BENZONIA — So here we are weeks from the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president. A viral disease is infecting over 200,000 Americans and killing nearly 3,000 of us daily. A manic, insane sitting president remains in office, unmoved by the pandemic and acting out the anarchic farce that he won the election.
The most charitable assessment is that the weeks since the election revealed, certainly for the majority of Americans, that Trump’s big lie is like a stubborn winter snowfall. Apparent for a few weeks but eventually melted away under the bright sunlight of fact and the clearing wind of truth.
Trump has nowhere to turn. His big lie failed to gain any traction where it counted — among state elections officers, federal and state jurists, and the mainstream fact-based media. States have certified the election results. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, having won 25 states and the District of Columbia, beat Trump by over 7 million votes.
But even as the legal outlines reveal it to be an aggravating charade, it’s not at all clear how long it will take for Trump’s big lie to be swept into the land of irrelevance. Millions of MAGA supporters believe it. Most U.S. Republican senators and the majority of Republican House members back it. Fox News and its competitors in the conservative media repeat it.
The only truth about Trump’s big lie, like almost every other big lie uttered and spread from the pinnacles of political, corporate, and cultural power in America, is that its malignant pall will linger. The harm from Trump’s lie, the biggest of my life, can already be measured in distrust and politicization that is claiming thousands of lives daily from COVID-19 infections. It’s polluted conservative media and the minds of millions. It’s damaging the economy, eroding confidence in the American experiment, and causing such deep sadness and frustration that millions are experiencing psychic depression.
Big lies are like that. They do damage. One of the big lies of the 1950s was that exposure to low levels of atomic radiation was safe. That sham was uttered by the Atomic Energy Commission, which conducted 100 atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs in the Nevada desert. Radioactive fallout caused Downs syndrome and cancer in St. George, Utah and other downwind communities. Radioactive cesium and strontium from the blasts also appeared in the milk of nursing mothers and in commercial milk sold in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. The AEC called the measurable contamination “sunshine units” and told America there was nothing to worry about.
Scientists put an end to that lie. In 1963 the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, one of the first global pacts to safeguard the environment and public health, that stopped above ground atomic blasts.
One of the big lies of the 1960s was the Pentagon’s insistence that a U.S. Naval destroyer was attacked by North Vietnamese Navy topedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. The incident was used to justify America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times in 1971, confirmed that the Johnson Administration and the Pentagon had systematically lied about the Gulf of Tonkin confrontation and other critical aspects of the conduct of the war.
One of the big lies of the 1970s was President Nixon’s assertion that he had nothing to do with the Watergate burglary. It took a two-year Washington Post investigation, leaks from the FBI, and a Congressional hearing to reveal the truth.
One of the big lies of the 1980s was President Reagan’s false assurance that the administration did not trade U.S. weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. Reagan also said the administration did not direct profits from the arms sales to support the Contras, a militant group in Nicaragua that opposed the communist Sandanistas. A Congressional investigation and hearings laid bare the lies.
The 1990s was a decade of especially big lies. President Clinton’s insisted that he “did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” During a deposition he later admitted the truth and was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Seven tobacco industry chef executives in 1994 swore under oath during Congressional testimony that cigarettes were not addictive. Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco company research scientist, blew the whistle on that false testimony two years later in a famous 60 Minutes broadcast. That in turn led the way to Wigand’s participation as an expert witness in a case filed by Mississippi that resulted in $246 billion settlement with taboo companies.
Nicole Brown Simpson’s blood was detected on O.J. Simpson’s car, in his home, on his socks, and on his driveway following the murder of his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman in 1994. Simpson’s defense team succeeded in dismantling the scientific authority of the blood and DNA evidence. And Simpson’s lawyers developed a counter narrative that put the racist Los Angeles police department on trial. It convinced a jury to declare Simpson innocent.
Before Trump’s lie, arguably the biggest and most damaging lie of this century for the United States was President Bush’s insistence that Saddam Hussein hid secret caches of weapons of mass destruction. The WMD narrative was used as the principal justification for invading Iraq in 2003, initiating a war that killed nearly 4,600 American soldiers, and tens of thousands more deaths among allied forces, contractors, and Iraqi soldiers and civilians. A secret CIA study found in 2004 that such weapons caches did not exist. It wasn’t until 2015 that the study was declassified and made public.
There is no way to know how much damage Trump’s big lie will cause. My sense is that its influence will be less significant than many observers fear. One reason is that its internal mechanism, its operating principle, differs so much from others that took shape during my lifetime. First is that the genesis of Trump’s big lie, and the recognition that it was false, occurred at the same time — the moment he uttered it last spring.
Generally big lies unfold in two phases. The outrageous sham statement is followed by the discovery and accumulation of facts, sometimes years later, that showed the statement was false.
Trump, being the irrepressible marketer of falsehoods, executed both phases simultaneously. But America was already expert in Trump style prevarication. Like linebackers reading the quirks of an opposing quarterback, the country was ready for Trump’s long bomb and knocked it to the ground.
The second element is the role that conservative media is playing in perpetrating Trump’s big lie. Falsehoods are shaped into fictional narratives for Fox, News Max, and the other conservative news sites to treat as unassailable truth. But Fox and its competitors have no credibility with the majority of Americans or the mainstream fact-based media. Trump’s big lie, as a result, has gained popular lift only because of its outrageous audacity.
The result of all this is that the majority of Americans, state election officials, and U.S. jurists view Trump’s mania as just that — the reckless protests of a sore loser. More significantly, we have guarded the sacred values that have framed and strengthened our country. Free and fair elections. Love of fact and truth. Respect for the law. Dignity for all human beings. Joe Biden was right. Americans in 2020 won the battle for the soul of America.
— Keith Schneider