William E. Connolly, author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (Duke, 2017)
Donald Trump is a practitioner of the Big Lie. It started with the Birther lie, when he insisted loudly for several years with no evidence that the first democratically elected African American President in the history of the U.S was not born in this country, was Muslim, and was an illegitimate President. That Lie, never actively corrected by other Republicans, helped to weaken Obama and to energize the radical right. Other Big Lies were soon to follow: the charge that Islam in general is laced with terrorist imperatives; the refusal to release his taxes, claiming falsely that an IRS audit makes it impossible to do so; the statement that climate change is a Chinese hoax, in the face of massive scientific evidence to the contrary; the campaign assertion that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, soon to be charged for her treasonous use of a private server and favoritism she gave supporters of the Clinton Foundation as Secretary of State; constant repetition on the campaign trail that the election was “rigged” by a combination of illegal votes in large cities and media bias against him, even though overwhelming evidence speaks against voter fraud and his campaign events received more direct media coverage than Clinton's; the assertion that Mexico and China are stealing American jobs, when in fact those real losses are surpassed by capitalist technological changes that dissolve many decent paying jobs; the repeated assertion that the homicide rate is soaring, when in fact it has been in decline for several years; the very tardy withdrawal of the Birther charge after activating the base around it for years, followed immediately by the assertion that the Clinton campaign in 2008 had initiated the story; the repeated insistence in a “thank you” tour that he had won the election by a "landslide" when it was in fact relatively close in the electoral college and he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; and post campaign repetitions at rallies and on tweets that he would have won the popular vote if the election had not been polluted by “millions and millions of illegal votes,” again with no evidence and in the face of numerous studies to the contrary. These are merely some of his Big Lies. They also omit numerous false promises he has made for the future, including the promise to replace Obamacare with something “terrific”after repealing it.
The Lies, repeated on campaign stops in front of a screaming audience of ardent supporters, are designed to further outrage a base that energizes him as he brings it to a boil. The base is prepped to receive these lies, partly because the lives of many in its lower reaches are filled with real grievances that the mainstream media and the Center of the Democratic Party downplayed or ignored at their peril. The lies provide many with scapegoats to blame for real difficulties and fears, making it possible to hope that a billionaire president, billionaire Cabinet, and Republican Congress could resolve them by a series of simple acts that also preserve the powers and privileges of the 1%. The lies allow the base to express its grievances, hatreds and hope for radical change without the need of a more radical economic transformation. Of course, Hillary Clinton was not helpful in this regard because her actual campaign (more than her platform) failed to challenge profoundly neoliberal policies. It emphasized the grievances of multiple minorities in need of attention without also speaking closely to those of another large minority: the white working class in a de-industrialized America.
Some Big Lies are believed by Trump supporters; but others are not really believed. They, rather, serve as pegs upon which the beleaguered can project their grievances against Trumpian targets: liberals, the media, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and the liberal arts professoriate.When one Big Lie is dropped because it has become inconvenient, others are wheeled out. The new ones perform the same functions as the old.
The media are key here. At campaign rallies Trump would point to the media assembled in one spot, gesturing angrily as he yelled and prodded the crowd to express its contempt. At his invitation, many in the crowd would turn and gesture violently at the crew. They are “liars”, “scavengers” and “scum”, Trump would say. This tactic allowed him to dismiss corrections of Big Lies made by the media, to energize the hatred of the crowd against a constellation that in fact had too often treated their regions as fly over zones, and to initiate a strategy of media intimidation that will escalate during his term in office. Trump and his entourage do not express concern about the potential violences such a strategy invites. You don’t need to show restraint or respect for “scum”, a term that recalls Hitler’s characterization of Jews, Romani, homosexuals and social democrats during the nineteen thirties.
All this is clear enough. Two critical dimensions must be added, however, to capture the full dynamic of the Big Lie Scenario. First, some Lies provide cover for activities in which Trump himself engages. The shocking intervention of FBI Director James Comey in the election that weakened Clinton and allowed Trump to escalate his charges of criminality occurred shortly after Rudolph Giuliani had announced on Fox News that there would soon be a welcome "surprise" from the FBI. Trump's own previous charge of an election rigged against him thus allows him to neutralize the evidence-based charge by his opponent of unjust interference. Now Trump supporters and sycophantic voices on the media can say that “both sides” have made the same charge, disarming the evidence-based charge in relation to the evidence-free charge. Carriers of the Big Lie often accuse their opponents of what they themselves do. Indeed, President Obama has now conceded that he delayed publicizing the most serious evidence about Putin’s intervention against Clinton because it would have appeared to be too “partisan” in this electoral context. And after the Putin intervention was exposed Trump recited another Big Lie: There is no evidence to support that claim, he says, though all the intelligence agencies say otherwise. The objective of the evidence-free campaigner is to reduce this to another “he said, she said” situation.
The second, even more sinister, upshot is this. It is no coincidence that Trump expresses admiration for Putin and nominated a Secretary of State who will defang investigating Russian intervention in the American election. Rex Tillerson, the chief of Exxon, has made huge oil deals with the Russians, and he has been awarded the Russian Medal of Honor. His selection reveals amply how Trumpites give priority to corporate profits over democratic sovereignty, even though they regularly accuse democrats of the latter sin.
