Big lies threaten the stability of the United States

Big lies have established a firm foothold in the United States, and they threaten the stability of our country. The American Psychological Society (APS) defines a "big lie" as “a propaganda device in which a false statement of extreme magnitude is constantly repeated to persuade the public. The assumption is that a Big Lie is less likely to be challenged than a lesser one because people will assume that evidence exists to support a statement of such magnitude.” 

We tend to think of the big lie as a recent innovation, but the technique has been with us since human existence began. Rulers and insurgents alike have used big lies to seize, hold or tighten their grip on power by claiming that an identifiable foreign or domestic group poses an existential threat to their country’s security, justifying drastic action. Jews, people of color and neighboring countries have often been used as scapegoats of big lies. 

Looking around today’s world, we can see many instances of big lies being utilized to seize or hold power. Leaders of several despotic countries – Russia’s Putin, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, North Korea’s Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnNorth Korea sparks US condemnation with latest missile launch Overnight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia North Korea fires two more missiles amid tensions in region MORE – are clinging tightly to power, based on false claims of threats posed to their respective countries by the United States and others.

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Unfortunately, and most unexpectedly, big lies have arisen to inflict and endanger America's democracy in the last several years. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE tried to maintain his grip on power by a multi-pronged strategy of election subversion and, when that failed, to recover power by persisting with the Big Lie that the election had been stolen from him. 

Despite that Trump and his allies have not furnished an iota of competent evidence of election fraud in the 14 months since the 2020 election, recent opinion surveys show that anywhere from 58 percent to 71 percent of Republicans believe his Big Lie of a stolen election.

Not only has Trump failed to provide evidence to support the Big Lie, but his devoted followers have struck out in 61 court cases challenging the election. Trump could not even get his appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court to buy these false claims. How is it, then, that so many Republicans buy into the Big Lie? How, also, could they believe the subsidiary Big Lie that Trump supporters did not attack the U.S. Capitol and injure more than 140 police officers who were trying to defend the building? Anyone whose television was turned on during the Jan. 6 insurrection could have witnessed the rampage in real time.

There are several elements that play into the explanation. First, much like messianic leaders throughout the ages, from the Egyptian pharaohs to the Kim family of North Korea, Trump has established a cult following in the present-day Republican Party. He is regarded as someone with religious significance, a demigod. A number of prominent evangelicals have opined that he was sent by God. Given his almost-divine status, the faithful have clung tight to his incessant claims of election fraud.

Second, his ardent followers are fed a consistent stream of fake news from conservative outlets, echoing Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election. Social media sources that send content to reinforce one’s own beliefs have also been helpful. Constant repetition of real whoppers to an enthralled audience that gets their information from a sole source can certainly distort reality.

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Luckily, more than half of the U.S. population gets information from other, more reliable sources, something that authoritarians with total power over the media don’t permit. 

Third, ever since the Civil War, there has been a receptive audience in some parts of the country for a message like Trump’s lost cause lament — that he was deprived of reelection by powerful urban forces that manipulated the vote to their advantage. So, it becomes necessary to impose additional barriers to voting to redress the “fraud” committed by depriving Trump of another term.

Fourth, there is strong support from federal and state GOP officials for Trump’s Big Lie claims. Many, particularly those in Congress, know better, but they are either afraid to step forward and acknowledge that the would-be emperor is not clothed, or they see the possibility that his strategy, however anti-American, could result in the consolidation of Republican power over the American government. The few courageous truth-tellers in the party, such as Reps. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyRomney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden faces Ukraine decision amid Russia aggression Cheney hits Gingrich for saying Jan. 6 panel members may be jailed MORE (R-Wyo.) and Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse Republicans bash Democrats' China competition bill Romney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney Cheney hits Gingrich for saying Jan. 6 panel members may be jailed MORE (R-Ill.), have been banished from GOP ranks. 

This certainly paints a dismal picture of America’s future, but big lies will only persist and overcome the country if Americans sit idly by and let it happen. The House January 6 Select Committee is turning up lots of incriminating evidence against Trump and his allies, and public hearings may start to turn the tide against the lies. 

America has been in the dumps before but has overcome more substantial obstacles. Those who support our democratic republic still have the vote and the numbers to cast the liars out, regardless of the obstacles they impose.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.