The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many are worried about the return of the ‘Big Lie.’ They’re worried about the wrong thing.

We shouldn't fret about the Big Lie. But all the little ones might be just as dangerous.

President Trump listens while Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, speaks during a news conference in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 16. (Olivier Douliery/Pool photo via Bloomberg News)

From the pages of the New York Times to USA Today, the New Statesman to the New Yorker, a fear exists that the United States is about to fall under the spell of the Big Lie — a lie so big that it could disrupt the entire social order. Writers including Benjamin Wittes, Max Boot and Dinesh D’Souza have warned about the terror its return may portend. Charles Blow writes that President Trump has been “doing to political ends what Hitler did to more brutal ends: using mass deception as masterful propaganda.” On the other end of the political spectrum, concerned with the perceived threat of the Big Lie, the alt-right has developed a term for imbibing just such a grand con from a liberal state. They call it “blue-pilling.”

Yet such dread-filled treatises wrench the Big Lie from its historical context and misapply it to our own. What we should fear today is not the Big Lie but the profusion of little ones: an untallied daily cocktail of lies prescribed not to convince of some higher singularity but to confuse, to distract, to muddy, to flood. Today’s falsehood strategy does not give us one idea to organize our thoughts, but thousands of conflicting lies to confuse them.

That marks a significant shift from the era of the Big Lie. Dating to Nazi Germany, the Big Lie was a strategy of propaganda that focused on the mass dissemination of a single or a few chief falsehoods to a target population. Like a pyramid, the Big Lie organized a configuration of smaller lies underneath. That is, it was a deductive deception, relying on the command of a single idea or a few large ones to manipulate the many ancillary thoughts to come. Swallow the big pill, and the rest would follow.

Adolf Hitler first defined the Big Lie as a deviant tool wielded by Viennese Jews to discredit the Germans’ deportment in World War I. Yet, in tragically ironic fashion, it was Hitler and his Nazi regime that actually employed the mendacious strategy. In an effort to rewrite history and blame European Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, Hitler and his propaganda minister accused them of profiting from the war, consorting with foreign powers and “war shirking” (avoiding conscription). Jews, Hitler contended, were the weak underbelly of the Weimer state that exposed the loyal and true German population to catastrophic collapse. To sell this narrative, Joseph Goebbels insisted “all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands.”

In short, Nazi fascism hinged on creating one streamlined, overarching lie. As the historian Tim Grady writes, the Nazis built an ideology on a fiction, the notion that Germany’s defeat in World War I could be avenged (and reversed) by purging the German population of those purportedly responsible: the Jews.

In the wake of the Nazis’ defeat, the fear of a returning tide of fascism in the form of another Big Lie terrified surviving intellectuals. For generations to come, they harped on the dangers of all-consuming propaganda, popularizing the fear. In 1949, George Orwell warned of truth turned upside-down by just such a handful of falsehoods, of the paradox spawned when unreason rules, when:

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

The Big Lie was, as in Orwell’s anti-Commandments of “1984,” an overarching campaign to transform irrational supposition into organizing (or rationalizing) principle. If the Germans could convince themselves that it was not the Germans who were responsible for the German loss in World War I, what could be the next fiction? Who or what was to blame for the next war or natural disaster or economic depression?

The consequences were dire. In her own nightmare vision of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt warned, “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses [would] reach the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

In the ensuing Cold War, the fear of the Big Lie reigned supreme on all sides of the conflict. For the Americans, Soviet communism enslaved the individual through cultish monopolies of the state. For the Soviets, American fat-cat capitalists subjugated workers through the false promise of capitalist freedom. Each side accused the other of stealing from the powerless their natural resources of wealth, human capital and individual decency. Both sides saw the Big Lie as the means to such exploitation.

The Big Lie was a product of a specific historical period, a totalizing scheme for national conformity, first imagined in Nazi Germany and then feared en masse throughout the Cold War. The Cold War was a superpower standoff formed specifically over the fear of each empire’s seductive idea. It was an era dominated by dueling ideologies, a battle between two faiths in capitalism and communism that each strove for global control through (in theory) force of thought. It was an era built for, if not by, the idea of the enemies’ Big Lie.

But the Big Lie cannot function in a global climate of mass information flow and supranational concern — at least, so far it has not done so in our time. As a result, the Big Lie has been replaced by a cascade of little ones. During 2017, data shows, Trump lied 2,140 times about such things as crowd size, the Devin Nunes memo, MS-13, black radicals, the danger of Muslim immigration, mass Democratic voter fraud and Ted Cruz’s father. The total came to an average of 5.9 fibs a day. There was no big, overarching idea but a mess of largely incoherent little ones.

We see the breakdown of the Big Lie even in closed societies, the ones that should be most able to control their information.

In China, the Great Firewall limiting information has failed to curb a crescendo of civic dissent. So the Chinese government has looked to mollify discontent not with big ideas but with mass distraction. With an estimated 448 million social media comments each year, Chinese authorities have unleashed a legion of Internet hacks to distract from dissenters’ messages, to change the online subject through nationalist cheerleading as well as the enticing power of counterprogramming.

As Soviet-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev argues of today’s Russian intelligence forces, “weaponizations” of misinformation have abandoned the traditional goals of espionage — “persuasion,” “public diplomacy” or even “propaganda.” The standard metrics of truth, credibility and consistency have been abandoned. In their place are pedaled more subtle shifts of meaning: hyperbole, obfuscation, credible deniability and the latest fad, the tool of relativizing guilt known familiarly as “whataboutism.”

So, too, we go forth with a new but familiar terror. The worry: Those on the wrong end of the “fire hose of falsehoods” are left with little to nothing out of which they can make their own sense. Facts and logic gradually become more and more attenuated, indistinguishable in a world so full of little lies. So although the strategies of the Big Lie and the endless little lies may diverge sharply in size, they threaten similarly in scope. In their means they may differ, but in their ends the twin nightmares are not so different. They both threaten to leave us senseless.