It’s been almost a month since Twitterless Donald Trump flounced down to Florida. Some hoped that, having lost his presidential and social media platforms, his Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen would flame out.
No such luck. In voting to acquit him at his impeachment trial, 43 out of 50 Republican senators yet again caved to his control. In the House, Arizona, Texas and Michigan, his loyalists keep pushing his party line or pushing out figures who don’t fall in line.
Left unchecked, democracy-destroying lies don’t die. Hitler exploited a Big Lie, which blamed Germany’s World War I defeat on a “stab in the back” by Jews and leftists, to spur the Nazis’ rise to power. Today’s authoritarians in Hungary, Turkey, Russia and Poland similarly twist history to seek to cement their rule. The Lost Cause myth, which cast the Confederacy as a noble endeavor, and which survives and even thrives in some states today, buttressed over a century of racist repression of Southern Blacks.
Such havoc can happen here. In fact, it’s already started. The impeachment managers’ presentations documented how the Big Lie has already fomented vitriol and violence, above and beyond the January 6 fatalities and injuries. The rot includes the Capitol rioters’ death threats against Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi, an attempt in Texas to run Biden backers’ bus off the road and the militant Proud Boys’ pride in Trump’s support.
Even if his sway fades, likely 2024 candidates like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz could keep pressing the point to fuel further division and even violence. In historian Timothy Snyder words, “The lie outlasts the liar.”
Tell the Truth
What to do in the face of all this? As Mitt Romney memorably put it on January 6, “The best way we could show respect for the voters who were upset is by telling them the truth.”
That’s why we need persistent, multipronged efforts to promote the Big Truth: Joe Biden won a free and fair election.
Here are some ideas about what those efforts could feature:
A Truth Commission. South Africa and many other nations have assembled such panels to document and address their respective histories of war, repression or human rights abuses. Unlike these deep dives, the American version could quickly pull together and propagate the overwhelming evidence of the Big Truth.
This work could be one aspect of the “9/11-type commission” proposed by Pelosi. Or it might best be unofficial in nature, since a government-appointed body could feed conspiracist fantasies and prove otherwise problematic. Who organizes the panel is less important than the bipartisan, respected figures who constitute it.
The Messenger is the Message. The power of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s recent, intensely personal video on the “lies, and lies, and lies” behind the Nazis’ Kristallnacht in his native Austria flows not just from the history he recites but from the famous macho man reciting it. In their song “Undivided,” country music stars Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw frame faith, patriotism, tolerance and unity in terms appealing to their fans.
Given their activist orientations and broad appeals, celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift could play similar roles. But tweets, PSAs and outreach by previously unengaged movie, military, athletic and other heroes might also help bring the truth to light.
Democracy Won. Though the obvious upshot of all this is that Joe Biden is our legitimate president, the core message is not about Democrats or Republicans. Democracy won on November 3, in that our democratic practices and principles prevailed.
Go Legitimately Low. Michelle Obama’s laudable 2016 declaration, “When they go low, we go high,” only goes so far in effectively countering the Big Lie. There’s nothing wrong with shining a harsh but accurate light on the price we pay for denying the truth. The Lincoln Project has made an artform of such ads. Circulating powerful videos, like the horrid January 6 clip of a police officer beaten with a pole bearing the American flag on the Capitol steps, can also dramatize the un-American danger the Big Lie brings.
Call Out the Big Liars. Turn the tables on the many Republican officials who are trying to turn the GOP into the Trump Party. Through speeches, social media, ads and other advocacy, call it by that name in order to exploit how unpopular he is with the majority of Americans. Or call it the Big Lie Party, or the Anti-democracy Party.
Call Out the Elusive Liars. In a related vein, Jonathan Last of The Bulwark, the conservative anti-Trump site, offers this suggestion for putting anti-democracy Republicans on the spot if they try to side-step the issue:
A proposal for reporters covering Republican candidates and officeholders over the next four years:
Every interview should begin with two questions.
Sir/Ma’am, I need one-word answers from you:
1. Who won the 2020 U.S. presidential election?
2. Was this the legitimate result of a free and fair election?
This shouldn’t take long. The questions can be asked in less than 5 seconds. The answers are one word each: “Biden” and “yes.”
Any Republican candidate or officeholder who refuses to answer, or who tries to elide the question by saying something like, “Joe Biden is the president,” should be asked again. And again. And again.
Keep Beating the Drum. The Big Lie won’t rest. The Big Truth can’t either. Messages must be repeated many times over time in order to sink in. Creative ways can be found to hammer home the truth without being boring.
Look Toward the Future. The Big Truth is about more than setting straight the recent past. It’s also about the future. Fueled by the Big Lie, over 100 voter suppression bills have already been filed in 28 states in 2021. Persuading people that the 2020 election was free and fair could positively impact the voter protection battles that will roil 2022 and 2024.
Other truth-promoting efforts could include financial pressure on corporations to keep withholding funds from Big Lie-propagating political action committees; keeping the lid on Trump’s fabrication-fostering and violence-inducing social media access, particularly since online misinformation about election fraud dropped dramatically after Twitter dumped Trump; and journalists adopting Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan’s excellent ideas on vanquishing the Big Lie.
Even Modest Persuasion Could Prove Pivotal
Having said all this, this is not to say that most Big Lie devotees will reverse course if shown the facts. Too many are too resistant. But some absolutist truth deniers may become only doubters. Some doubters may become persuaded.
Even a modest amount of persuasion could make the difference between whether our democracy lives or dies in the years ahead. This is especially crucial in view of how closely divided our representative institutions are today, between democrats and anti-democrats. Convincing relatively few folks of the truth could prove decisive.
America dodged a bullet on November 3. If fewer than 22,000 votes had switched from Biden to Trump in three states, or if Trump had been just a bit more strategic rather than self-defeating during the campaign – something a would-be autocratic candidate could well be in 2024 – the world would be a much darker place today.
The battle for our democracy began rather than ended with Trump’s defeat. Simply fretting over the Big Lie won’t cut it. Nor will wanting to wish it away or pretending we can ignore it.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.