What is the “Big Lie”?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe current presidential race is perhaps one of the most tumultuous, hostile, and divisive in American history. Brooks Simpson, a presidential historian at Arizona State University expressed it this way: “We’ve had divisive elections before — one ended up in a civil war — that’s been truly divisive, in a different way, but we’ve never had such a level of nastiness between two major-party candidates.” Not only do the two candidates despise one another, neither one is particularly liked by the voters. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted in September 2016 revealed that most Americans believe that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the worst candidates that have been nominated in the past 40 years. 45% of Americans believe that Trump is the worst Republican nominee; while 22% believe that Clinton is the worst Democratic nominee. Moreover, a New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted in early November indicated that 8 out of 10 voters stated that the presidential campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited.

Needless to say, there is a lot of enmity to go around. Voters are fed up with the candidates’ bad behavior that includes not only relentless vitriolic mudslinging but also a tidal wave of lies — little lies and big lies — that are keeping fact-checkers working overtime, gasping for air, and worse — drowning the electorate. Several polls show that the majority of voters perceive both candidates as dishonest. However, it is clear that both candidates have an intuitive understanding of the power of the big lie, an integral part of their political playbook. So what exactly is the “big lie”?

The “big lie” is a term coined in 1925 by the poster boy of really bad (actually, evil) behavior, Adolf Hitler. The big lie is a very effective propaganda technique that essentially states that the bigger the lie, the better it works. Specifically, the big lie is a lie that is so big, that most people could not imagine that the someone would have the audacity to fabricate such a bold falsehood or to distort the truth so horribly. Stated another way, the big lie is the lie that is too big to fail. Hitler explains the principle of the big lie in his autobiography, Mein Kampf (translated from the German, “My Struggle”) that was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926:

“All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true within itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”  From Volume 1, Chapter X, translated by James Murphy. (Emphasis added)

The previous paragraph could have as easily been an excerpt from Niccolo Machiavelli’s seminal work, Il Principe, best known as The Prince, published in 1532. Lies were as much a part of 16th century politics as they were in the mid-20th century. But it was the audacity of Hitler and his devoted associate Joseph Goebbels (Reich Minister of Propaganda), to use the big lie to fan the flames of anti-Semitism in Germany to create the horrific conflagration of the Holocaust. Moreover, Goebbels added a nuance to the concept of the big lie 16 years after Hitler introduced it. In an article entitled Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik (“From Churchill’s Lie Factory”) published in the January 1941 edition of Die Zeit one Beispiel, Goebbels wrote:

“The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” (Emphasis added)

Of course, big lies play a very large role in the political world of the 21st century, as they are amplified and disseminated in milliseconds thanks to the omnipresent internet. With social media, the big lie can be repeated endlessly in a single news cycle. One keen student of human nature, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has been fascinated by the persuasive power of modern politicians. “Psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president,” Adams notes, “[and] Trump knows psychology.” Since Trump knows that people are essentially irrational, Adams believes, he appeals directly to their emotions, not their rational gray matter. Adams writes, “If you see voters as rational, you’ll be a terrible politician. People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence… There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them — right in front of you.”

Almost six decades earlier, Senator John F. Kennedy weighed in on the matter in an essay, entitled “A Force that Has Changed the Political Scene” that appeared in TV Guide on November 14, 1959. Kennedy recognized that television as a campaign tool was a double edged sword; he wrote: “Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these of other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s ‘image.’ My own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.” Unfortunately, he notes, television can easily be misused for manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks; he writes “It can be abused by demigods, by appeals to emotions and prejudice and ignorance.” Kennedy encourages viewers/voters to critically evaluate what they see on television: “It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.”

Read related posts: What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?
Why Can’t Politicians Get Along?
What is the Barnum Effect?

Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordian Knot

For further reading: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/clinton-trump-popularity_us_57cf1b24e4b0a48094a60f1b


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