How could so many Americans believe in “the Big Lie?” We see the numbers and we shake our heads. Poll after poll shows that one third of all of us believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Even though the matter has been adjudicated in scores of courts. Even though not a single scintilla of evidence exists that the election was anything but fair.
Six months after the attack on the Capitol triggered by that lie, commentators, political scientists, and families around the dinner table still struggle to come to grips with perverse reality. It is natural to want to understand how we got here. The fate of our democracy turns on not just what our electorate believes but why they believe it. Why are a third of us such gullible rubes?
It’s a question serious enough that it deserves a straight answer, even if that answer makes us uncomfortable. And I warn you, dear reader, the answer will make you uncomfortable. So, if you are tender-minded or sensitive to self-criticism, or a credulous stooge yourself, this might be a good time to stop reading.
Because even the most modest amount of analysis and introspection will reveal that buying into the nonsense peddled by the former president and his clown college of cronies is not an aberration, not due to some momentary lapse on the part of the American electorate. We were raised on lies—including many lies that are much, much bigger than the big one that troubles us today.
That’s the problem. We are as a society—and by “we” I mean virtually all of us on the planet —brought up to believe howling absurdities, ridiculous impossibilities, and insupportable malarkey from our very first moments on Earth. We have massive lie-delivery systems that are the core institutions of our society. And we have created cultural barriers to even questioning those fabrications which are most deserving of skeptical scrutiny. For example, we regularly label as sacred those ideas that are least able to stand up to scrutiny. (Heck, we have folks in our society who can’t even handle the idea that the history we teach our kids might actually be based on what happened, you know, back in the past.)
Our parents lie to us. Our churches, synagogues, and mosques lie to us. Our schools lie to us. Hollywood lies to us. Madison Avenue lies to us. The media lies to us. Our leaders lie to us. Our friends lie to us. (They do. Going to the gym couldn’t hurt.)
What is more the lies they offer are not always big lies (e.g. Buying a particular brand of beer will not make you more attractive) while some are just gross oversimplifications (e.g. The Founding Fathers did a lot of good... but they were not the figures carved out of marble we were sold for years). Some have a seed of truth within them but are gross distortions (e.g. Columbus did not discover America). And some of the time we invite the lies because they open the door to enjoyment (e.g. Keto? All the bacon I can eat? I’m in).
But one of the key reasons we buy into so many small lies is that we have been force fed so many big ones. I mean really big ones. I mean ones that make the current Big Lie look like one of those low-calorie snacks that is actually a high-calorie treat shrunk to a smaller size and repackaged.
The original big lies are so big that if you are like most people some of them are ingrained in your identity, they are who you are. They come from religions and heritage. They are cooked into the primal soup of our minds. Many of them have been around for longer than many of the “facts” we have and as such are so covered in the dust of history and tradition that they appear to be as substantial as what is true. Indeed, some have a timeworn patina that makes them seem almost more important than that which is verifiable or even knowable.
Social science research gives a variety of reasons for why we are inclined to believe “alternative facts.” (Studies show a person is “quick to share a political article on social media if it supports their beliefs, but is more likely to fact check a story if it doesn’t.” We tend to vote for what we want to be true or what our friends believe. According to Peter Ditto, a social psychologist at the University of California, “our wishes, hopes, fears and motivations often tip the scales to make us more likely to accept something as true if it supports what we want to believe.” That said, another reason is often cited for our willingness to buy into the bullshit we are being fed. According to a 2019 University of Regina study, “People who believe false headlines tended to be the people (who) didn’t think carefully, regardless of whether those headlines aligned with their ideology.” So, one way or another, we fall for fake news because it’s easier for us, socially or intellectually.
Many of these lies were created out of necessity. Life is finite. (OK, I’m sorry. It is. Take a deep breath if you need to and then continue reading.) If we don’t come up with a good story about what happens after it ends or why we are here we will all go mad. So we make up preposterous stories about magic people in the sky and then immediately say that we cannot question those stories, that “faith” in them is more important than knowledge of what is real. Why? Because they will not stand up to scrutiny.
