When The Big Lie Meets The Bully Pulpit
The Big Lie of Donald J. Trump stuck.
Perhaps more accurately, The Big Lie and all its variants have wormed their way into the minds of MAGA disciples, a multitude of erstwhile Republicans and who knows how many tens of thousands of U.S. citizens who otherwise don’t pay much attention to politics or government.
Trump tossed out The Big Lie at the 2016 Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix it.”
All the other lies have flowed from that one, building relentlessly into a crescendo of crazy on the 6th of January. The Big Lie and all its variants were made manifest by a mob of violent, right-wing, domestic terrorists – Trump adherents, racists and anarchists – that overran our Capitol Building.
In the immediate aftermath, officials who should have been prepared to turn back the insurrectionists said no-one could have seen it coming. Yet anyone who has watched the escalation of bizarro lies since Trump rode down an escalator on June 16, 2015 to announce his candidacy for president, listened to his enablers or paid any attention to social media platforms since then had plenty of warning.
The Big Lie
“The Big Lie” is often attributed to Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who reportedly said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The bigger the lie, the better.
The Big Lie that Jews were the source of all Germans’ ills was a cornerstone of Hitler’s messaging strategy. He had, in fact, spelled it out in “Mein Kampf”: “All ideas of universal goodness were simply mental traps set by Jews to catch weak German brains. The only way to restore German faith in German virtue was the physical elimination of the Jews.”
Goebbels’ job was to disseminate The Big Lie, parts of it as smaller lies and, in the parlance of today’s marketers, make them stick. Horrifyingly, he was very, very good at his job.
Though no-one defined it in Goebbels’ time, there’s science behind The Big Lie. Psychologists call it the Illusory Truth Effect –
“(Goebbels’) adage is true and has been validated by decades of research… The effect doesn’t only occur through repetition but can happen through any process that increases familiarity with a statement or the ease by which it’s processed by the brain.”
In other words, restate the lie enough times, in enough ways and with enough conviction and people will believe it.
And as Voltaire observed, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Teddy’s Positive Propaganda
Positive propaganda. Sounds like the greatest oxymoron in the history of the English language.
Integral to Roosevelt’s spin was what he perceived to be the true power of the presidency. He called it a “bully pulpit.”
In those days, “bully” didn’t mean what it does now. “For Roosevelt, bully was an adjective meaning ‘excellent’ or ‘first-rate’ – not the noun bully (‘blustering, browbeating person’) that’s so common today. Roosevelt understood the modern presidency’s power of persuasion and recognized that it gave the incumbent the opportunity to exhort, instruct, or inspire.”
Spin is simply a nuanced synonym of propaganda, after all. Unfortunately, today it’s something politicians and their public relations hacks use to alter the truth of things in the minds of voters.
There’s a lot of it going on right now.
The Big Lie Meets The Bully Pulpit
Trump has always been his own minister of propaganda, framing and reframing The Big Lie, parsing it into variants, shouting them out over Twitter, and sending out a string of press secretaries, lackeys and members of Congress to repeat them with straight faces.
The most recent variant:
“The 2020 election was rigged.”
Trump began stating that bold-faced lie months before he lost the election, then used it to stoke his base for nearly 10 weeks, as did dozens of U.S. senators and representatives. He said it again on the 6th of January to a seething MAGA horde before urging his followers to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
They did, to revolting effect.
All along, somewhere in the background has been Steve Bannon hissing his satisfaction over how easy it’s been to turn The Bully Pulpit into a writhing pit of lies, hate and racism.
And it’s probably going to get worse. The MAGA horde is planning still more armed insurrection, this time in all 50 states in addition to the U.S. Capitol, according to the FBI.
The Worst of the Bad Jokes
It sounds like the beginning of a really bad racist joke:
Donald Trump, Teddy Roosevelt and Joseph Goebbels walk into a bar…
Perhaps that’s fitting, given what Trump, his cronies, enablers, lackeys and MAGA disciples have wrought over the past five years. From the Trump Tower escalator to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, this period in American politics, government and life truly has been a bad racist joke.
In fact, Trump himself has been a joke. A joke of a president. A joke of a leader. A joke of a human being.
And now we’ve reached the bad punchline, the point where this national travesty must end. It’s time to remove the bully from the Bully Pulpit, immediately, along with everyone who repeated and supported The Big Lie for their own political gain.
Left – Theodore Roosevelt via Shutterstock
Middle – Donald Trump, AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Right – Joseph Goebbels via Getty Images