Photo credit: HelloSSTK / Shutterstock.com
The message from Republican politicians and their right-wing media flacks about the televised hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, which have now completed their second day? They don’t matter. “Nothing to see here!” they are all quacking, as they have for about the last 17 months. “Don’t bother looking! This won’t change anyone’s mind! No one cares!”
This carefully coordinated campaign of scorn is intended to distract. The chief point of these hearings is to establish the truth, not to change minds on the right. It is also a lie, because a great many Americans do care. At last count, upwards of 20 million of us (not including radio listeners and those who streamed it), about an eighth of the American electorate, cared enough to watch the first day.
Remember, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in 2020 by about eight million votes.
In other words, the GOP’s MAGA wing, and its media collaborators, are deeply worried. They are shielding their own audience in particular from any disturbing knowledge about the origins of the attempted coup d’état on January 6, 2021. There isn’t a single article about the hearings on Breitbart News’s front page, although you can go to the menu and click “January 6 Show trial” to find a few partisan attacks. There, you can learn that Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) is using the committee to “retaliate” against her fellow Republicans. Why was Bill Stepien, who ran Trump’s 2020 campaign scheduled to appear at Monday’s hearing? Because he is now working for Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed candidate who has the best chance of dumping Cheney in the upcoming Wyoming primary!
Don’t forget—it’s the government that is corrupt! “Unless Liz Cheney and the committee unveil a bombshell surprise during the next hearing,” writes Paul Bois at Breitbart, “it is unlikely the Stepien subpoena will have any effect on her primary campaign against Hageman, given that few Americans are tuning in for the broadcast.” But it’s unlikely anyway that this will affect Cheney’s chances in that election, because Stepien was called, not to talk about his work for Hageman, but to establish that Donald Trump was fully and explicitly informed that he had lost the election fair and square, and that is what his testimony (taped, because his wife went into labor) revealed.
These are, in the scale of things, little lies—the lies we have become familiar with, that came from Trump himself, and that were disseminated by thousands of MAGA drones on social media from 2016 on. Little lies are not insignificant. We are living with the consequences of those lies today, and they worked: millions of Americans are still thinking in lockstep with bizarre conspiracy theories that center the continuing legitimacy of Donald Trump’s lost presidency.
But Monday’s theme for the live hearing was “The Big Lie,” and it is worth saying that a Big Lie, which I will discuss below, requires three things. The first is the capacity to deliver such a shock that the public can embrace a new, counterfactual, reality. The second is lots of little lies and liars, as well as unrelated distractions, that sustain both the Big Lie and the atmosphere of unreality that it requires to flourish. The third requirement is the assertion that the aspiring autocrat, the person who is conspiring to seize absolute power, is fighting a conspiracy embedded in the state itself.
Significantly, the idea of the Big Lie is linked to the rise of modern totalitarianism, and has its origins in no less historic a text than Adolf Hitler’s 1925 manifesto, Mein Kampf. Hitler demonstrates the complexity of how a Big Lie works: it relies on distracting your audience with accusations that someone else, over there, is telling their own Big Lie. In Mein Kampf, he explains that the Big Lie flips reality so completely that it is inconceivable to the public that anyone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Then, this future dictator—who was writing Mein Kampf while sitting in a jail cell after participating in a failed coup—claimed that this is what an international Jewish conspiracy had done to destroy German morale. They had perpetrated the Big Lie that German general Erich Ludendorff, by then a right-wing politician, had been responsible for losing World War I.
But because one Big Lie requires another, Hitler then substitutes his own Big Lie as the truth. Why had Germany lost the war? Because of its internal enemies, particularly Jews, who had stabbed the nation in the back even as its troops were winning the war. This Big Lie, over the course of the next 20 years, fueled Nazi extremism. It set the German people up, not only to choose a totalitarian government, but also to support and facilitate the extermination of invented “enemies”—primarily Europe’s Jews, as well as communists, homosexuals, Gypsies and political dissenters. And it took Germany into a war of aggression that would destroy that nation for the second time in less than three decades.
After Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, many intellectuals and politicians saw totalitarianism as an ongoing legacy of the war, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Union had quickly installed communist governments in the countries they had occupied at the end of the war. Josef Stalin’s government, they argued, was propped up by a Big Lie, and myriad small lies, that were little different from the Nazi regime.
Although he didn’t use the phrase itself, writer George Orwell introduced a mass audience to how the Big Lie worked in his two Cold War novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). Animal Farm demonstrates how the idealism of a democratic revolution can be repurposed by an unscrupulous autocrat to consolidate his power, and why manipulating language is crucial to that. After taking over the farm, the animals adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism: the one that articulates their aspirations to democracy is, “All animals are equal.” Yet, as Napoleon the pig tightens his grip on the farm that key provision is re-written: “All animals are equal,” the revised commandment reads, “but some animals are more equal than others.” 1984, which demonstrates the outcomes of autocracy for ordinary people, argues that Big Lies incapacitate human reason by flipping reality. “War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” are the Big Lies through which Oceania’s Thought Police explain the world, and why the masses must acquiesce to domination.
But books were not the only place where experts explained the notion of the Big Lie as a keystone for totalitarianism. This concept was also a central theme of United States anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1951, U.S.Army recruits, many of whom were preparing to deploy to Korea, were introduced to the perfidy of totalitarianism with a short newsreel, The Big Lie. Produced by Warner Pathé News, it explained how totalitarians repurpose all the institutions of government and the media, and how telling “big lies” allowed dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung to dominate their people and present a false front to the democratic world.
