What is “The Big Lie” and why is the Present Occupant of the White House so committed and adept at deploying it?
When Hitler coined the expression “The Big Lie,” he meant it as an accusation against German Jews, charging them in Mein Kampf with falsely condemning Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff for losing World War I due to his strategic errors in the spring offensive of 1918, after which he was forced to leave his post.
Ludendorff retaliated by working overtime to blame defeat not on losses in battle under his command, but on Jews and Communists, whom he saw as a powerful internal enemies. As history shows, his Big Lie triumphed in the court of public opinion. As World War II ramped up, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term to characterize the British relationship to public opinion, accusing them of telling a big lie and sticking no matter what.
Mostly, though, we hear the term in relation to Nazi Germany’s own propaganda, as in this characterization of Hitler from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency) during the war:
His 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.
A poison seed of false belief allows The Big Lie to take root and sprout. Each Big Lie contains something many people want to believe, such as the assertion that immigrants cause crime and create danger, relieving themselves from responsibility by scapegoating newcomers. German antisemitism was not created by the Nazis but fed over decades, most publicly by nationalistic movements such as Ludendorff’s German Völkisch Freedom Party, begun in 1922. When you see the word “Volk” in German political history, beware. Although its literal meaning is “people,” both in the sense of a populace and of an affinity group, it has marinated so long in a romantic attachment to a German peoplehood based in blood: Volksdeutsche. Praise for the purity of the Volk very often comes wrapped in hatred of those deemed impure.
So when the Present Occupant—who swathes himself in red, white, and blue bunting as he defiantly proclaims his devotion to American purity—tweeted on 19 June that “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13,” he chose his verb carefully. Aviya Kushner explains it all in this 20 June analysis of his use of the word “infest,” with its long and vicious history.
This same week, in a speech to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Bigot-in-Chief continued to follow Hitler’s Big Lie playbook, never admitting fault or accepting blame, but rather reasserting with renewed certainty the rightness of his views:
And remember, these countries that we give tremendous foreign aid to in many cases, they send these people up and they’re not sending their finest. Does that sound familiar? (Laughter.) Remember I made that speech and I was badly criticized? “Oh it’s so terrible, what he said.” Turned out I was 100 percent right. That’s why I got elected.
In the same speech, he describes a “a massive child smuggling trade…the worst it’s ever been.” He’s been talking about skyrocketing crime rates attributable to immigrants in Germany (actually, crime there is at its lowest in 30 years) and the U.S. (actually, both undocumented and documented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than American-born citizens—check out the studies referenced in this Washington Post article).
Paul Krugman has been calling out truth with particular clarity lately. Here he is questioning the Republicans who claimed outrage at the administration’s family separation practices. Here he harkens back to the Nazi era in a recent column debunking the anti-immigrant Big Lie with actual facts, for instance:
[P]laces with a lot of immigrants, legal and undocumented, tend to have exceptionally low crime rates. The poster child for this tale of un-carnage is the biggest city of them all: New York, where more than a third of the population is foreign-born, probably including around half a million undocumented immigrants — and crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s.
In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, herself an exile from Nazi Germany, wrote of the degradation of truth in totalitarian movements:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Words create and feed the conditions for totalitarianism to flourish. If we fail to take them seriously, we invite the demise of democracy, already badly wounded by its abusers. If only one person, however prominent and adept at taking center stage, were promulgating The Big Lie, it would be serious indeed. But the fact that this behavior licenses small-time bigots and big-name cretins—and every practitioner of The Big Lie in between—is not in dispute. Read this account of a football coach at Washington State University defending a patent and easily discredited lie about Barack Obama by tweeting, “What is a fact?”
Arendt wrote that, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
This same week, along with the escalating Big Lie and many accounts of its falsehood, an interesting and useful short essay by Richard Bernstein about the relevance of Arendt’s work appeared in the New York Times. He points out that Arendt
…warned against being seduced by nihilism, cynicism or indifference. She was bold in her description of the lying, deception, self-deception, image-making and the attempt of those in power to destroy the very distinction between truth and falsehood.
Her defense of the dignity of politics provides a critical standard for judging the situation many of us find ourselves in today, where the opportunity to participate, to act in concert and to engage in genuine debate with our peers is being diminished. We must resist the temptation to opt out of politics and to assume that nothing can be done in face of all the current ugliness, deception and corruption.
In doing so, he describes my worry: that the patent absurdity of The Big Lie, the sheer volume of repetition, the assumption that anyone with half a brain will see through it—all these things will lull us into the delusion that the loud, ugly, cries of “America First!” will subside by themselves.
So this is what I tell myself: if I don’t decry them until the need expires, I share responsibility for the Big Lies being told in my name. I cannot live with that.
Lucinda Williams, “Everything But The Truth.”