The most basic tie between Putin and Trump, however, is this. Putin is a practitioner of Big Lies who enforces them by murdering, poisoning, imprisoning or smearing those who seek to expose the falsehoods. The former KGB Head controls the media that assess his performance. His hacking efforts within Russia are designed to marginalize those who criticize him. And many analysts contend he also practices kompromat, implanting evidence on computers to destroy the reputations of opponents. The practice is common enough to have earned its own name. The evidence that tainted images of child pornography has been found on the computer of one internal Russian critic is bone chilling. And it is meant to be bone chilling.
Donald Trump admires Putin because Putin can spread and enforce Big Lies with impunity. Putin is a “strong leader” because he overwhelms democratic accountability to enhance autocratic rule. Practitioners of the Big Lie undermine democracy to protect Big Lies: they deliver Big Lies to enforce autocratic rule. You don't need everybody to believe the Big Lie if you can silence or demean critics of it: you merely need the counter-assertions to be neutralized.
There are many reasons to be worried about the future during a Trump Presidency, including that of a nuclear winter, attacks on vulnerable minorities, and the disastrous effects of unattended climate change. But vilification of the media, hacking critics, further politicization of the FBI and CIA, attacks on the professoriate, and new limits on minority voting rights in Republican controlled states are high among them. For these latter practices inhibit publicity about the other Trumpian practices. Big lies enact smear campaigns against proponents of democratic accountability. You can see that in operation again through recent right wing neutralization of worries about fake news by claiming that most news that does not toe their line is fake. The same scenario.
What can be done to respond to such dangers and threats?
First, each time a Big Lie is initiated or repeated join factual correction of it to an account of how the Big Lie Scenario works. Factual correction alone is not enough. You must show how the Scenario over time undermines democratic accountability.
Second, match the strategy of endless repetition practiced by Trump — his term in office is apt to become a perpetual electoral campaign — with a counter-strategy of repetition, to further loosen the hold of these Lies. When so many Big Lies appear and recede it is otherwise too easy to forget how those recently left behind continue to do their work on the lower registers of cultural life. It is very important to negate those effects. Why? Many who voted for Trump were a little shaky in doing so. While they will resist exposes in the early going, new events and future Trump failures may make more ready to allow now suppressed doubts to re-emerge. If the logic of the Scenario becomes an object of recurrent critique. Such delayed responses did occur during the Nixon years with respect to Watergate (few would listen to the available evidence until after the election) and during the tenure of George W. Bush with respect to Iraq.
Third, the white working class now sits on the razor's edge of time. A huge cadre supported Trump in this election, but that support contains a large reserve of citizens who could turn against Trump if and when they see how he has conned them. This will be so, however, only if more critical voices outside the working class speak forcefully to the real grievances and suffering of that class while simultaneously supporting other minorities in precarious positions. The task is to contest expanding the military and fossil fuel infrastructure with support for dynamic programs that would increase the number of good paying jobs for high school graduates. Bernie Sanders started to pursue such a noble combination, with great success. He spoke to the higher angels of the working class, as Trump pounded away at its worst tendencies. Cornel West and Elizabeth Warren pursue similar strategies to Sanders. Moreover, several voices on The Contemporary Condition have been calling for such an approach for several years now. The Rust Belt must no longer be treated as a fly over zone; the ugliness finding ample expression today in sections of the white working class must not be deployed as an excuse to ignore its real grievances and suffering. The idea is to criticize expressions of racism and misogyny when you encounter them, as you simultaneously support positive responses to real working class grievances. Hopefully, it has finally become clear how necessary it is to draw working class and other minorities closer together. Hopefully, too, that clarity has not arrived too late to counter the grip Trump has now gained on the first constituency. The Hillary Clinton campaign, again, missed the boat in this respect, even if the Democratic platform she was supposed to represent did make modest gestures in this direction.
Fourth, the democratic Left needs to identify more young leaders who are charismatic in noble ways and who can inspire large constituencies as they counter the ugly appeal of Trumpian charisma. For Trump is a charismatic adversary whose critics have not adequately appreciated his rhetorical effectiveness. Apparent wanderings in his speeches—as it seemed to many academics and journalists who ridiculed those speeches in the early going--actually gather together a medley of grievances as they crystallize collective targets of white working class resentment. Each element in the medley becomes fused with the others into a resonance machine. Satires and dissections of the Big Lie Scenario itself are far better than either academic dismissals or factual corrections alone. Formation of a counter-resonance machine with charismatic circuits of its own is better yet.
Fifth, while the privately incorporated media often deserve intense criticism, the democratic Left must also expose and attack Trumpian intimidation of it. It was unwise, for instance, to re-enforce Trump and Putin denials of the Putin intervention with Left wing statements that came close to saying the same thing. The media and professoriate are going to be vicious targets of Trump’s attacks for the next four years as he deflects attention from the failure of his policies to lift the working class and from the dangers he promotes on several other fronts. It is possible for critics to chew gum and walk at the same time, in this case to hold the media accountable as you also defend it against Trumpian assaults. Indeed, the protection of democratic institutions makes it essential to pursue such a combination.