Two days after the insurrection at the Capitol building, President-elect Joe Biden slammed Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, stating, “They’re part of the big lie, the big lie.” His statement is a reference to a quote often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, who said, “If you tell a lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” What’s important is not just the repetition of any lie, but a BIG lie — one that has the capacity to structure an entire political movement.The lie in the case of the attack on the Capitol — the new Big Lie — was the claim that Trump really won the election, by millions of votes, but was kept from being declared the winner through a combination of mass voter fraud, corrupt judges and officials, and, on the morning of January 6, the members of Congress who were about to certify the Electoral College votes submitted by the states. This new Big Lie is the biggest threat to our democracy for the near future.
Goebbels’ strategy has heightened potency in the Information Age, where content can reach millions of people within a matter of hours. Within information silos, like the right-wing media ecosystem, users may hear the same message multiple times from different sources, creating what psychologists call the “illusory truth effect” — a cognitive response which equates a repetition with veracity. In addition, claims that arouse heightened emotional response, like anger, are shared more frequently on social media. And a recent M.I.T. study found that false claims travel six times faster on the internet than true ones. Put these observations together and it’s not hard to see how, within a matter of two months, Trump managed to galvanize thousands of people to reclaim his “stolen” presidency by force.
Of course, even before Hitler, or social media, the United States has struggled with another big lie of its own — the whitewashing of its original sin of slavery. In their book, “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy,” historians Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle chronicle how the war over slavery metamorphosed into the Lost Cause narrative, a romanticized apologia for the antebellum South, where slaves and their masters were content with the social order until their states’ right to keep this way of life were trampled on by the North. This narrative was formed through decades of rehabilitating and valorizing Confederate heroes, rewriting school textbooks, and even creating a Southern tourism industry that glossed over the brutality of slavery. The power of this lie is reflected in the continued divisiveness, to this day, over the removal of Confederate monuments and the renaming of military bases honoring Confederate leaders.
White nationalist and neo-Nazi groups like the KKK and Proud Boys still explicitly espouse the anti-Semitism and bigotry embodied in these historical threads. But precisely because of the horrors of the Holocaust and the ugly legacy of Jim Crow, politicians and ordinary Americans usually bear a political and social cost for openly affiliating with these groups, forcing them to keep a distance which gives them plausible deniability. Even Donald Trump, who in 2016 received the endorsement of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, obfuscated on whether he welcomed his support by claiming he didn’t know who Duke was.
That’s why the new Big Lie is so dangerous. This lie does not, on its face, scapegoat a particular group of people. Rather, it purports to advocate for “election integrity,” an ostensibly democratic value. The implicit allegation made in the lie, of course, is one that targets particular groups — the contested counties where “fraud” allegedly occurred just happen to be majority Black areas, like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit. The urgency of the lie emerges in the supposed consequences of not addressing it immediately: It foretells a future where an “American” way of life is overrun by (take your pick) immigrants, globalists, socialists, and Antifa.
But because this lie is based on false claims about the electoral process, it allows bigotry and hatred to hide behind a claim to civic virtue. Its adherents can both outwardly insist, and inwardly rationalize, that they aren’t racist, or anti-Semitic, or xenophobic, but acting in defense of democracy. This rationalization, in turn, makes the lie easier to espouse publicly. And because this lie appeals to a sense of patriotism and loyalty to one’s country, it resonates with people who have spent their professional lives in organizations with a protective mission — it’s no surprise that many of the people arrested in the aftermath of the insurrection include former law enforcement and members of the military.
Worst of all, the new Big Lie has been validated by members of Congress themselves. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley of course, led the charge. Both are well educated — they are lawyers, no less! — and, even after witnessing firsthand the physical violence and destruction that this lie has the capacity to wreak on the country, came back to the chamber and doubled down on it by continuing to object to the electoral vote counts from Arizona and Pennsylvania. So did six of their Republican Senate colleagues and over half of the Republicans in the House. In so doing, they implicitly legitimized the violence and represented the new Big Lie in our democratic process. We effectively have a domestic terror movement with active political representation in our government.
The repercussions of failing to repudiate this new Big Lie early, and unequivocally, are dire. Historians have warned that this lie is planting the seeds for a new “Lost Cause” painting Trump as a tragic victim and lost savior. Scholars who study authoritarianism warn that the new Big Lie creates a foundation for an enduring fascist movement within the U.S. which will foment more violence in the years to come. The only antidote to the Big Lie is Truth. We must insist on it, and demand that our leaders articulate it, if we want our democracy to endure.