Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prescient warning
Seeking an unprecedented third term in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt sensed a growing desperation among Republicans, whom he had vanquished in two previous landslides. That year Republican nominee Wendell Willkie charged that Roosevelt had precipitated World War II by telegraphing Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and urging them to “sell Czechoslovakia down the river.”
Roosevelt claimed the Republicans had gone from using “unwitting falsifications” to employing “deliberate falsifications.” These included assertions that the unemployed would be “driven into concentration camps”; that Social Security would cease “when the workers of today become old enough to apply for them”; and that reelecting Roosevelt meant “the end of American democracy within four years.” Roosevelt warned that such deliberate misrepresentations were designed to “create fear by instilling in the minds of our people doubt of each other, doubt of their Government, and doubt of the purposes of democracy.”
Today, Republicans are replicating their 1940 tactic of using “deliberate falsifications.” Sixty-eight percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was “stolen”; 73 percent blame “left wing protestors” for the Capitol insurrection; and 71 percent absolve Donald Trump of any responsibility for it. President Biden calls questions about his legitimacy “the big lie,” adding that its constant repetition represents “the most significant challenge to our democracy since the Civil War.”
Deliberate falsifications have found support among conspiracy theorists who believe the false information spewed on the internet. In 2016, a Washington, D.C., pizza establishment was attacked by a North Carolina man armed with a rifle and handgun. Based upon false information posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, he believed the business harbored a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. Though the man was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison, such accusations continued to spread. When asked in 2020 about the child sex abuse accusations QAnon was spreading, Donald Trump did not deny them, saying: “I do know [QAnon adherents] are against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
In 1787, James Madison warned that “instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Madison noted the “mutual animosities” created by such conflict create “unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
“Unfriendly passions” coupled with repetitive lies provoked the violent Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump has never stopped asserting that the 2020 election was stolen, recently telling an adoring CPAC audience, “We were doing so well until the rigged election happened to come along.” Trump’s allies have spent millions on propaganda films and rallies spreading his lies. Constant repetition creates its own alternative reality.
Franklin Roosevelt understood the power of repetition and the danger it posed. In 1940, he declared: “Certain techniques of propaganda, created and developed in dictator countries, have been imported into this campaign. It is the very simple technique of repeating and repeating and repeating falsehoods, with the idea that by constant repetition and reiteration, with no contradiction, the misstatements will finally come to be believed.”
Adolf Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, reportedly once said, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” Roosevelt believed our democracy was safeguarded from such dangers by a free press that was “open to both sides” and whose commitment to truth would fact check such lies and propaganda.
But the emergence of social media has altered Roosevelt’s calculus of a free and fair press. In today’s hyper partisan atmosphere, Americans often turn to websites that ratify their pre-existing views. In 2010, Barack Obama warned University of Michigan graduates: “We need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion.”
But the proliferation of falsehoods absent “hard evidence” makes the task of having a well-informed citizenry extremely difficult. According to a recent report, just 12 individuals have spread disinformation about the coronavirus vaccines to more than 59 million social media followers.
Today, the dangers of repeating “deliberate falsifications” have come to pass. Franklin Roosevelt’s confidence that a free and fair press would act as a guardrail to preserve American democracy seems quaint. The segmentation of the media landscape, with readers treating legitimate information as “fake news,” creates its own clear and present danger. Today, 59 percent say they have either not much or no confidence that the news media “will do what is right for the United States.”
The cancer of deliberate falsification has transformed the Republican Party from a loyal opposition into an insurgent party. In a recent speech, Biden warned of an “unfolding assault” on our constitutional values: “Bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the foundation of our democracy.” Biden added that our NATO allies repeatedly ask him, “Is it going to be okay?”
The answer is no longer a given. FDR’s warning is a prescient one. Our democracy is under assault, and authoritarianism can happen here.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”