When challenged, the defenders of these original big lies say the truth is unknowable. Good try. Hard to argue with that. We don’t know there is not an omniscient rule-maker beyond the clouds or a heaven filled with virgins to give pleasure to the faithful so how can you question it? But of course, selling what is unknowable as a truth is one of the most important categories of lies we encounter in life. Indeed, it is the foundation of much of (speculation-based and often hooey-ridden) human philosophy. And it works.
According to a 2011 poll from the Associated Press, nearly eight out of 10 Americans believe in the existence of angels and a 2015 poll showed 72 percent of Americans believe in Heaven and 58 percent believe in the existence of Hell. A 2019 YouGov poll showed that almost half of all Americans believe in demons and ghosts… and 13 percent believe in vampires. (Note: Over half of Republicans believe in demons, whereas only 37 percent of Democrats do. How far is it from there to a similar percentage of Trump voters, according to an Economist/YouGov poll, believing that the Hillary Clinton campaign was a hotbed of “pedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse?”)
There are other big lies, of course. Some are related to the religious lies—like the divine right of kings or the lie that the clergy somehow are more in touch with truth than, say, scientists who actually devote their lives to studying the truth. Some come from political leaders. For example, the lie that to die in war is glorious is one that has done irreparable damage for eons. It has been disproven for thousands of years and yet remains so essential to getting young men and women to give up their lives to serve the ambitions of the rich and powerful that it endures. You know many of the other lies that have lived for centuries—about the superiority of races or genders or nationalities, about patriotism, about comforting ideas like that everything is for the best or things work out in the end. It’s not. They don’t. Read a book.
We dress these lies up in protective cloaks. You will burn in Hell for all eternity if you don’t believe one set of lies. You are betraying your country if you don’t believe in the merits of a particular war. Don’t question your elders. If a teacher says it it must be true. Priests and rabbis and imams are tighter with the Alleged Almighty than you. (Do you capitalize the “a” in alleged when you are using it to question the existence of a God?)
All these lies are aided and abetted by the fact that simply believing in what you are told to believe is much easier than actually figuring out the truth. What is more, if your family and friends believe in a lie, challenging that lie might make you an outcast, might alienate those with whom you have or wish to have a bond. With the advent of social media, where like-minded friends become “editors” and select the news their followers see, lies spread among audiences inclined to believe and thereby endorse them. We live in an age of media “echo-systems”, ecosystems that reinforce disinformation spreading it from dubious sources like QAnon to Facebook to TV propaganda networks to you.
And of course, when lots and lots of people adhere to a lie it is seemingly validated. And to help that along for millennia, the purveyors of lies have made it clear that not believing those lies makes one an other, apart, the enemy, an infidel. It’s not just wrong to question these big lies, by doing so you actually side with evil, with the enemy. We have created a world divided and left bloody by the differences between the lies to which different groups of people adhere.
Which brings us back to today and to our own Big Lie of the moment. (Although I would argue Trump is responsible for two big lies at least—the other being that the pandemic was not serious, that science was not necessary to combat it.) When that lie is preached from the pulpit, propagated by elders and friends and neighbors, pumped up on your favorite quasi-news network and rejected by your enemies—by the other—of course you cling to it as though it were, well, gospel. That’s what you have been taught to do all your life.
We have the Big Lie because we have so many big lies. We have the Big Lie because many of the most powerful institutions in our society teach lies and condemn critical thinking. And herein we get to the central problem of our democracy. If we are to have a government of the people—and that is for the moment, an open question, I am afraid—and those people thrive on lies, follow liars, reject the search for truth, fear science and history and math, don’t want to do the work required to figure out what is really happening around them—then we will have an irreparably fucked-up government.
We have known this is a special challenge of democracy and good governance since the Enlightenment. It’s just a bit of a sensitive subject. It calls more than just the ugliness and ignorance of Trumpism into question. Rather it notes that Trump is just like generations of other demagogues who sought to profit from the easy appeal of deception for the intellectually lazy, lock-step indoctrinated masses. Trump, like so many others since time immemorial, peddles lies because he knows people are buying, he knows lies are easy and the truth is hard.