by just such a torrent of propaganda throughout the Trump years concerning everything from his narrow victory margin and overarching popular vote loss in 2016 to the size of his inauguration crowd, which he falsely contended was much larger than it was, and countless other more serious matters besides. Now, he is baselessly and repeatedly claiming, as Hitler counseled should occur if one is to persuade millions to believe a lie, that he won an election that he lost.

His unprecedented post-election petulance and smallness have meanwhile effectively silenced virtually all of the leaders in his party who have gone along with what is, in fact, a profoundly democratically delegitimating charade in order to placate those voters they perceive as believing, or at least countenancing, Trump’s lies.  Meanwhile, Trump has done all he can to undermine or silence any voices that would question his frequent meandering rhetorical diatribes and rants. He has fired publicly and often scurrilously demeaned those in his administration who would dare speak truth to him. These tactics, too, are well known and have been used time and time again by authoritarians.

Roger Cohen, now the Paris Bureau Chief for The New York Times and an always thoughtful commentator on U.S. and international politics, has written recently that Trump’s lies and persona have appealed to many Americans for very specific reasons:

Mr. Trump, an artful impostor, saw the political space this opened up for him. His nostalgia is for some unidentified moment of American greatness, when white male property owners ruled alone, women stayed home and the nation’s global dominance was unchallenged. He thrived on the unease and sense of humiliation that rapid demographic change and a shifting economic landscape brought. He is unlikely to go away; and if he does, perhaps to a prison cell, Trumpism will find some other exponent.[4]

In practice, Trump has been openly racist and misogynistic during his presidency and has just as often attacked the rule of law and other basic Constitutional premises, including freedom of the press and of peaceable assembly. He has scapegoated minorities, immigrants, refugees and Jews, too, for the anxieties that fast-paced social and economic change, and his party’s own policy choices, have wrought, disproportionately, for the populations of our country’s rural areas. The result, to paraphrase Cohen, has been throngs of partisans flocking to his “rallies” wearing red baseball caps celebrating nostalgia for a nondescript past in which white men ruled, women stayed home and minorities knew their place. These crowds, encouraged by Trump, chant lies and embrace quackery in the name of allaying their fears and anxieties. Those partisans, whipped continuously into a misinformed frenzy of indignation by Trump, Fox Entertainment and niche social media propaganda of various brands, have been willing to sacrifice reality itself to a nationalist demonization of targeted groups to assuage their individual and collective psychic unsettledness.

 For his entire presidency, Trump has led an assault on the very ideas of human dignity, freedom and democracy, and in so doing he has asserted the worthlessness of life itself for many individuals who are members of groups he has elected to malign, including, importantly, millions of United States citizens. Such efforts are always central to attempts to undercut freedom.[5]

The celebrated neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote about the Nazi absolutization of such tactics in a series of lectures given just months after he was freed from the concentration camp at Kaufering:

… in the camp we ourselves were nothing, we were already dead during our lifetime, We were worth nothing. We did not only see nothingness, that is what we were. Our life counted for nothing. There was no halo, not even a notional one, around our death. …

In the camps, even the life that was considered worthy only of death was fully exploited to its absolute limit.[6]  

While Trump has not established concentration camps, he and his followers have nonetheless practiced the premise at play in those godforsaken spaces: systematic stigmatization and dehumanization of some members of the population to mobilize others, underpinned by wanton cruelty and patent lies. Following an age-old playbook, Trump has employed this device particularly against those whose denigration can result in political support and power because they are perceived as different, unworthy or other by individuals willing to blame them as the cause of their perceived woes.

It is but a short step from declaring entire populations are dangers and rapists, as Trump has done, to unleashing supporters calling for the death and maltreatment of those groups—many examples of which have indeed occurred under Trump.  Most recently, as Trump railed against unidentified forces whom he falsely alleged had “taken” an election victory from him, his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whom he recently pardoned of any and all federal crimes he may have committed during the Mueller investigation, retweeted a press release that called on the military to intervene and oversee a new presidential election.[7] It is, simply put, insanity, but millions have countenanced or embraced this propaganda and it is perilous for that reason. Hitler’s murderous rhetoric was similarly patently senseless. Propaganda’s power does not now, and has never, resided in reason.

