In the 1920s, Adolf Hitler coined the term “the big lie,” meaning the use of a falsehood so huge no one would believe a leader could dare promote it were it not true.
From then on the phrase “the big lie” became a standard description of the prime propaganda technique used by strongmen in undemocratic regimes.
Last week, Donald Trump’s mastery of the big lie was on full display when he gave himself an A+ for his handling of COVID-19.
“We’ve done a phenomenal job,” he insisted baldly, rating his performance as “an A+”, even as America’s death toll soared beyond 200,000 and continued to rise at close to 1,000 per day. With 4% of the world’s population, the United States has nearly 21% of the deaths from the virus.
Clearly Trump has no concern about applying the big lie to the virus — a topic central to the 2020 election and to America’s economy, security, and psyche.
Yet Trump’s demagoguery goes beyond the normal presidential falsehoods we’ve come to take for granted — 20,000 lies and distortions and counting since he took office, according to Washington Post fact checkers. His big lie on COVID-19 takes us into propaganda territory we are more likely to associate with autocrats like Vladimir Putin, or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It offers a preview of what to expect on Nov. 3 and in the weeks and months beyond.
Consider for a moment Putin’s response to the poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, with a variant of the nerve toxin Novichok, developed in Soviet military labs. Putin flatly denies Moscow’s involvement in any poisoning, whether of Navalny or previous assassinations of Kremlin opponents abroad — even though all trace back to the Kremlin. (Trump has said he’s seen “no proof” that Navalny was poisoned.)
But the Russian leader reportedly had the gall to suggest to French President Emmanuel Macron that Navalny may have poisoned himself. Putin also insists that Russia never interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the detailed conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies and the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee. (Trump has said he believes Putin over those agencies.)
What Putin knows is this: If you mouth a big lie often enough, it sticks. That was the conclusion of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA), which compiled a secret report on how Hitler used the big lie technique. It contained the following description of demagoguery that resonates up until now.
Thus Trump repeats over and over the big lie that the virus casualty toll is the fault of “the blue states.” (He adds to his falsehood by stating it affected “virtually nobody,” only old people with prior conditions, even though he told author Robert Woodward in March that the virus affected “plenty of young people.”)
These lies are utter nonsense.
Countries that handled the virus correctly have a fraction of our casualties, even adjusted for population differentials. Germany has just over 9,500 deaths. South Korea has under 400 deaths. According to the Johns Hopkins University’s respected coronavirus tracker, the United States is sixth worst in the world in deaths per hundred thousand population.
And testing in this country has been a dismal failure, with Trump refusing to devise a national strategy that would create a grid to transfer necessary testing equipment and personnel to where there were shortages. America is still testing way, way below the optimum level.
Bottom line: The country with the world’s best technology is near the bottom of the pack.
Yet, even with a free press, Trump has convinced his core to swallow his big lie on COVID-19. While 62% of Americans overall think the U.S. has done a worse job than other countries in handling COVID-19, according to a Pew poll in late July and early August, 64% of Republicans think America has done as well or better.
Repeat the big lie often enough and it will stick.
Perhaps Trump summed up his success with his followers when he told an ABC-TV Town Hall that COVID-19 would vanish when we "develop a herd mentality.” Of course, he meant “herd immunity,” a state when at least 60% to 70% of the population have had the virus and developed antibodies.
The United States is not remotely near such a percentage, which would require an untold number of more deaths.
But Trump’s slip of the tongue was telling.
The big lie requires a majority of the country to acquire “herd mentality” and fall under the sway of a demagogue who will twist the truth in ways that no previous U.S. politician imagined. Should Trump win in November, the battle between the herd and those who reject the big lie will grow fierce.