Thu | Oct 19, 2017

Editorial | Reprising the big lie technique

Published:Tuesday | May 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Employing the strategy himself, Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf, accused Germany's Jews of using 'the big lie' technique of blaming the ultra-nationalist anti-Semite General Erich Ludendorff for the Weimar Republic's defeat in World War I.

The presumption of the technique, Hitler argued, was "that in the big lie, there is always a certain force of credibility because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more readily fall victim to the big lie than the small lie".

In expanding on his thesis, Hitler argued that "it would never come into their heads (the masses) to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously". History, of course, knows that Hitler lied profusely and colossally and that the art of the big lie was perfected and weaponised by his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, with disastrous consequences for Europe's Jews and humankind, generally.

The use of the colossal lie as an instrument of politics didn't die with Hitler and Goebbels and their Third Reich. Indeed, the big lie technique is enjoying not only resurgence, but is gaining hold in societies where it might have been presumed to be anathema: liberal democracies that are best sustained by serious ideas contending within a thoughtful, normative frame.

The erosion of the certainties that underpin liberalism, in some ways, mirrors what ailed Germany after the Great War - economic unease and a sense of people feeling left behind. In the Weimar Republic, it may have been the result of the incapacity of a defeated and reparations-burdened Germany to provide the basic necessities for the vast majority of its citizens. Today, there is the residual effect of the Great Recession, as well as the fact of many segments of society being unable to adjust to the rapid changes of globalisation.

Eight and a half decades ago, fear and uncertainty, in the absence of a countervailing force, spawned Hitler and his European acolytes. Today, it is alt-movements and other fringe elements, mainly of the Far Right, that have been welcomed into the political mainstream. Their leaders have names like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.

 

The narcissist

 

And then there is Donald Trump, the narcissistic, shape-shifting American president whose only ideological constant is a search for affirmation in support of his megalomania. Mr Trump, in the circumstance, discovered, embraced and deployed with success the vocabulary of populism of those fearful about their lives.

Yet, over the longer term, it is an approach that can be successful with an absence of a serious dialogue and sublimation of ideas and, ultimately, truth. America's strong institutions of democracy, including an often scrappy press, are likely, in the end, to contain, and defeat, Mr Trump. But the greatest opportunity for Mr Trump and others like him to achieve their goals is to delegitimise the critical conduits of information, ideas, and news: the free and independent press. They have been busy at that exercise, attempting to expand a new, supposedly post-truth world of alternative facts in which anything over their scripted narrative is labelled as fake news.

There is a danger of contagion. Mr Trump has offered leaders seeking ways to weaken the confidence in and corral a free press a template for the attempt: delegitimise it. Deem any perceived sleight or criticism as deliberate bias and round on error, however small, as fake news. A free press in a democracy is obligated to report facts and tell the truth. When it errs, it must acknowledge its mistakes and correct them. But it must not be cowed in the face of contrived offence and the Goebbels standard.