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The Big Lie

Hitler defined the Big Lie as an untruth so colossal that people ‘would not believe that others could distort the truth so infamously’. Trump’s claim that he won the election ‘in a landslide’ and victory was stolen from him is a lie of this sort.

The impeachment hearings that have just finished in the United States will be remembered as a significant moment in our history, despite the preordained acquittal with which they ended. Modern journalism, even before the internet, makes it almost impossible to form a realistic picture of what is going on in the world. It breaks knowledge up into unco-ordinated categories and ignores context and connection, which are the soul of historical understanding. Above all, the news distracts. A stream of articles or news items clamour for attention, each forgotten as ‘breaking news’ takes its place. It almost never happens that society stops long enough to develop a coherent narrative about its own experience while it is happening.

That, however, is what the ‘impeachment managers’ were able to do. They laid down a clear, coherent and compelling narrative that situated the invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January in the context of Trump’s long history of sanctioning violence, his strategy of discrediting elections, his connections with racist right-wing paramilitary groups, his undermining of institutions and norms, the minute by minute co-ordination between his words and the rioters’ actions, his dereliction of duty in failing to stop the invasion, and his lack of remorse afterwards. They situated their account in broader themes of American history, including the nature of the constitution and the presidency but also lynching and the disfranchisement of African-Americans. Running through the entire presentation was a unifying theme, the ‘big lie’, and they suggested the ease with which a dictatorial personality can intimidate others – largely implicitly, since some of those intimidated by Trump were among his jurors.

In the process, the managers produced a masterly description of a contemporary demagogue. As Congressman Jamie Raskin put it, most governments throughout history have been run by tyrants, despots, bullies, autocrats and thugs. Democratic self-government is rare and fragile. Raskin’s intent was to show how Trump’s behaviour, culminating on 6 January, violated both the norms and the legal protections on which democracy rests. Raskin, to be sure, was making a constitutional argument, but the problem can be restated in historical terms.

The liberal political order, as we may call it, referring especially to the English Revolution of 1688 and the US Constitution of 1787, was meant to apply to a new kind of society, namely market capitalism. On the one hand, political revolutions laid down principles that have become precious and irreplaceable to us, such as equality before the law or even the rule of law itself. On the other hand, the new legal systems and institutional orders revolved around the protection of property, and tried hard to contain and even justify fundamental forms of inequality. After the abolition of slavery, the most important of these inequalities was capitalism itself, but capitalism did not produce a revolution, at least in democratic societies. Instead, struggles over material interests, economics and the regulation of markets led to the organisation of society into class-based parties and trade unions. Protest, in other words, was organised around economic interests and property, as liberalism itself was to a great degree. Protest movements were not anti-systemic. As a result, democratic societies such as Britain and the United States have had relatively stable histories until recently, even given the blatant facts of class division and exploitation, and continuous struggle over economic issues.

The story is no doubt complicated and varies from country to country, but overall, in the second half of the 20th century, changes in the socio-economic system weakened and eliminated the class-based identities that had provided this rough stability. This weakening opened new structural faults for politics, such as gender, race and sexuality, but it also precipitated the emergence of the modern masses, the so-called ‘age of the crowd’. While a new politics of identity emerged, so too did large numbers of individuals whose identities were not socially given, or explicit. These individuals served as the social basis for mass psychology. They could be brought together innocently, as in celebrity culture or sport. But what makes for a very powerful group or mass or ‘crowd’ is a shared feeling of grievance, of being wronged. To be sure, trade unions and leftist movements of the past had similar feelings, but they were not the basis of their identity or their politics.

In the modern era – generally said to begin with the late 19th-century outburst of populists such as Georges Boulanger in France and Karl Lueger in Austro-Hungary – demagogues have been able to bring together a vast number of diverse hurts, which have little or nothing to do with one another, and weld them into a cohesive force, whose identity and outlook is essentially psychological. Arguably this phenomenon has increased since 1989 and especially since the 2007-8 financial crisis. The managers’ description of Trump can serve as a model for this phenomenon. It involves five elements: violence; personal dictatorship; mob or crowd regression; racism and ethnocentrism; and the big lie.

