Power Structures

Lying Is What Dictators Do

Straight from the authoritarian playbook, Trump has turned the RNC into a hereditary dictatorship in his quest to swap out the entire GOP—and reality itself—with a murderous Christofascist fantasy.

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One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president in 2017 was to force Sean Spicer onto the podium to lie about how his inauguration was the best attended and watched ever. It was such an audacious and easily dispelled lie—there was footage to prove otherwise. But Trump’s narcissistic ego prevented him from admitting defeat. More so, everything had to be superlative—the most popular, the biggest, the best. It was Spicer’s job as his flack to make us understand and accept this. (Spicer paid for this by ritually being humiliated and emasculated in a way that recalls the infamous “My name is Reek” scene in Game of Thrones.)

However, Spicer was one man. And now it is a command from above to define reality as whatever Donald Trump says it is, regardless of facts, evidence, or logic. Now Trump, in his bid to run for the White House for a third time, wants the Republican National Committee, which he effectively has taken over, to replace the entire GOP. He swapped the organization’s chair Ronna McDaniel with his daughter-in-law, Eric’s wife Lara Trump, and longtime Trump loyalist Michael Whatley, and then immediately instituted mass layoffs and began restaffing it with his own people. The goal was clear: Establish the Trump family as a hereditary dictatorship

This past week, the Washington Post revealed that interviewees for positions at the RNC were asked whether they believed the 2020 Election was stolen. This was the litmus test, so that they would only hire those who would vocally support lies meant to undermine the legitimacy of the United States’ government.

If Trump takes power again in 2025 (according to polls, if the election were held today, he would likely easily win the electoral college based on six key swing states), he will spread this command to all of government via Schedule F. This will also allow him to fill all of the top 50,000 spots in government with cronies, ideologues, and sycophants who can be hired and fired at his will.

When Adam Savage declared, “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” on Mythbusters to describe how he would try to paper over failure with the power of disbelief,  it was cute and funny. When a would-be dictator declares this and makes it mandatory for everyone to spout the same government-approved lies, it’s terrifying. Hannah Arendt had quite a bit to say about this in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, when she observed that one of the first goals of a dictator is to get the masses to reject what they can see and hear, and instead to believe in a reality created by the government:

The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

It should go without saying that when a dictator decides to re-create reality, it will eventually be abused to commit horrors. In Germany, the lies blamed Jews for being behind Germany’s loss of World War I—the mythical “stab in the back.” It was used by Stalin to purge and Gulag anyone whom he suspected of being a threat to his power; the public absolutely believed Trotsky was a traitor. In modern times, Russians are likely to believe anything Putin dictates to be the truth, particularly regarding Ukraine (e.g., Ukrainians are Nazis led by a Jew, they’re persecuting Russian speakers, and Ukraine started the war and shot down Malaysia Air Flight 17 in 2014).

The goal of a dictator, according to Arendt, is to create a situation where no one can discern truth from fiction. If they can, they’d best keep it to themselves if they want to continue to have a place in public life. Obfuscation of the truth can be enough to prevent resistance to horror.  She wrote this in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

It also facilitates the cult of personality Trump so desires, in the vein of other dictators. For example, both Trump and former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il both lie outrageously about their prowess at golf. The Kim family is still head of the Juche religion, which emphasizes that the leader is divine. Given that Trump is now selling autographed Bibles and welcoming all declarations by religious leaders that God sent him to claim the U.S. back for Christianity, it’s not hard to see how his ridiculous but seemingly harmless bullshit rapidly goes off the rails. Trump is literally using a legal defense derived from the divine right of kings concept, in effect that rex non potest peccare (the king can do no wrong) to claim that he could have SEAL Team 6 kill off his political rivals.

Therein lies the rub: A lot of people will believe the lies, especially if it makes them feel more comfortable, much like when your parents might have told you your dog went to live on a big farm upstate. A second Trump administration, armed with an entire party, federal bureaucracy, and possibly even hand-picked military leadership, will tell us to ignore everything we know and can see, and instead accept their “alternative facts.” And many of those that don’t will give up looking for the truth, deciding that it is unknowable. Peter Pomeranstev, a Soviet-born British journalist, echoed Hannah Arendt and described this approach as “nothing is true and everything is possible.” 

This opens the door to terrible things, because it weakens any sort of potential response. In popular culture, it is embodied by the meme of “There is no war in Ba Sing Se.” Similarly, the world wanted to believe that the prisoners in the Nazis’ model camp Theresienstadt represented all the Jews that disappeared from towns across occupied Europe. In a modern setting, lies supported by the entirety of government are easy to weaponize. Imagine if the government (instead of just random loons on the internet and conservative talking heads) claimed that every single mass shooting in the U.S. was a result of trans people. That would seem to justify literally any action the government takes directed toward trans people, including rounding them all up and throwing away the key.

We can already see this with talk of “immigrant crime.” Despite the reality that migrants commit violent crime at a rate lower than the general population and rates are at a 50-year low, seizing upon this has allowed the GOP to talk of mobilizing the military and law enforcement to rapidly seize, imprison, and deport 11 million people. What happens if a lot of them die in custody, and some not accidentally? What happens if hundreds of thousands die shortly after deportation, particularly Dreamers? Imagine an entire government and military apparatus dedicated to categorically stating that the images taken of mass graves are “fake news”.

Oh, wait—we already have. It requires less than two minutes on the United States Holocaust Museum website to see what happens when a fascist movement and its government are completely dedicated to their own lies. We can see this in the claims and counterclaims in Gaza. When they try to round up something around 12 million people and intern them, absolutely nothing they say should be believed. Given Trump’s plans for seizing power, abusing it to institute single party Christian Nationalist rule, and conducting mass roundups, this requirement to tell blatant lies and deny reality will soon be coming to the entire federal government leadership if he wins in November. His RNC takeover is about preparing for the cover up as much as it is for maintaining ideological purity and stroking Trump’s ego.

And the worst part: They’re likely to succeed. Nearly half the country will believe whatever makes them feel comfortable, and that comfortable lie is likely to be conveniently provided by the 50,000 government officials hand-picked by the Heritage Foundation to say whatever is most personally beneficial to themselves. Anyone who doesn’t lie will be punished the way Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was for telling the truth. The public will increasingly either believe the lies, or view the truth is unknowable and cease to care. If those lies support the mass killing of innocents, or covering those murders up, the country’s arc toward classic fascism will be complete.

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