The big lie about the Big Lie is that it is just one lie. It is instead a kind of cluster bomb of deceptions, prevarications, distortions, untruths, fabrications, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and other forms of Trumpist mendacity.
The Big Lie, of course, refers to the myth, promoted by former President of the United States Donald Trump and his supporters, that he actually won last November’s election. It is based on the demonstrably untrue assertion, rejected by more than three dozen courts, that President Joe Biden’s victory was the result of widespread election fraud.
You might believe the Big Lie is called that to distinguish it from the 30,573 lies the Washington Post’s Fact Checker counted Trump making during his single term in office. But actually the term dates back much further in history. The term made an appearance, in fact, in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in which he asserted it was a tool employed by Viennese Jews in their critiques of the Germans during World War I. In what would later be seen as a particularly pernicious act of projection, Hitler wrote that “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility, because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus I the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie…” Later, the technique of exploiting big lies became so commonplace as part of the propaganda efforts of the Nazi regime that Hitler’s propaganda czar, Joseph Goebbels, has been frequently associated with the statement “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” (Appropriately, there is no actual evidence that Goebbels said this even if he lived it in his daily actions on behalf of the Nazi regime.)
Fittingly, Trump, who according to his first wife Ivana used to sleep with a copy of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, on the night table beside his bed, has embraced the idea of projection in his own most recent framing of the term. In a written statement earlier this week, he wrote “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
Trump trying to rebrand the serially reconfirmed, repeatedly tested and proven truth as the big lie is not only one of the big lie-iest things about big lie-ism you’ll ever see, it is an act of propaganda jujitsu that would have made Goebbels weak at the knees with big liar desire.
Trump has taken his initial big lie about how he really won the presidential election, wrapped it in another (that his victory was undone by systematic fraud), and shrouded it with a third (that those speaking the truth are actually the ones who are lying). But, unsatisfied with this feat, in a twist that no doubt would be satisfying to Trump’s Russian benefactors, Trump and the GOP have gone further, creating a veritable Big Lie matryoshka doll of lies within other lies.
Of course, Russia is part of the reason for the lies in the first place. You’ll recall that when word first leaked that Russia was helping Trump win election in 2016, he called it “the Russia Hoax.” This was the seminal big lie of Trump’s presidency. Subsequently, we have learned that the “hoax” was anything but one, that there were dozens of instances of Trump campaign interaction with the Russians, including, as we learned earlier this spring, that Trump’s own campaign chairman Paul Manafort was passing on sensitive campaign data to his sidekick, Konstantin Kilimnik, who passed it on directly to Russian intelligence. By calling the investigation into those ties a hoax, Trump of course, sought to discredit it with his supporters.
In fact, as early as the 2016 campaign, Trump was quoted as saying the only way he could lose the election was if the other side cheated. He sought to contest any results not favorable to him. He sought to do the same with regard to the investigations into his Russia ties. And now he seeks to do the same with the 2020 election. The lie is not just about any one thing; it is about discrediting anyone who challenges Trump, his performance or, in fact, his lies.
The lie was not just a shield for Trump, however, against the truth. It was also a sword. The current Big Lie was used to stir up resentment and ultimately the Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill. It was used as the justification to attack the nation’s democratic institutions. That too, of course, was illegitimate on many levels.
The lie about voter fraud has also been used by Republican officials nationwide to justify implementing, as Florida did just this week, new voter suppression measures. Needless to say, not only is that justification unfounded (the big lie being, after all, a lie) but it is also not the real reason for the voter suppression measures. They are intended to suppress Democratic turnout, as GOP leaders have repeatedly admitted.
The voter suppression measures usually target voters of color in big cities, which suggests that the real truth, obscured by multiple layers of lies, is that the voter suppression measures are motivated by racism. Indeed, racism underlies the willingness of so many in the GOP to embrace Trump. He has never won the popular vote in an election. He was impeached twice. He is a one-term president. His administration was riddled with corruption. More than half a million Americans needlessly died on his watch due to his own mishandling of the pandemic. He has been credibly accused of sexual abuse by more than two dozen women. He has multiple criminal and civil cases pending against him. And yet, he is the party’s unchallenged leader. Why? Because he is now a symbol of the racism that is the GOP’ primary motivation. He says it where others will not. And millions of Republicans have sworn loyalty to him for that reason.
Of course, the lie is also now used as a loyalty test in the party. Rep. Liz Cheney is likely to be punished by the House GOP caucus for daring to challenge the lie. Sen. Mitt Romney was booed in his home state for doing the same. Others who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection have been censured.
It has come to the point that one of the biggest lies associated with the lie is the lie that the Republican Party stands for anything other than the Big Lie and all the little lies associated with it.
These other associated deceptions also include lies that masks don’t help reduce the spread of disease, that the climate crisis is not real, that the U.S. does not have a racist past—and the core idea that GOP policies are helping GOP voters when in fact they are really just helping special interests and core donors among the 1 percent. Anti-factualism is a powerful tool, as it turns out. Once your followers grant you the power to deny the truth, you can manufacture your own truth and once you can do that, everything you do is good and all your enemies do is bad, your critics are liars, and reality be damned.
At core then, the Big Lie is not really just about the last election. It is about the GOP effort to attack democracy in America. It is about rejecting demographic change and social equity, the principle of one voter one vote, the institutions on which our society was founded, the mechanisms of a free press, open public discourse, equal justice under law for all of us, and the very idea of pluralism. If only one party speaks the truth then the other can legitimately be negated and we are well on the road to authoritarian regimes of the type Trump has celebrated, studied, and emulated.
In other words, not only does the Big Lie contain many lies, it is actually a much, much, much bigger lie than we are making out. It is not about the last election and the one before it. It is about our future. It is a test of us as a society. Either the truth wins, or America as we knew it ends.