Jacob Levy ponders the meaning
of Donald Trump's outrageous lies, such as this tweet from November 27:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.
Why lie? Why call into question the legitimacy of the election that he won? Riling up nativist and racist populist anger isn’t especially tactically useful at this moment.
To understand this kind of political untruth, I think we have to look to theorists of truth and language in politics. The great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism—George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is. Sometimes—often—a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.
Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”
Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. . . . In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.
But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public.
This suffers from overreach and over-sophistication. Trump is not in a position to force anyone to repeat what he says. He hasn't the authoritarian power of a dictator or access to a secret police force who can throw dissidents on the rack.
Try this: Perhaps people repeat what Trump says because they want to. Either they believe, or want to believe, him rather than facts provided by people they don't trust and who don't trust them; or, they know it isn't true but repeat it anyway because doing so frustrates and angers the very people they don't like.
This is not about facts or truth or authoritarian power. It's about anger, hate, and getting even with the object of your anger and hate. And that is what Trump understands and so masterfully manipulates.
Well Trump absolutely has power over the people working for him. Remember, this is the man who made a reality TV show about going around firing people at his slightest whim, and making a loud, twisted, nationally televised spectacle of it in the process. Do you think anyone who owes him their job is going to dare to contradict him in the slightest?
You don't need the people in the street to repeat your lies - just the people in your cabinet and in positions of power.
So does every president and leader, authoritarian or not. Having your inner and outer circle repeat your lies is standard politics practiced by almost all politicians. What makes Trump special is the willingness of his followers in the street and country to repeat what he says whether they believe him or not.
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