Hopefully, it will turn out to have been only a moment. But don’t count on it.
We’ve seen this moment before when the truth is no longer defined as what factually is, but, rather, as that which is in the best interest of some autocrat or some movement or some regime.
Josef Goebbels was the Reich Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda in Germany from 1933 to 1945. Goebbels demonstrated that a big lie can be devised, aggressively and loudly repeated, and transformed into an ersatz reality. Goebbels’ thinking was not original, but few, if any, before him had ever elevated raw deceit to such exquisite perfection or devasting effect. He was a gaunt, diminutive man, but a giant among liars.
No, I am not suggesting an equivalency between the Trump Administration and the Third Reich. Our democratic institutions are bigger than undemocratic men, and our institutions will prevail. However, I am suggesting that a big lie is extremely dangerous, especially when perpetrated by little men in high places. When endless lies are used for self-serving political ends, the nation, any nation, is the loser. Words do matter, and when they are carefully chosen for the sole purpose of misinforming, they are no longer simply misspoken errors. They are, instead, calculated and dangerous lies.
When President Trump harangues that he won the election…that the election was rigged…that the Democratic Party and Joe Biden engaged in a devious, well-coordinated national conspiracy to steal the election from the American people, he isn’t merely mistaken. Assuming he is not delusional, he is simply lying. He is engaging in a calculated attempt to do what he is accusing his opponents of doing. He is trying to taint, if not steal, an election he lost. He knows he lost. His campaign knows he lost, and most of the country knows he lost.
He began laying the groundwork for his lie before the election. He warned, with no evidence, of a massive fraud being perpetrated. He wanted no voting by mail despite the pandemic, and he wanted all vote counting to cease on the day of the election. With a straight face, President Trump announced to the nation that the votes cast for him were the legal votes and any votes that showed Biden in the lead were the illegal votes. Before the election began, he proclaimed that the Democrats were plotting to steal the election, that they had rigged it. To prove his point, he produced nothing.
Federal Judge Matthew Brann for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, a conservative Republican, a member of the Federalist Society, and even a National Rifle Association straight shooter heard the Trump case and found, “…this court has been presented with strained legal arguments, without merit (emphasis added) and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence (emphasis added)…“like Frankenstein’s Monster haphazardly stitched together.” This is shameful, especially shameful in a case brought by a lame-duck President determined to hold on to power, contrary to the will of a clear majority of the American people.
Then, Friday, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia unanimously rejected yet another effort to challenge the state’s election results. “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here,” Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump-appointed Republican, wrote for the three-judge panel.
Trump’s groundless allegations are not merely an attack on our election but on our democracy. Republican officials at the state and federal level have bravely attested to the fairness of the election. President Trump immediately fired those within the purview of his office for daring to speak truth to power, and he has lashed out at honest Republican officials who have attested to the fairness of the election in those battleground states that went for Biden.
Thursday, President Trump held an impromptu press conference to simply trash the election. He based his rather unhinged attack on his contention that there was no way “a candidate like Biden” could have attracted so many voters. It seems not to have occurred to President Trump that a candidate like him could have possibly repelled enough voters to make Biden President. That President Trump would behave this way may be shocking, but it isn’t surprising.
His behavior hasn’t been surprising for a long time; not since he publicly basked in the glory of the most massive inaugural crowd in history, except it wasn’t, or the greatest economic growth in history, except it wasn’t, or the greatest civil rights presidency since Lincoln, except it wasn’t, or his spectacular management of the pandemic, except it wasn’t, or that soon the pandemic would miraculously disappear, except it hasn’t, or that Mexico was paying for his wall, except they weren’t, and that China is paying for the tariffs, except they aren’t, that he is a stable genius, except he isn’t, and that there has been a massive nationwide Democratic Party conspiracy to rig and steal the election, except there hasn’t been.
Josef Goebbels had only a newfangled national radio network and posters, printed material, and rallies attended by a rapt and ready Volk, and brown-shirted enforcers to elevate his lies into the Nazi’s deadly group think. Today, however, politicians and miscreants have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and an army of bots, trolls, sycophants, naïve followers and, of course, committed believers supercharging, sharing, and amplifying whatever prevarications are being handed down from high up, or up from down low.
Goebbels could have only imagined a day when propagandists like him might have the amplification tools provided by today’s social media platforms with their supercomputer learning machines to diminish the judgment of an entire nation and the other nearly four billion social media users worldwide. Lies cleverly packaged and spread on social media excite users like photons excite electrons.
As the saying goes, lies can travel around the world, while truth is still putting its shoes on. Toxic political lies are like a virus, constantly replicating as they are passed along on social media, in the press, and by unsuspecting conveyers and deliberate provocateurs. The lie virus is always harmful and all too often deadly. Political lies are handmaidens to political corruption, no matter the political party. America has been savaged by two terrible viruses this year, one medical and one political, and we may pay a big price for years to come.
America has largely ditched the thoughtfully published press and the carefully written history text for the flotsam of social media. Dumbing down has become a national pastime. We are inculcating a political class that is not only a product of this diminution of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking but, worse, who are exploiters of the decline. Smarter, devious, and far more articulate political operatives are paying attention. They will study and soon adopt the lessons of this Goebbelsian moment.
History doesn’t really repeat itself. Mankind does. History merely takes note. A study last year of 41,000 Americans conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 27 percent of Americans under 45 have even a basic knowledge of American history. Philosopher George Santayana vastly understated the problem when he taught that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Today, we have a staggering number of Americans who never learned the past in the first place.
Politicians often stretch the truth in speeches or when answering questions in interviews. However, when they concoct campaigns that are predicated on an immense and terrible lie in order to hold on to power, they have chosen a Goebbelsian path to ignominy. That, sadly, is the path President Trump has chosen for his march into history.