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In a bizarre 46-minute address, given from the White House and posted to social media on December 2, Donald Trump gave (in his words) “the most important speech I’ve ever made.” Intended to describe the means by which the 2020 election was “stolen” from him, and supplemented with graphs that exhibited supposed spikes in paper ballots arriving at counting centers in key states. According to FactCheck.org, it consisted mostly of lies. Spurred on by lawyers, allies, and the silence of most prominent figures in the GOP, Trump continues to lean into conspiracy theories, even as his refusal to acknowledge his loss undermines voter participation in Georgia, where two runoffs that will determine control of the Senate are underway.
Trump’s antagonistic relationship to the truth is unprecedented for a modern United States president, particularly one in the lame-duck period of his administration. But it’s not unprecedented in modern history. For an instructive example, both for what Trump is doing and why his supporters believe him, we should look to how 20th-century fascist leaders have used propaganda and lies to construct alternate realities, and whip up popular distrust.
I have spent more than five years studying fascist rhetoric and demagoguery and in particular the relationship between truth and facts in fascist regimes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one of the main lessons I’ve learned is that facts and truth have a very uneasy relationship in fascism – but I have also learned that fascist rhetoric relies on an unusual definition of what truth is, and what role it should play in political culture.
In The Art of the Deal (1987), Trump famously characterized the lies he told as a businessman as “truthful hyperbole,” a form of falsehood sprinkled with facts. This provides us with a key to the ways that what we might call fascist truth differs from factual truth. Differently, 20th-century fascists are renowned for their lies—propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation provided powerful tools for achieving public consent for fascist rule. Today, lies are still the basic instrument of fascist politics.
But crucially, fascists did not, and do not, reject truth outright. They simply did not believe that “facts” were the most necessary component of “truth.” Rather, fascists and proto-fascists built their entire worldview around an intuitive feeling that something was true—anti-Semitism, for example—and facts that didn’t fit that truth could more or less be ignored or denied.
Democracies encounter the problem of lying constantly, but both lies and half-truths are understood as aberrant. Liberal democracy is grounded in the notion that empirical evidence—facts that support, but also facts that refute accepted truths—is the best basis for leadership and decision-making. Voters, legislators, and jurors prioritize empirical evidence to make informed and just decisions.
By contrast, fascists employ evidence in pursuit of their goals, but facts are often embedded in contexts and analyses that are false and are designed to achieve consent for those goals. In his groundbreaking study, The Anatomy of Fascism, historian Robert O. Paxton contends, “The truth was whatever permitted the new fascist man (and woman) to dominate others, and whatever made the chosen people triumph.”
In particular, fascists invested their sense of self and identity in a mythic past that feels true—one that positioned charismatic leaders as the arbiters of truth, and thus, the exclusive right to rule. In Romania, for example, Corneliu Codreanu, leader of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania, asserted in 1936 that “the man who is endowed with leadership qualities engages in the art of imposing truth by the play of forces.” In Mussolini’s Italy, the “Doctrine of Fascism” asserted that “Mussolini is always right,” and in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the leadership principle dictated that “The Führer is always right.”
Ultimately, fascists believed the only real gauge of truth was a kind of authenticity, which could only emanate from the leader’s will, commitment, and action. As Mussolini put it, historical circumstances demanded authentic action to counteract “the flabby materialistic positivism of the nineteenth century.”
If authenticity was sometimes patently unfactual, that was hardly the point: What mattered was the “inner truth.” Under the right circumstances, lying egregiously and obviously was integral to a leader’s authenticity because committing to an irrational claim showed how fanatically committed they were to the cause. And while anti-fascists throughout interwar Europe and the Americas often clung to disseminating factual truth, as they rose to power fascists systematically destroyed the systems and institutions that made facts matter. Once facts were indistinguishable from lies, fascists could suppress the truth and enforce emotion-driven nationalist narratives.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but the lessons of history can. One of those lessons is that political institutions can collapse with astonishing speed in the face of lies. Today, in the United States, debunked conspiracy theories and lies are being wielded indiscriminately to attack democratic systems and institutions, and to enforce a false narrative: that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” it.
But knowing this is not enough. Facts will not support the democracies we want to live in unless we defend the institutions, norms, and practices that do the more difficult work of defining, and defending, what truth is.
Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.