Whatever hopes one might have had prior to the election that Trump would behave civilly and honor the Constitution and accede to a routine transfer of power have been dashed by his cynical and churlish behavior since. He has chosen instead to rely on a Big Lie, and on silencing opponents to press his utterly unfounded claims that the election was somehow rigged against him. The cost of this chilling continuing propagandistic assault on truth and on democracy is high, as many citizens now suggest they believe that a duly elected individual cannot serve as president legitimately. They have adopted that narrative because it has been systematically presented and repeated ad nauseum by their favored party’s officials, and especially by the president. To be blunt: One of this nation’s major political parties has been and continues to be willing to aid and abet a clear assault on the foundations of our regime to acquire and sustain political power.

Cohen entitled his recent column, “A Return to Decency” and that surely looks set to be true. Americans will no longer rise daily to newly tweeted bizarre conspiracy theories, cruel policies born of personal and institutional defamation, and governance by personal whim and fiat by their president. And while that turn is vitally important, it does not by itself do anything to address the ongoing willingness of millions to sacrifice both reality and democracy in support of a charlatan and grifter who has knowingly forfeited the civil and human rights of millions to secure power and adulation. America remains mired in a governance crisis as deep as any it has weathered in its history and that will continue so long as this propaganda-created reality continues to hold sway for a substantial portion of the country’s population.

Those U.S. leaders who care about democracy, rather than simply power or serving a wealthy elite, must find ways to engage the citizens who credulously believe Trump’s propaganda and encourage them to rethink their assumptions. Leaders must also work actively to address the underlying conditions that have made those individuals susceptible to his Big Lies. The nation will remain on a knife’s edge until those residents can themselves begin to see the ignominy they have unleashed and take steps to redress, rather than continue to deepen it. One does not embrace the poisonous snake as it strikes, but instead finds ways to escape its reach.

It is now time, and one might say, past time, for the friends of freedom to adopt a clear-eyed, gritty and hope-filled temperament of the sort President Abraham Lincoln evidenced when he wrote in a letter in 1860:

For the good men of the South—and I regard the majority of them as such—I have no objection to repeat seventy and seven times. But I have bad men also to deal with, both North and South—men who are eager for something new upon which to base new misrepresentations—men who would like to frighten me, or, at least, to fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice. They would seize upon almost any letter I could write, as being an 'awful coming down.' I intend keeping my eye upon these gentlemen, and to not unnecessarily put any weapons in their hands.[8]

Notes

[1] Rucker, Philip, “Trump Escalates Baseless Attacks on Election with 46-minute Video Rant,” The Washington Post, December 2, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-election-video/2020/12/02/f6c8d63c-34e8-11eb-a997-1f4c53d2a747_story.html, Accessed December 2, 2020.; Richardson, Heather Cox, “Letters from an American,” December 3, 2020, heathercoxrichardson@substax.com, Accessed December 3, 2020. 

[2] Rucker, Philip, “Trump Escalates Baseless Attacks on Election with 46-minute Video Rant.”

[3] Goleman, Daniel, “Introduction,” in Frankl, Viktor, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, Boston: Beacon Press, 2020, p. 5.

[4] Cohen, Roger, “A Return to Decency,” The New York Times, December 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/opinion/a-return-to-decency.html, Accessed December 3, 2020. 

[5] Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017; Bauman, Zygmunt. Strangers at Our Door, Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2016. 

[6] Frankl, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, pp. 100, 22; Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006 (originally published, 1946).

[7]Altman, Howard, Davis Winkie, Sarah Sicard, Meghann Myers, and Leo Shane III, “Calls for Marital law and U.S. Military Oversight of New Presidential Election Draws Criticism,” Military Times, December 2, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/12/02/calls-for-martial-law-and-us-military-oversight-of-new-presidential-elections-draws-criticism/, Accessed December 4, 2020.   

[8] Tarbell, Ida. The Life of Abraham Lincoln: Drawn from Original Sources. Volume 1. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920, p. 377.

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