Thursday, January 14, 2021

Donald Trump and the Art of the Little Lie

 Hitler’s discussion of the “big lie” is widely cited, but often incorrectly.  His discussion in Mein Kampf is as follows:

But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Hitler on the face of it is not recommending lying as a part of propaganda, but rather accusing the Jews of it.  Note that I say “on the face of it.” It would be a poor sort of propagandist who admitted that he lied.  The Nazis almost always claimed that they told the truth in their propaganda, and that the other side lied. And, in fact, the Nazis preferred to tell the truth, or at least part of the truth, when possible.  For example, when Goebbels reprinted his wartime essays (six months to a year or so after they were written) he could print them without revision since he was careful when writing them not to say anything demonstrably false or that might prove embarrassing in the future.

When the Nazis did lie, they often lied big.  The clearest example is the myth of the International Jewish Conspiracy, but even there the Nazis could adduce some evidence, however thin, of Jewish depravity.  That is a subject for another post.

Donald Trump, however, is the master of the “little lie.” The Washington Post back in July 2020 carried a story titled “President Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.” Some of them meet the criteria for the “big lie (e.g., that he won the 2020 election by a landslide),” but many are small, easily disproven lies. The Wikipedia article “Veracity of statements by Donald Trump” includes examples of both big and little lies.

Why is Donald Trump successful at using an unprecedented number of lies?  I still don’t have a great answer to that question.  However, I think one reason is that his supporters view him as an almost infallible source of truth.  For example, 4% of Democrats vs. 84% of Republicans trusted his information on the COVID-19 outbreak according to a CNN piece in May 2020. While looking over a site for Trump supporters, I found a woman who claimed (in January 2021) that Trump had never lied. Trump’s supporters almost worship him with such fervor  that many simply cannot accept the fact that he lies.

A second reason was discussed in a Psychology Today article titled “How President Trump’s Lies Are Different From Other People’s” (2017). The author found that Trump’s lies were different than the norm:

I was right about Trump telling an especially big proportion of self-serving lies. Instead of telling twice as many self-serving lies as kind lies, he told 6.6 times as many.....

As it turned out, though, that was not the most interesting finding. As I read through Trump’s lies in the process of categorizing them, I realized I could not limit myself just to the categories of self-serving and kind lies. I had to add the category of cruel lies — lies that hurt or disparage or embarrass or belittle other people. In the research my colleagues and I did, we found that only 1 or 2 percent of all lies were cruel. That’s why I wasn’t going to bother with them when coding Trump’s lies....

Now let me tell you what I found when I tallied Trump’s cruel lies. Instead of adding up to 1 or 2 percent, as in my previous research, they accounted for 50 percent. When I first saw that number appear on my screen, I gasped. I knew, of course, that Trump likes to mock and denigrate other people (and countries and agencies), but I didn’t realize just how often he was doing that with his lies.

This is interesting and, I think, accurate.  Why would this be? Part of the reason goes back to another point Hitler makes about propaganda in Mein Kampf.  He argues that the masses understand black and white, yes and no, not shades of gray.  Hitler says that once propaganda admits even the slightest possibility of right for the other side, the masses begin to waver in their support.  Trump presents his enemies not only as wrong, but as absolutely, completely, horribly wrong. When discussing the Devil’s workforce, it is not necessary to be polite.  They are so evil that anything one can say about them is not only accurate, but perhaps understated. As humans we have a tendency to like the “dirt” about others, and Trump is a master of insult. Trump’s world is one of absolute clarity, and he tells it to his followers as they would like it to be.

A third point is the sheer number of lies Trump tells.  Politicians who lie or mistake facts at the normal rate can be held accountable for what they say.   Take, for example, President Obama’s famous statement that if people were happy with their doctors they could keep them. That turned out not to be entirely accurate, although it was true for many. That statement was held against Obama over and over again.  Trump, on the other hand, says so many demonstrably false things that a kind of exhaustion sets in.  What is the point of refuting one lie when in the meanwhile twenty others have surfaced? And, of course, it is far easier to lie than refute a lie.  

In short, I think Trump has developed the art of the “little lie” to a hitherto unseen extent. 

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