Trump’s accusation that “radical left” Democrats stole his victory is certainly a whopper. But the focus on his Big Lie misses something fundamental about how propaganda works. A leader’s Big Lie has no power and makes little sense on its own. It has traction only if the public has been fed many, many smaller lies. It relies on a larger network of falsehoods told by the leader and reinforced by his government officials and compliant media.
The Big Lie works because it is part of an established alternate belief system — an edifice of lies, assembled piece by piece.
Let’s break down the smaller lies that prepared Trump’s followers to accept the Big Lie. Each of these was highly damaging and consequential, and most were repeated endlessly by Trump and his co-conspirators in and out of government and replicated on social media, right-wing TV and radio, and more.
Some were not expressed directly by Trump but were connected to the personality cult he built — though he did make overt claims that he would “save the United States,” and pronounced that “I alone” can fix the country’s ills (an allegedly fraudulent election system among them). Personality cults enable the spread of propaganda by allowing an autocrat to forge a special bond with followers, one based on faith and emotion rather than reason. Put simply, they believe — and help amplify — his lies because they believe in him.
The events of January 6 cannot be understood without this structure of blind belief and all the small lies that supported it. For his supporters, Trump was a victim of the “Deep State” and other enemies — his reelection had been foiled by their treachery, so it was up to his believers to fight back, to fix a rigged system with the only tool left: direct action.
Focusing only on the Big Lie misses the big picture. It fails to convey the scope and gravity of the institutionalized lying that was Trump’s biggest weapon. And it obscures the way minds were worn down, day after day, by one lie after another after another. Trump’s aim in his ceaseless lying was to get his followers to trust him alone as the arbiter of reality and to distrust everyone and everything else — especially the democratic system that stood in the way of his amassing sufficient power to become untouchable.
It’s the authoritarian way. While Trump is now gone from the White House, millions of his supporters still cling fiercely to his lies. Each lie deserves our attention as we seek to combat the mass disinformation that threatens our democracy.