When Hitler spoke of “the big lie” many people thought that it was a dubious idea – attractive, for some reason, only in Germany. Donald Trump has proven that it was not such a dubious idea – the bigger the lie, the more attractive it gets, even in Western democracies.
Reprehensible lies are manifestations of virulent egotism. The most unscrupulous of egotists, like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, wield lies to subject others to their power. Their real motive, under the guise of speaking truth, is to addle minds into submission and recruit followers and sycophants who will do their bidding. Such egotists have no true friends or advisors. The people in their orbit are either a means to an end or useless shadows.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Trump and Putin are garden-variety liars, harmless pretenders whose motives, nearer to innocuous than odious, are usually able to appear smarter or wealthier, or more talented or virtuous than they are. Few of us haven’t at least once stretched the truth about ourselves a millimetre too far into the murk, so we often shrug off or accept such slippery self-promotion. “We have, all of us,” wrote eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, “a wonderful partiality for ourselves.” The harmless liar is us — self-centred, yes, but still considerate of others.
Thoroughgoing egotists, by contrast, recognize a single reality: their own. They’re as familiar to us from history and politics as garden-variety liars are from direct personal experience. Putin is one of history’s recurring nightmares: a blatant liar who’s also a murderous despot. Former President Trump is a shameless liar who aspires to rule as a dictator.
The lie Putin concocted to justify invading Ukraine echoes similarly outrageous ones of the twentieth century that also presaged wartime atrocities. His bogus motive was to “de-nazify” Ukraine, which he falsely claimed was committing “genocide” against Russian speakers in the country’s east. The follow-through of his shocking excuse is the murder of innocent civilians and the bombardment of civilian targets: hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, theatres, and railway stations. In short, war crimes.
At the 2018 Helsinki summit, Trump expressed admiration for Putin, even endorsing the Russian president’s lie that his country didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election. An aspiring autocrat who now peddles a blatant lie about a “rigged election” in 2020, Trump rubber-stamped an actual autocrat’s lie. As a private citizen, Trump may not command an army, may not, like Putin, wield sweeping power, but he’s cut from the same cloth. Both are absolute egotists who reel off monstrous lies to hold on to power.
As a private citizen, Trump may not command an army, may not, like Putin, wield sweeping power, but he’s cut from the same cloth. Both are absolute egotists who reel off monstrous lies to hold on to power.
Such egomaniacs pose as great a threat to social stability today as they did in the last century, which produced two of history’s most heinous propagandists: Stalin and Hitler. Even though our age differs significantly from the one that spawned these two totalitarian dictators and their all-encompassing falsehoods, much remains the same. Historical conditions may change but narcissistic purveyors of dangerous lies like Putin and Trump continue to muscle their way into power and onto the world stage. History teaches us they’re a constant threat. It hasn’t yet taught us how to keep them in check.
Once widely embraced, lies foment political unrest. Even repugnant lies easily confirmed as such will eventually find fertile ground if sown far and wide online. Any lie stands a better chance of being believed the more often it’s repeated. As oxygen is to fire, repetition is to lies. Far-fetched lies, notably those infected by conspiracy thinking, will attract believers who want a target for their anger and resentment more than they crave the truth.
While endless replication of lies on social media is a relatively new phenomenon, oral repetition is an age-old strategy from the anti-democratic liar’s playbook. Telling a gigantic lie only once is wasteful. To gain traction, it must be repeated countless times in tones of unhesitating conviction. Like purveyors of gigantic falsehoods before him, Trump betrays not the slightest self-doubt at interviews and exultant rallies. His public appearances are as consistent as those of a disciplined actor effortlessly performing the same two-dimensional role one show after another on different stages across the country.
Trump, the showman of better-things-to-come, knows that to keep his audience motivated, united, and under his influence, he can’t stray from his script on the “stolen” election. He shoulders a twisted duty to his disciples to keep alive their bitter resentment over “rigged” election results. Trump’s “big lie” binds the liar-in-chief to his followers, and his followers to him. Between them, the precept of loyalty is absolute. Together, like the framers of a new canon, they elevate that lie into an article of holy writ. It becomes unassailable no matter how easily proved to be sheer humbug.
Trump’s supporters would turn against him if he deviated even slightly from his established script. If he ate his words about the illegitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency, his backers and donors would desert him en masse for being disloyal — not for lying. He’d be vilified as the first apostate of the crusade he spearheaded. The ruler-cult he launched might fizzle out. But, because it’s fact-proof, his big lie would live on without him.
It could be argued that Trump isn’t lying when, in pseudo-authoritative tones, he talks about a stolen election. To lie is to knowingly make a false statement with the intention of leading others to believe the statement is true. Firmly convinced of his own merit, Trump may have seized on a “rigged” election as the only possible reason for his defeat. His wounded ego may have left him with no alternative but to “believe” that the election was “stolen” from him. The presidency, after all, was his by right. By means of that perverse mechanism that operates in the mind of an out-and-out egotist, he may be convinced that he’s telling the truth. That makes him more dangerous than an actual liar. He’s a fanatic for his own megalomaniacal cause.
In the end, however, it makes no difference whether or not Trump truly believes the lie that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Lying or not, Trump has never concealed his true motive: holding on to power. He doesn’t pretend because he can’t. His appeal to fanaticized supporters isn’t based on any conviction that he has their best interests at heart. What draws them is that Trump believes in himself as only a fanatical dyed-in-the-wool egotist can. Their adulation is that of an angry crowd for a would-be dictator. The whole world matters less to Trump than he does to himself. Ironclad egomania, not suitability for political leadership, is the source of his mighty grip on his followers. That, and the reality that his supporters will never be convinced by facts. To them, Mr. Biden’s victory is added proof of an unjust order that has cut them off from the privileges flaunted by Democratic voters.
Peddling the big lie is Trump’s best chance of reclaiming the gleaming trophy he desires above all else: the presidency. For this reason — and because he will never admit a mistake — his supporters can count on him not to entertain second thoughts, even though no shred of evidence exists that the 2020 election was crooked. He will keep waging war against anyone who doesn’t regard his word as law — as the many White House officials and lawyers he has fired can attest.
Strongmen rulers, despots, tyrants, dictators, and their wannabe kin wield outrageous lies to hold on to power. And the bigger the lie, the better to spark outrage and motivate believers to action. The lie about widespread fraud in the 2020 election unites Trump’s supporters against his enemies in a way that the truth, usually complex and nuanced, never could. An egregious falsehood was essential to whipping up the militant mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Putin’s obvious lie that Ukraine poses a military threat has found favour among many ordinary Russians. When Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russians rewarded their leader with soaring approval ratings. Two weeks after starting that war, Putin signed a law into power that prohibits spreading “deliberately false information about the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” Its aim is to silence any opposition to the war in Ukraine. As long as Putin exercises near total control over the media, ordinary Russians will be duped into believing his lies.
Putinism and Trumpism differ in important ways. At the centre of both, however, are monstrous egomaniacs who wield gigantic lies in order to dominate unchallenged. While common decency keeps garden-variety liars in check, it’s alien to the hell-bent power-mad.