The decades of deceit behind the 'Big Lie'
Since the 2020 presidential election, the phrase "The Big Lie" has been deployed to describe the former president's undermining of American democracy. This phrase has its roots in authoritarian propaganda, most notably in Adolf Hitler's assertion that if you tell a lie often enough, it will become truth in the minds of your audience.
Trump's own "Big Lie" began with a refusal to concede electoral defeat. This deceit was then formalized in frivolous lawsuits and it ultimately inspired an insurrection on January 6, 2021. Since then, members of the GOP have either explicitly endorsed Trump's "The Big Lie" or tacitly allowed it to flourish in the consciousness of their voters, such that 60 percent of Republicans now believe the 2020 election was stolen.
However, Trump's own "Big Lie" is not actually a singular falsehood; rather, it is the culmination of a long attack on our shared reality. The undermining of the democratic process itself is only possible due to the decades of disinformation that preceded it.
Where did the Republican lies begin? The assault on Medicare is a good starting point. In 1961, Ronald Reagan argued that Medicare was a stealthy vessel for complete government control over not only medicine but society. In this narrative, those who claimed to care for the vulnerable were exploiting the same to usher in socialism. Reagan warned that if Medicare prevailed, Americans would soon be telling their children and grandchildren "what it once was like in America when men were free."
The Republican Party followed Reagan's lead. It didn't take long before all government programs were called "socialism" and were framed as inherent threats to freedom. This GOP project was accelerated by the great white backlash against the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. White people should not only fear the social safety net, they were told, but any government intervention to ensure equal citizenship.
After the 1960s, the GOP's attack on truth began to encompass not just antipathy towards government, but a broader rejection of institutions. Consider the issue of climate change: In the 1980s and 90s, there was at least some bipartisan recognition of the problem and support for addressing it.. The Republicans mounted a propaganda campaign in response. They were successful. In 2001, there was a 13-point gap between Democrats' and Republicans' belief in climate change. It's 53 points now. The Republican Party had therefore not only undermined government but science, too.
Since then, the Republicans lied about WMDs in Iraq. They lied about Obamacare, calling the market-based plan "socialism" and warning that it would lead to so-called "death panels." Though many did not explicitly lie about Barack Obama's birthplace, most of the Republicans allowed that lie to fester. It was among the biggest of them all: The president of the United States may not be an American given he's Black.
The GOP's status as the party-of-lies was then accelerated by Donald Trump, who told an estimated 30,573 falsehoods during his presidency. From the moment Trump took office and lied about the crowd size at his inauguration—something we could confirm or deny with our very own eyes—it was clear his presidency would be different. Trump proceeded to lie about things as varied as US intelligence on Russia's interference in the 2016 election to the extraordinary number of men who wept in his presence.
Then came COVID-19. Trump and the Republican Party compared the novel respiratory coronavirus to the flu, rolled their eyes at liberal hysteria, and pushed unscientific treatments with potentially deadly consequences. And, importantly, the Republicans didn't just lie to protect themselves; they actively exploited the crisis for broader cultural and political advantage. This is nowhere more evident than the almost religious fervor they employed to discourage the simple act of wearing a face mask.
Initially, it seemed possible that lying about COVID might finally be the breaking point in the GOP's history of dishonesty. Every other lie the GOP has told had distant effects, allowing them to escape accountability. From attacks on the safety net to climate change, the GOP evaded consequences because the harmful effects of their policies were temporarily distant. It seemed implausible that they could pull off equivalent deceit about COVID. That their falsehoods could overpower the pleas of doctors or the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.
Yet Republican lies took hold even in the face of immediate evidence. The pernicious effects of their disinformation continues. Now, in 2021, the GOP has shifted from being anti-mask to being anti-vaccine, with 43 percent of GOP voters expressing "vaccine hesitancy." Though general anti-vaccination efforts have gained steam over the past decade, there were few partisan divisions prior to COVID. In 2015, for example, Democrats and Republicans both endorsed standard vaccinations in roughly equal numbers. Thus, the political divides about vaccination are relatively new.
It is within this broader context that we should view the "Big Lie." This lie—which strikes at the heart of the democratic process— is only possible because of the GOP's longer assault on truth. Medicare is socialism. Welfare is for greedy, lazy people. Climate change does not exist. The president is Black and therefore not American. Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election. COVID-19 is just like the flu.
In some ways, it might seem like we have reached the culmination of the GOP's deception. They have so thoroughly radicalized their followers that many no longer value medical advice about their own personal safety, let alone believe the results of a democratic election. How can it get any worse than this? It seems that it can.
Liz Cheney, who committed the crime of recognizing Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, has been expelled from party leadership. Believers of Q-Anon are clawing their way into Congress. Republicans continue to turn a blind eye, despite the clear anti-Semitic and racist nature of the movement. The rest of the party denies their previous leader, Donald Trump, inspired an insurrection against the US government. Now the House GOP leader says he doesn't support a commission to investigate it.
2020 was not just a year in which many denied the results of an election. They put their own health at risk for a culture war. None of this would have been possible if not for decades of deceit. The "Big Lie" is, in fact, the "Long Lie": the generational priming of minds to reject all evidence and view any authority—from the government to scientists—with hostility and distrust. From lies about Medicare to lies about Obama's birthplace, this project has been long in the making. The entire GOP is responsible.
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