From the beginning of his 2016 candidacy, Trump continuously sanctioned violence against the liberal order in a variety of ways. The first was to disregard norms, especially by assailing the vulnerable: the disabled, Gold Star parents, Mexican immigrants, women new to politics, Black demonstrators. Like most bullies, Trump favours hitting people when they are down. Understanding his deployment of sadism is fundamental to understanding his appeal. He brought together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out, but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt – whatever its source – was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilised society were part of a rigged system.

His deployment of violence went beyond the verbal. He sanctioned and encouraged physical violence by the police and his followers. He urged the police to hit demonstrators’ heads against the roofs of police trucks when they arrested them. At his rallies he urged his followers to push, hit, or trample counter-demonstrators. ‘Kick the crap out of them,’ he shouted. He congratulated Gregory Gianforte – now the governor of Montana – for assaulting a reporter: ‘Any guy that can do a body slam is my guy,’ he said, imitating a body slam. When a Biden-Harris campaign bus was taken over by his supporters in Central Texas, Trump tweeted a video of the incident with martial music added and the words ‘I love Texas.’ Perhaps most telling was his chant of ‘lock her up,’ aimed at a series of women from Hillary Clinton to Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. He egged on the protesters who sought to occupy the state capitol, and refused to condemn the would-be murderers that tried to kidnap and execute her. The siege of the Michigan statehouse on 30 April ‘was effectively a staged dress rehearsal’ for 6 January, Jamie Raskin said. ‘It was a preview of the coming insurrection.’

By continually toying with the line between civic peace and violence, Trump was undermining the web of preconscious understandings on which liberal society depends. He was opening the way for an eruption of anger and ruthlessness of which 6 January was a foretaste. This evisceration of the social bond was facilitated by the second characteristic of Trump’s presidency, namely the personal dictatorship he exercised over his followers. Hundreds of rioters have by now been arrested. ‘We did this for Trump,’ they said. ‘Trump asked us to do this’; ‘I wouldn’t go unless POTUS told us to go.’ This evidence was buttressed by recordings taken at the event, and social media posts afterwards.

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The demagogue, Freud argues, turning to the second component of our template, does not command loyalty on the basis of shared ideals or values. Rather, the demagogue is like a hypnotist who says to his followers: pay attention only to me; nothing else matters; concentrate entirely on me. This accomplishes three things. First, it shunts the ego aside; it replaces reason with loyalty. Second, it resolves conflicts arising from frustrated and unfulfilled narcissism, by fostering identification with a leader who has demonstrated his mastery by a willingness to deploy sadism by bullying and humiliating others. In this regard, Freud points out, the successful demagogue need possess only the typical qualities of his followers, but in a ‘clearly marked and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force and of more freedom of libido’. Third, because Trump established the same identification with every one of his millions of followers, he fostered an experience of shared equality among them. In Freud’s words, ‘the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he must be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent.’

Being in a crowd – the third component – makes individuals feel, think and act differently. Many of the people shouting ‘Hang Mike Pence’ or ‘Find Crazy Nancy’ (Trump’s nickname for Nancy Pelosi) might have been perfectly peaceful in their home lives. Being in a mob encourages feelings of omnipotence, suggestibility, and a proclivity for action. Trump’s crowds know no doubt or uncertainty, go directly to extremes, and are intolerant and blindly obedient to authority. His followers are loyal to one another as well as to Trump.

Racism, the fourth component, is at the core of the argument linking Trump to the riot on 6 January. The demonstration was called to prevent or slow down the ritualistic certification of election results by Congress. But it is not difficult to see that many of the votes Trump challenged, in Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta, were the votes of African-Americans. The riot at the Capitol was not only part of the effort at voter suppression that Trump had been preparing for months; it also built on the country’s long history of suppressing the Black vote. Throughout his political career Trump has whipped up racist feelings as part of his mobilisation of a group identity based on personal loyalty. He launched his political career with claims that Barack Obama is a not a US citizen. He kicked off his primary run by calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’. At a 2016 Republican debate he claimed that most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims hate the US. Before he was permanently banned from Twitter, he persistently retweeted messages from white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Trump’s racism is linked to his willingness to deploy violence in order to foster identification. Racism is the reason the Second Amendment is so important to so many Americans, at least historically. The ‘right to keep and bear arms’ was aimed not to protect US freedoms so much as to put down slave revolts. State militias were slave patrols. Much of our early diplomacy was aimed at controlling slaves. After the Civil War, a pervasive Confederate identity survived, at the heart of which was violent voter suppression, beginning with the Ku Klux Klan and continuing to the present. Lynching, which went on for nearly a century, can stand for the whole rotten history, and this was celebrated in the riot on 6 January with the prominent presence of a gallows.

