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Can The Forces Unleashed By Trump's Big Election Lie Be Undone?

A Stop The Steal sign is posted inside the U.S. Capitol after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building on Jan. 6.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
A Stop The Steal sign is posted inside the U.S. Capitol after a pro-Trump mob broke into the building on Jan. 6.

Last Wednesday, just before a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an insurrection that left five dead, the president stood before a huge crowd gathered in front of the White House for a so-called "Save America" rally.

Trump whipped up his supporters, repeating a false claim that he has made over and over in the weeks since Nov. 3: "We won this election, and we won it by a landslide," he insisted. "This was not a close election!"

"They say we lost," the president went on. "We didn't lose."

Among the thousands of falsehoods Trump has uttered during his presidency, this one in particular has earned the distinction of being called the "big lie." It's a charged term, with connotations that trace back to its roots in Nazi Germany.

Hitler used the phrase "big lie" against Jews in his manifesto Mein Kampf. Later, the Nazis' big lie — claiming that Jews led a global conspiracy and were responsible for Germany's and the world's woes — fueled anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Given that history, it was striking that President-elect Joe Biden chose the term when he slammed two Republican senators — Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley — who have amplified Trump's falsehood.

"I think the American public has a real good, clear look at who they are," Biden told reporters two days after the Capitol was attacked. "They're part of the big lie, the big lie."

Biden nodded to the term's origin in Nazi Germany, as embodied in Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

"We're told that, you know, Goebbels and the great lie. You keep repeating the lie, repeating the lie," Biden said. "The degree to which it becomes corrosive is in direct proportion to the number of people who say it."

Hawley called Biden's Nazi comparison "sick" and "disgusting" and said the president-elect should retract his comments.

The storming of the Capitol, and the electoral lie that inspired it, spurred Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, to release a video message drawing on his own childhood experience in Austria, soon after World War II.

Austria was Hitler's birthplace; in 1938, the country was annexed into Nazi Germany, with many Austrians enthusiastically collaborating in pogroms against the Jews.

Reflecting on his birth country's history, Schwarzenegger said, "It all started with lies and lies and lies and intolerance. So, being from Europe, I've seen firsthand how things can spin out of control."

In seeking to overturn the results of a fair election, Schwarzenegger said, President Trump "sought a coup by misleading people with lies." He warned: "I know where such lies lead."

"It tears the fabric of reality"

A big lie has singular potency, says Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, whose books include studies of Hitler, Josef Stalin, the Holocaust and tyranny.

"There are lies that, if you believe in them, rearrange everything," he says.

"Hannah Arendt, the political thinker, talked about the fabric of reality," Snyder says. "And a big lie is a lie which is big enough that it tears the fabric of reality."

In his cover story for The New York Times Magazine this week, Snyder calls Trump "the high priest of the big lie."

As for where big lies lead, Snyder writes: "Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president."

"When I say pre-fascism, I mean when you take away facts, you're opening the way for something else," Snyder tells NPR. "You're opening the way for someone who says 'I am the truth. I am your voice,' to quote Mr. Trump — which is something that fascists said, as a matter of fact. The three-word chants, the idea that the press are the enemy of the people: These are all fascist concepts."

"It doesn't mean that Trump is quite a fascist himself," Snyder adds. "Imagine what comes after that, right? Imagine if the big lie continues. Imagine if there's someone who's more skillful in using it than he is. Then we're starting to move into clearly fascist territory."

As for ways to undo the destruction of a big lie, Snyder suggests one remedy would be a reinvigorated media ecosystem, with a robust force of local reporting.

"The big lie fills in this space which used to be taken up by a lot of little truths, by hundreds and thousands and millions of little truths," Snyder says. "We've let that slip away. And then the big lie comes in and fills in the gap."

"It could happen here"

Historian Fiona Hill has spent decades studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, looking at how disinformation and lies are woven into authoritarian regimes. The patterns in such states are clear, Hill says: purging staff seen as disloyal, demonizing the checks and balances of civil society, attacking the media.

"At every turn in other countries where I've seen this happen, we're starting to see the same signs here in the United States," Hill says. "So we're suddenly in the company of many others. I think the main thing is that we've had a really hard time realizing that it could happen here."

Hill brings the perspective of having served on the National Security Council under President Trump. In the 2019 impeachment hearing, she memorably swatted down what she called the "fictional narrative" embraced by Trump and congressional Republicans that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.

Given the big lie's roots in Nazi Germany, is it a stretch, a poor analogy, to call Trump's claim that he won the 2020 election a big lie? No, says Hill: "It's not a stretch when it's intended to subvert the democratic order or it's intended to pit one group against another, which is what exactly happened in this setting."

Don't get bogged down in the terminology, Hill advises. "I don't actually think that we should get caught up in the origins of where this term — the big lie — comes from," she says, "because this is clearly a lie on a large scale that was meant to have political consequences and was also intended to pit one group of people within society against another."

Trump has told so many falsehoods that he has effectively normalized lying, Hill says, and he has taken his cues from the autocrats he publicly admires.

She recalls: "President Trump was also talking openly about removing term limits. 'Wouldn't that be great?' And the thing is, everyone thought he was joking. But as I learned from observing him, he says things in these throwaway manners, but he's deadly serious. He's not joking at all."

Her experience in the Trump administration taught her not to underestimate the president's intentions. "People would basically think, 'Well, he's just not clever enough to do this,' " she says, before cautioning, "That is just such a mistake. President Trump is a very clever politician. He knows only too well how to manipulate people. And again, you know, I saw him in action doing this on a regular basis."

Neutralizing the big lie won't be easy, Hill says. "Some people will always believe it. That is also an element of the big lie. It takes root. And no matter what you do, it becomes extraordinarily hard to refute it for some people."

Trump's use of the big lie comes from an age-old authoritarian playbook, says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, history professor at New York University and author of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.

"It's part of a much larger discourse of throwing any mechanism of democracy, any democratic institution into doubt," she says.

Ben-Ghiat says while Trump will soon be gone from the White House, "he's also going to carry his victimhood cult with him, which will be stronger than ever. So we haven't seen the last of those lies and the pernicious effects they're going to have on our democracy."

Put another way, as historian Timothy Snyder writes, "the lie outlasts the liar."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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