Commentators refer euphemistically to our age as being ‘post factual’, with facts becoming irrelevant in our political discourse. There is nothing new in politicians being economical with the truth, but the use of the big lie as political propaganda dates from Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, claiming his enemies, Jews and Marxists, told lies so ‘colossal’ that no-one would ever believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. He was of course the principal convert to this propaganda weapon, blaming the same enemies for the defeat of 1918, and ‘the stab in the back’. And Dr Goebbels was the loyal artisan of a systematic approach to political lying which has been summarised as “make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it and eventually they’ll believe it”.
Now we see the Big Lie becoming the principal weapon of choice for this generation of populists. They calculate that the anger felt by voters, usually though not exclusively from less educated backgrounds, who feel aggrieved about the hand life has dealt them, fearful of the future, their concerns ignored by a pampered elite, makes them gullible prey, lapping up simple solutions pointing the finger at easy targets.
The most eminent ‘Big Lie’ practitioner of this generation has just stormed the White House. Mr. Trump’s switch to politics was heralded with his ‘birther’ campaign about Mr Obama. His fight for the presidency itself has been littered with falsehoods; Mexican immigrants all rapists and thieves; China inventing climate change as a gigantic hoax to undermine American manufacturing; the election being rigged by the elite; and his opponent, Mrs Clinton, was ‘crooked Hillary’, who should be prosecuted as the ‘most corrupt politician ever to run for the presidency’ (Really? More so than Mr Nixon, Mr Harding, or indeed the 2016 Republican nominee? And of course, never any explanation as to the nature of her felony). So successful was he in this calumny of his opponent that ‘Lock Her Up’ was the most popular chant of the thousands at his rallies. Little serious scrutiny was ever made to test the veracity of any of these statements.
His brilliant populist campaign honed in on that segment of the electorate in the key rust belt states which hated the elite, and was prepared to believe anything which gave meaning to their bitterness. Even when the lies were disproven they were still believed.
During this year’s referendum, Britain has seen its own populists at work, using similar methods. The ground has been long prepared. Newspapers discovered that printing falsehoods about the European Union fed into a mood of resentment not just about the EU but about elites in general. So from the late 1980s onwards, a steady trickle of Brussels ‘stories’ were fed to the media. The ground breaker for these fabrications was none other than Mr Boris Johnson then taking the Telegraph’s shilling. Many of the stories he and his colleagues crafted were not ‘myths’ but lies or as Mr Johnson would probably call them ‘whoppers’. And of course they were believed not least because the authorities seldom bothered to answer back, considering them as minor irritants and seeing no advantage in halting the flow. The Commission, pusillanimous over these things as others, even banned its communications staff from rebutting ‘myths’ because it did not wish to appear as interfering in a national debate.
By the time the referendum came, Leave campaigners understood that many people had swallowed so much media bile about the EU that they were prepared to believe almost anything. So new allegations were added to the back catalogue; the famous contribution of £350 million per week which would be transferred lock, stock and barrel to the NHS, as part of a Brexit windfall; the unstoppable momentum for Turkish membership of the Union, with 80 million Turks swarming all over us, the UK government powerless to turn back the hordes; the imminent threat of a ‘European Army’. The refutation of these points was too often leaden and ineffective. Perhaps, the biggest lie of all was about ‘control’; nationhood restored; rule by unelected foreign bureaucrats deciding over 80% of our laws overthrown. A simple prospectus but an entirely false one but which was complicated to refute in a few simple sound bites – the discipline imposed on our politicians by the media.
Far from exposing the falsehoods the media propagates them and ensures their perenniality. The national broadcaster, so craven that dishonesty, in has to be given equal air time with truth, objectively sides with the populists. Populists make better copy, they have easy punchlines, and their opponents with all their serious arguments are tediously pedantic. The media’s love affair with Mr Farage continues – just how many times per month must he to be invited onto Mr Marr’s sofa? His cheerful peddling of insidious half-truths (for he is better informed than most because he has graced the EU’s payroll for so long) goes down a treat: and it is certainly not Mr Marr who will in any way discomfort him with searching questions.
We can expect more of this playing fast and loose with the truth as our own government turns populist, and tries to appeal to that section of the electorate which feels excluded and angry, and is hence susceptible to messages of division and hate. (I exonerate Mrs May from this: she does not do ‘Big Lies’: even her prevarications are mediocre). And of course throughout continental Europe, unscrupulous politicians who stoke up hate and who are parsimonious with the truth, when not actually peddling lies, are everywhere on the march. In France, Mr Sarkozy, who is seeking reincarnation as a kind of mini-Trump, makes ever more exaggerated attacks on minorities as a convenient distraction from his own brushes with French law. I am surprised he has not yet called for the incarceration of Mr Bayrou.
Those of us who regard authenticity and truth as something more than optional extras but as essential for civilised political discourse have to decide how to react to this new threat not just to the EU but to democracy itself. This will be uncomfortable. Explaining to the British people that Britain is a small country whose only chance of ensuring its future prosperity and security requires efficient cooperation with its European partners is a less inspiring anthem than the populist refrain, ‘We can do anything in the world, we are the tops, we are the British’. As a message the latter works better with the crowd, but it’s just lying flattery.
But we should not draw back from this engagement. Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats candidate in the 1952 and 1956 US presidential election was famous for the aphorism, “If you stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about you”. He lost.
The motto of this story is: don’t stop. To turn the Hitlerian guidebook on its head, the anti-populist proponents of liberal democracy must “Tell the truth, make it simple, keep saying it loud and clear, and in the end more people will believe it.”