Showing Soviet Communism and Nazism as two sides of the same coin, the filmmakers begin with the assertion that Hitler “built an altar to the big lie.” They then juxtapose film of prisoners working in Germany with Soviet citizens toiling in gulags and factories. They explain that what looks like a judicial system in the USSR are phony courts and processes intended to eliminate enemies; and they show how multiple nations that the Soviets claimed as allies are, in reality, puppet states.
Worst of all, the film notes, the Soviet Union’s claim to want peace was the biggest lie of all, as that nation supported bloody communist revolutions all over the world. The USSR was, the narrator repeats ominously, “the dove that goes boom.” The film ends with scenes of Korean refugees fleeing war.
While the newsreel The Big Lie is a massive oversimplification of how the Soviet Union consolidated its power in Eastern Europe, and why Communism appeared to be the answer to overthrowing colonialism in many parts of the world, its formulation about twentieth-century totalitarianism is not false. Totalitarian leaders and their governments do require propaganda, mass incarceration, and total control of state institutions in order to maintain themselves.
However, when we think about these ideas today in relation to the lies that caused several thousand people to attack the United States government, it is also worth remembering Hitler’s original formulation: the Big Lie is most powerful when it is coupled with the assertion that it is the other side that is telling the Big Lie. Furthermore, as totalitarians conspire to take control of a society, they frequently portray legitimate political and social institutions as, themselves, conspiratorial.
Much as Hitler targeted Jews as conspirators, Stalin’s regime saw conspiracy everywhere: not just Jews, but doctors, scientists, the military, writers, and peasant landholders, to name a few. One after another, members of these groups were declared enemies of the state and hustled into the concentration camps, to be replaced by people and organizations that endorsed the Big Lie.
But in the United States, the chief target of all conspiracists is most frequently the American government itself, a phenomenon that has accelerated in the 21st century. Following 9/11, French journalist and political activist Thierry Meyssan wrote a book that promoted the idea that the Bush administration had staged this calamity as an excuse to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meyssan’s 2002 book L’effroyable Imposture (or An Appalling Fraud) was retitled for publication in the United States as 9/11: The Big Lie. It became a major influence on an anti-war right that consolidated first in the 2008 Ron Paul campaign, then in the Tea Party, and finally in the MAGA movement led by Donald J. Trump. To MAGA Republicans, the conspiracy is a “deep state,” an invisible, totalitarian cabal that runs the country regardless of what party is in power—which only Donald Trump and his allies can counter.
Although the J6 hearings clearly put Trump’s supporters in the GOP in an awkward “the Emperor has no clothes position,” the Former Guy still is still being robustly backed by the media most of his voters care about. Tucker Carlson’s tactic for keeping MAGA world ignorant was to run his show for 60 minutes straight, with no ads that might allow his people a sneak peek, while his network actually carried the live hearings on the somewhat obscure Fox Business channel.
Unsurprisingly, MAGA media is also dismissing the number of viewers and the possibility that they will change their views about Trump when they hear direct testimony about the massive fraud that he has perpetrated on them and profited from. Because the Big Lie has also raised Big Money: since Trump left office, it has fueled fundraising to the tune of over $110 million for Save America, his personal PAC, much of it in small donations from ordinary people.
But another talking point on the right is: “no one is watching!” Paul Bois, who I quoted above, said the audience number last Thursday was 19 million (which I guess sounds smaller than 20 million.) Others suggest the viewer numbers are trivial by comparing them to a popular television show. This is, of course, a highly Trumpian metric, and one the Former guy used constantly, so it is bound to catch his attention. “Basically the same ratings as the Roseanne reboot,” wrote my favorite right-wing political consultant, “only Roseanne was on one channel and the 1/6 hearings had a monopoly on tv shows.” Right. But….so what?
Then there is the other element of the Big Lie: distraction. Extremist Jack Posobiec is tweeting pictures of Ashli Babbit, a Trump supporter who was shot by Capitol police as she attempted to break into the House Chamber, and is now a MAGA martyr. Posobiec is also insinuating that a man none of us has ever heard of, but who is accused on the right of having engineered the attack on the Capitol as a “false flag” operation, is an undercover government informant.
In a slightly more respectable vein, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted that the Democrats are focused on an unimportant blip in our nation’s political history. “Instead of focusing on $5 gas, 6000 illegal immigrants a day, record fentanyl deaths, or the violent criminals terrorizing America,” he fulminated, “democrats use taxpayer money on a TV producer for the prime time political infomercial from the Jan 6th circus.” But you have to ask: if the Democrats should be focusing on four things at the same time, could they not juggle five? Because the modern state generally does do more than one thing at a time.
One of the few exceptions to these right-wing monkeys who cover their eyes, ears, and mouths is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). A political animal to the core, he detests Donald Trump and would be as happy as I would be to see the Former Guy slapped with a few felony charges. Initially, McConnell opposed the formation of the special committee as “biased and slanted.” Now, although he claims he isn’t watching the hearings, McConnell said last week that “that he looks forward to seeing what the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol finds in its probe.”
On Sunday, Scott Jennings, a top McConnell advisor, went further. “I don’t know how you watch these videos, how you watch the testimony of Officer [Carolyn] Edwards who was completely compelling and what she went through was horrific,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “I would submit it’s better for the party to look to the future and put this behind us by acknowledging what happened.”
But even McConnell is reluctant to utter the phrase “Big Lie”—why?
Perhaps for the same reason, the January 6 select committee has chosen that phrase to describe the former president’s plot against America: because the phrase itself has its historical origins in the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism, and is intended to permanently tar Trump, all of his enablers, and all of his supporters, with the stink of dictatorship.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.