The Big Lie: One of the Most Successful Propaganda Operations in US History
It keeps Trump's personality cult and corruption schemes going, and powers GOP radicalization
"If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth," wrote George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984.
This quote came to mind when I read that the Texas GOP wrote the Big Lie into its party platform by approving a measure at its June convention that claims President Joe Biden "was not legitimately elected."
The lie about the Democrats stealing the 2020 election from Donald Trump has become a pillar of the GOP as it transforms before our eyes into an extremist entity. Any politician who wishes to get ahead in the party must espouse this falsehood and pose as a guardian of "election integrity" against imagined Democratic trickery.
This is why the supremely opportunistic Governor Ron DeSantis, who declared proudly in November 2020 that Florida had no electoral fraud, now has an Office of Election Crimes and Security. And it's why hundreds of election deniers have run for GOP offices, including for secretary of state, with over 100 of them winning recent primaries around the country.
The Big Lie is one of the most successful propaganda operations in U.S. history. In 2022, as in 2021, polls show that about 70% of Republicans see Trump as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. So it's worth reviewing its origins and how it interacts with corruption and other authoritarian tools.
Trump, of course, is the primary beneficiary of the Big Lie. This highly skilled propagandist primed the public to lose its capacity to discern the truth by disseminating more than 30,000 other lies and misleading claims during his presidency.
The Big Lie convinces many because Trump had been lying about American elections for years. He started drumming up suspicion about rigged elections in 2016, when he feared he would lose to Hillary Clinton, spread false claims of voter fraud during the 2018 midterm elections, and then made the supposed corruption of the American election system a central theme of his 2020 campaign.
Throughout 2020, Trump worked overtime to throw doubt on every single aspect of voting. He told lies about dead people voting, about fraudulent mail-in ballots, about votes illegally counted, not counted at all, or invented, up through his Jan. 6 speech in which he falsely and with no evidence accused Democrats of pulling "suitcases of ballots out from under a table."
The Big Lie also kept Trump’s formidable personality cult going by allowing millions of his followers to avoid a reckoning with the fall of their idol. The Big Lie allowed Trump to remain a "winner" and the defender of the nation. As we see from the propaganda fabricated by his devotees, these identities are key to his enduring popularity.
At the same time, the idea that Trump was robbed of the election reinforced a key component of this and other strongman cults - the fantasy that the beloved leader is being victimized by a shadowy array of forces bent on taking him down. This is why I see the Jan. 6 coup attempt as a cult leader rescue operation.
The Big Lie also gave new life to Trump’s autocratic aim of turning the presidency into a vehicle of personal enrichment. Until the pandemic hit, he spent one-third of his time while president traveling to and promoting Trump-branded properties. The Big Lie continued this tradition by enabling "a big ripoff," as Rep. Zoe Lofgren called it at the second Jan. 6 committee hearing.
Playing on his public profile as a wronged leader, Trump raised $250 million for a non-existent "election defense fund." Washington State donors alone gave $2.7 million. The donated money was funneled to the ailing Trump hotel chain ($200,000) and to the pet projects of his most important fellow conspirators in the plot to overthrow of the 2020 election, such as the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit linked to his Chief of Staff Mark Meadows ($1 million).
The last fundraising email went out 30 minutes before his supporters assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6. In the best authoritarian tradition, Trump defrauded those who trusted him to the very end.
If the GOP succeeds in turning America into an autocracy, the Big Lie will figure prominently as a multi-purpose myth that became truth for millions, leading them to act against their own interests. As the Republicans standardize their propaganda talking points and rewrite history in Orwellian fashion, it falls to us to document how and why the Big Lie took hold.