Fact-checking President Trump is a full-time job. His comments are peppered with inaccuracies and lies. Over the past few months, we have seen that these lies have deadly consequences. But there is a deeper problem than simply lying: coming to believe that these lies are in service of the truth.
This has been particularly dangerous when it comes to the U.S. response to the covid-19 pandemic. Trump has alternated between downplaying its deadly nature to repeated promises of a “miracle,” which he has used to argue for lifting restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus. His rhetoric pits the “real people” against experts, scientists and especially the media, trying to lay the blame for the economic catastrophe resulting from the pandemic on others.
Trump’s urging for a reopening without creating policies that would allow it to happen safely not only serves his pro-business constituents in search of desperate workers. His demonization of anti-fascism acts as the validation of violence against those that fight fascism and racism.
In short, Trump is using this crisis to promote his brand of authoritarianism, positioning himself not as an elected official but as a leader who owns the truth and whose authority is “total.”
The repetition of lies has been a powerful tool for authoritarian leaders in the past.
In fact, the most famous fascist propagandist, the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels, is often misquoted as saying that repeating lies was central to Nazism. He never said it. This misquotation has led to an image of fascist leaders being fully conscious of the extent of their deliberate falsehoods.
But the relationship between perceived truths and lies in Nazism is more complicated. When Goebbels said that Hitler knew everything and that he was “the naturally creative instrument of divine destiny,” it wasn’t mere flattery or spin. He actually believed it. Hitler deeply believed that he could win a war on all fronts because he was invincible. When the Fuhrer stated that “infallibility” marked the superiority of Nazism, he believed his own hype. Goebbels, and others serving the regime, came to believe it too.
Goebbels was a master of creating an alternative reality that justified Nazi rule and violence. As his biographer, the historian Peter Longerich, noted, having once faked and then published news about an assassination attempt on himself, Goebbels then “published” it as fact in his diaries. In these diaries, not written for public consumption but published many years after his death, he also noted the “success” of his speeches after they were celebrated by the media he controlled.
Was Goebbels lying to himself, or did he believe in a form of truth that transcended empirical demonstration? Both. For fascists like Goebbels, knowledge was a matter of faith, and especially a deep faith in the myth of the fascist leader. They believed in a truth that transcended facts.
Fascists did not see a contradiction between truth and propaganda. Goebbels defined propaganda as “the art, not of lying or distorting, but of listening to ‘the soul of the people’ and ‘speaking to a person a language that this person understands.’” As historian Richard Evans observes, “The Nazis acted on the premise that they, and they alone, through Hitler, had an inner knowledge and understanding of the German soul.” The idea of a truth that emanated from the soul was the result of an act of faith — an absolute certainty that could not be corroborated.
In the 1930s and 1940s, fascists around the world saw truth embodied in anti-Semitic myths as well as myths of a golden past that was going to be reinstated and expanded — what the German Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer called “myth according to plan.” Fascists fantasized an alternative reality — for Hitler this was a world where Jews had lied their way to prominence and brought economic collapse for the German people — and then changed the actual reality to reflect these ideas.
Concrete policies then followed aimed at reshaping the world according to these fascist lies. For example, if anti-Semitic lies stated that Jews were inherently dirty and contagious and therefore ought to be killed, the Nazis created conditions in the ghettos and concentration camps where dirtiness and widespread disease became reality. Starved, tortured and radically dehumanized Jewish inmates became what the Nazis had planned for them to become, and were accordingly killed.
In their search for a truth that did not coincide with the experienced world, fascists conceived what they saw and did not like as untruth. They believed in a form of truth that transcended common sense and observation because it was transcendental. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini stated, “At a certain moment in my life I risked being unpopular with the masses to announce to them what I thought was the new truth, a holy truth [la verità santa]”.
This idea of a sacred truth that displaced empirical truth is key to understanding how lying operated in fascism.
Hitler, and also Goebbels, insisted that propaganda needed constant repetition, but they never argued that they were telling lies. In fact, they believed firmly that what they said was true. In 1942, Goebbels wrote in his private diary that “the essence of propaganda is simplicity and repetition.”
Of course, simply repeating messages can be incredibly dangerous, particularly when they are based not in facts but in ideology.
When Trump repeatedly lies about the virus, and his strength when facing protesters, the president is also creating a sacred sense of the “truth,” of his own grandiosity and invincibility. In 2018, Trump told his followers, that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” According to this mind-set, what the leader says and does matters more than facts, science and even followers’ own perceptions about the world.
Tellingly, in these times, Trump believes his opinion is superior to that of doctors, scientists and local officials. He does not wear masks to protect himself and others from covid-19, promotes fantasy cures, and demands that governors and mayors follow his blueprint for addressing uprisings. Even more dangerously, he pits public health precautions against economic reopening, as though our economy can be turned on like a light switch while thousands die daily from coronavirus.
Millions are unemployed, he argues, not because of a legitimate health threat and painful but necessary mitigation efforts, but because his political enemies are punishing him by insisting on closures, stay-at-home orders and gradual reopenings.
By replacing reality, by insisting on miracles, phantom enemies and dubious cures, in short by repeating harmful propaganda points that deny or minimize the spread of the pandemic, deform the reality of the protests against racism and cast blame on others for the resulting economic pain, Trump is echoing what Goebbels did and, like him, believing in his own lies. The results are already part of the historical record, and they are catastrophic.