What has become obvious as a result of the investigation of the January 6th committee is that Donald Trump knew he lost the election but he lied. Testimony from his closest advisors confirmed he knew he had lost and he decided to lie to his followers and the country in an effort to remain in office in spite of the election. Prior to the work of the committee, it might have been imagined that Trump had managed to delude himself. Maybe he was given bad information through some sort of disinformation campaign on the part of his advisors – but the testimony was unanimous. As the committee chair, Bennie Thompson put the conclusion of the committee: “Donald Trump lost an election and knew he lost an election and, as a result of his loss, decided to wage an attack on our democracy.”
As shocking as the original lie, is the momentum it has gained through Fox News, other right leaning media, and by promotion of Republican politicians. We are now witnessing the election of far right supporters of Trump’s election lie, with their promotion of the lie serving as a winning political strategy. As Thompson pointed out, democracy is under attack.
A quote often attributed to Nazi chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, captures the strategy:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
Whether or not Goebbels said it, the quote describes not only the Nazi propaganda machine but the way state propaganda works. A big lie, repeated often is a means of gaining consent and overcoming dissent in supposed service of a higher cause. This manufacturing of consent can be both blunt and brutal but so pervasive that it takes a real effort to expose it.
In a report prepared by the OSS describing the psychology of Adolph Hitler, the phrase the “big lie” captured the center of his strategy:
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
The playbook of Hitler sounds strangely familiar. It is no surprise Vanity Fair (September, 1990) reports that Trump’s ex-wife described him as keeping a book of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. (When Trump was asked if this was true, he confirmed it.) Is Trump following Hitler’s strategy, or is it simply that Trump and Hitler and all big liars share a psychology? That psychology, at one level, is easy enough to read – a ruthless drive for power – but there is something initially unbelievable about raw evil. Could any individual so empty themselves of morals, concern for others, or regard for the truth, that they would literally do anything to gain power? The question becomes rhetorical in the asking.
These big liars are not so much the mystery as to how it is they rise to power. What forces come into play that the most soulless and dehumanized rise to the top?
Where a big lie becomes central to the survival of a group, it is obvious that those who serve the lie have a certain utilitarian purpose. The Catholic Church, the Soviet Union, the Sackler family, the Republican Party, but every institution structured around a particular deception is bound to promote and glorify the biggest and best liars. As long as the lie works certain bishops and cardinals are promoted, certain party bosses rule, certain members of the Sackler family rise to the top, and the Republican Party can win elections. Those who stick to the lie reap the rewards, until the lie fails or is exposed.
Last night we watched the documentary “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” (on HBO), and the shocking and sad part is that sticking to the lie of absolute Soviet superiority, inclusive of the presumed impossibility of a nuclear accident, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Even while the disaster was unfolding, children are sent out to play, families go about their business, and no alarms are raised. Some of the most horrifying footage is of the “liquidators;” soldiers who are set to shoveling highly radio active material in the midst of the debris of the reactor. They laugh and dismiss the danger, trusting in their superiors and the Soviet State. The documentary implies the fall of the Soviet Union unfolds as this big lie came unraveled.
The characteristic displayed in the Soviet Union and on display in Trump supporters but in any totalitarian system is an unquestioning belief. We live in a time of absolute certainty, in which self-doubt and skepticism are a weakness. In a poll conducted by Psyche: “Absolute certainty was endorsed by 91 of 290 (or 31.4 per cent of) individuals who self-identified as ‘extremely Left-wing’ and by 54 of 133 (40.6 per cent of) individuals who self-identified as ‘extremely Right-wing’. The conclusion: “Extremism and absolute certainty seem to resonate.” The authors cite Karl Popper, who noted that “absolute certainty is the foundational component of totalitarianism: if one is sure that one’s political philosophy will lead to the best possible future for humankind, all manner of terrible acts become justifiable in service of the greater good.”
The authors note that these are people who would probably refuse to change their beliefs under any circumstance. They are committed to the ideas of their system, such that the ideas matter more than anything else. They cite evidence “that ideological extremism is associated with low cognitive flexibility, meaning the ability to adapt to new, shifting or unexpected events and perspectives.” Though the study included both the extreme left and right, the conclusion was “we found that people identifying as ‘extremely Right-wing’ were far and away the most dogmatic group in the study.” According to the article, these dogmatists typically testify, “I am so sure I am right about the important things in life, there is no evidence that could convince me otherwise.”
Which raises the question of the connection between Christians and their support of right-wing politics and Donald Trump (at about 71% among white church-goers voting for Trump). Does the Christian faith promote a mind-set or psychology that would tend toward right-wing politics? Statistically, the answer must be yes, but what can also be delineated are conservative tendencies attached to the religion. Isn’t the very foundation of the Christian faith built on particular dogmas and dogmatism? Isn’t the goal of Christianity to shape human personality and the human psyche such as to create unquestioning belief?
In fact, there is clearly such a brand of Christianity that would lend itself to Trumpism or any of a number of brands of fascism and totalitarianism. It is obvious that unquestioning trust in church institutions and church authority has translated into a conservative trust in political and cultural institutions. With this, there also seems to be a psychological type, shaped by this predominant form of the Christian faith.
We might describe this type as having primary trust in the law, full trust in church tradition and church institutions, and the presumption that there is no tension within Scripture. The law is determinative not only of the work of Christ, but is definitive of the individual psyche. The working of guilt through the human conscience does not cause one to question the role of the conscience, the legitimacy of the guilt, or the efficacy and origin of the law. It is presumed the human psyche is mostly fine, and like human government, it is instituted and shaped by God. Is it any surprise that the individual who assigns a primary and unquestioning weight to conscience would take the same attitude in his politics? Indeed, it is no surprise that the superego voice arising in political authorities would go unquestioned.
In one form of the faith, Christ died to fulfill the law, such that a portion of the law of the Old Testament is foundational. The law is beyond question and Christ is interpreted through this lens, as coming to satisfy the law. Catholic, Reformed and Methodist Churches believe that the law is the primary organizing principle of the Bible. The most radical alternative is to suggest Christ, not the law or the Old Testament, is the organizing center of the Bible. In this theology, Christ is not defined by the institutions of Israel, the law of Moses, or the institutions and traditions of Constantinian Christianity. It is argued, the law was never meant to capture or codify faith, and the faith of Abraham is the prime example used by Paul.
This reading of Paul and the New Testament calls the law into question, along with the sacrificial system, the institutions of Israel and Constantine, and the accompanying conservative conscience and psyche. The follower of Christ is not constricted by the world order as we have it, but the point is that a new world is breaking in and one must be prepared to perceive and receive this new creation. In this understanding, the big lie is that human knowledge, human institutions, and human law (the knowledge of good and evil), are the basis of the incarnation. This lie is precisely that exposed by the Truth of Christ. This calls for anything but a conservative psychological and political profile.
 Business Insider Sep 1, 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trumps-ex-wife-once-said-he-kept-a-book-of-hitlers-speeches-by-his-bed-2015-8
 Thomas Costello and Shauna Bowes, “Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism,” Psyche https://psyche.co/ideas/popper-was-right-about-the-link-between-certainty-and-extremism
 The Pew Research Center found that about “seven-in-ten White, non-Hispanic Americans who attend religious services at least monthly (71%) voted for Trump, while roughly a quarter (27%) voted for Biden.” Low church attendance or being non-white produced the opposite result: “Nine-in-ten Black Americans who attend religious services monthly or more voted for Biden in 2020, as did a similar share of Black voters who attend services less often (94%).” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/30/most-white-americans-who-regularly-attend-worship-services-voted-for-trump-in-2020/