This brings us to the big lie, our fifth component. A big lie is not a claim subject to contradiction, or a statement of fact that can be disputed. The concept was first put forth in Mein Kampf, where Hitler defined it as an untruth so colossal that people ‘would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. Trump’s claim that he had won the election ‘in a landslide’ and victory was stolen from him by a corrupt establishment is a lie of this sort. The American electoral system is decentralised, and run by many thousands of officials at the state and county level. More than half of them are Republicans and both parties have legal protections allowing them to monitor the other’s actions. Stealing a national election would also require collaboration from the media and from the numerous judges who weighed the evidence. It is simply impossible for any moderately rational person to believe that a national election can be stolen (except in a situation like the 2000 race, which came down to a few hundred votes in a single state).

It is the psychological work that the big lie performs that makes it so important. Its essence is that something terrible has been done to an innocent individual or group. Hitler claimed that Germany had actually won the First World War, but the victory had been stolen by civilian leaders, Marxists and Jews. In Trump’s case, the most sacred act of the American citizen qua citizen – voting – was allegedly suppressed by an evil force, the so-called Democrat Party. The lie protected a core paranoia as well as mobilising Trump’s personal dictatorship over his followers, who were meant to feel this as if the harm had been done to them personally. Not only had Trump been denied his presidency, but 75 million Americans had been disfranchised. And it mobilised racism through projection. According to the big lie, it was white America, the real America, that had been victimised, not Black people who have been systematically denied their right to vote throughout history, and are systematically targeted by police violence.

The House managers framed the question of impeachment in the light of Trump’s overall pattern of behaviour. As they repeatedly explained, the charge of incitement does not refer to the specific words he spoke on 6 January but to the fact that he prepared for the riot with months of false claims; organised the rally and set the date so as to interfere with the official certification of the ballots; repeatedly hinted at the possibility for violence; mobilised the demonstrators around protecting his person; was regularly cited by the rioters as being in charge; refused to call in the National Guard or issue a statement condemning the riot for hours after it had unfolded; assailed his vice president by tweet even when he knew that Pence had been targeted; praised the rioters when he finally did tell them to ‘be peaceful’; and never showed either remorse or anger.

Trump’s defence team based their case on a technicality, arguing that since the penalty is removal from office, someone already out of office cannot be convicted. But Trump was impeached while still in office and it was Republican delays that stopped him from being tried before Biden’s inauguration. Most important, the purpose of impeachment is to defend the Constitution and the managers overwhelmingly showed what it means for that to be at stake.

I would add to their argument that Trump’s movement can only in part be understood as a political movement. While it stands for some older political ideas – such as support for the police, the importance of markets and the need to affirm American identity – as well as some newer ones, such as economic nationalism, the Trump movement must also be understood in mass psychological terms. This does not mean that either its causes or its remedies are psychological. Its causes are socioeconomic – for example, globalisation and technological change – and so too will the remedies be. Still, the movement is not a direct response to its causes. Social causes left an opening for psychology, and that is the opening that Trump exploited.

Finally, it is important to remember that democratic change and progress depend on collective forces, collective feelings, movements of public opinion and, yes, crowds, like those of the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements of the 1960s. We need to defend demonstrations, to recognize that crowds sometimes take on a life of their own, and that such values as pragmatism’, ‘compromise’ and ‘bipartisanship’ are often a cloak for maintaining illegitimate power. Crowds foster regression but not all regressions are the same. Without the incredible crowd formations of the 1960s we never would have advanced such understandings of freedom as Black Marxism, women’s liberation and gay liberation. These movements sought to formulate what they were doing historically, which links the impeachment managers to them (something which emerged dramatically when Raskin spoke about Julian Bond and Bob Moses, the leaders of the SNCC). Above all, these movements were an expression of the historic project of the left, ultimately based on rationality, critique and the strength of the ego, which is to provide, as Steven Lukes has written, ‘a demanding answer to the question of what equality means and implies’.

Eli Zaretsky is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York. His books include Political Freud and Why America Needs a Left.