- In explaining why Donald Trump lies so much, President-Elect Joe Biden recently resorted to an apt historical comparison, “He’s sort of like Goebbels. You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge.”
- Like many historians of fascism and populism, I think Biden makes a strong historical point although as I explain in my new book on the history of fascist lies, Goebbels never said that repeating lies was part of his strategy.
- He in fact like Trump believed in the lies he himself manufactured.
Donald Trump lost the American presidential election but he still prefers to live in the alternative world his own propaganda has created. In this bizarro universe, he is considered an invincible hero of mythical proportions who decides what is right and what is wrong, what is fake and what is not.
In truth, Trump first lied that he won the election and then for days he denied his undeniable defeat but in Trumpworld Trump still appears as the winner. This fanatic denial of reality is, in a nutshell, a key essence of Trumpism.
At this point when Trumpism is part of history, we need to start thinking about what made possible that America has produced, elected and now has fired a leader that presented such a disastrous right-wing populist combination of denial of science with respect to Covid-19 plus racism, violence, corruption, and failed positions and actions in terms of economy, politics, health, climate change, taxes and income inequality.
A key part of the explanation is lies. In short, central to the success of Trumpism is how lies were fabricated, circulated and sold and bought by so many Americans.
Misinformation will be remembered as the trademark of the history of Trumpism, a movement, regime and ideology that made populism be closer to fascism.
There is no question that many American shared with Trump an authoritarian personality as the philosopher Theodor Adorno and his collaborators have studied it in the post-war period. But we should not forget that an equally significant lesson to be learned is that Trumpism succeeded because real news have been constantly downplayed in the media by the amplification of government propaganda.
How Fascist Propaganda Looks Like
As a candidate in 2016, and before that, Trump used “birtherism” (racist lies about President Barack Obama not being born in the US) and other conspiracy theories to present himself as a key political player.
As President he reached a whole new level of manufacturing propaganda (about minorities, immigrants, and, last but not least, the Coronavirus) that makes him closer to leaders like Hitler and Mussolini.
This is why of all the things said about Donald Trump, the comparison to one of the world’s most infamous liars, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, remains the most extreme, and yet the more accurate. The reason for this is simple: Trump lies with fascist propaganda techniques.
In explaining why Donald Trump lies so much, President-Elect Joe Biden recently resorted to an apt historical comparison, «He’s sort of like Goebbels. You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge.»
Like many historians of fascism and populism, I think Biden makes a strong historical point although as I explain in my new book on the history of fascist lies, Goebbels never said that repeating lies was part of his strategy. He in fact like Trump believed in the lies he himself manufactured.
Perhaps intoxicated by steroids and the ideology of his own cult, Trump probably believes that he is immune to the disease and to accepting a now clear electoral defeat. To be sure, most politicians lie but as a political liar Trump plays in a different league.
From a historical perspective, there is no question Trump participates of a tradition of totalitarian lying that has nothing to do with the conventional lies of traditional politicians of both left and right. And here Biden’s critique is correct.
Trump lies like the leader of a cult. He believes that his lies are at the service of a larger, faith-based truth that he himself personifies. The history of fascism presents plenty of cases of this type of liars who believe and want to change their world to conform to their lies, from Benito Mussolini to Adolf Hitler and many other dictators and ideologues.
There is a chronology of totalitarian lying. Fascists increased and mastered the manufacture of lies after years of being in power. The same happened to Trumpism and the paroxysm of lies reached its climax in the last few days.
The latest examples, of course, are the lies about fraud, illegal votes, and so forth, but the real news is that President Trump’s will no longer be able to manufacture and spread lies from his perch at the White House. And as of now, there is no longer a Trump centered news cycle.
The constant presentation of reality according to plan first led to numbness on the part of the public and the media regarding real events and fake news, but this eventually has changed with Trump’s defeat. But will the media learn the lesson and do not put Trumpist propaganda at the center of things in the next weeks, months and years? If this lesson is not learned democracy will be again threatened by future forms of Trumpism.
This lesson also applies to Trump’s allies on a global scale. Like Trump, post-fascist populists like Jair Mesías Bolsonaro in Brazil, Matteo Salvini in Italy, or Narendra Modi in India have lied for many years, more recently about the coronavirus and, like Trump they had used it as an excuse to promote their totalitarian vocations. Italy, where Salvini is no longer in power, did not experience the repression and violence that increased in the United States, India and Brazil while these countries became the most affected by the virus.
From Populism to Fascism
In terms of lies, Trump and his cronies represent a new chapter in populism, unmaking its more democratic dimensions and stressing the authoritarian ones. If populism was historically a reformulation of fascism in a democratic key, the trumpist way of lying is more akin to fascism.
Classic populist leaders like Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina or Getulio Vargas in Brazil did not believe their own lies, they never denied science or the results of elections. But for fascists like Hitler, Mussolini, or Goebbels, knowledge was a matter of faith, of deep faith in the myth of the leader. He was always supposed to be right, even reality showed the opposite.
The fascist idea that personal greatness can combat all “evils”, including disease, diversity and democratic facts implies that the leader is the owner of the truth and decides when to share it, ignore it, or worse yet try to make it a reality.
For the faithful, those who believe in the worship of their leaders, these lies are enough; not so for the rest of us. Lies kill and votes confirm electoral victories, this is why President-Elect Biden has a point, Trump is indeed like Goebbels.
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