MOSCOW – On a cable to Washington in 1944, George F. Kennan, adviser to the US Embassy in Stalin’s Moscow, warned of the occult power of lies, noting that Soviet rule “did some strange and troubling things about human.” Proven by nature. ”
Among the most important, he wrote, is that with many people “it is possible that they feel and believe practically anything”. No matter how untrue something may be, he wrote, “For those who believe in it, it will come true. It gains validity and all the forces of truth. “
Kennan’s lessons learned through his experience with the Soviet Union now have a powerful resonance in America, where millions of people believe in a “truth” invented by President Trump: that Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost the November election and became president -Only choose by cheating.
Lying as a political instrument is hardly new. Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote in the 16th century, advised a leader to be honest but to lie if he told the truth “would put him at a disadvantage”. People don’t like being lied to, Machiavelli noted, but “those who deceive will always find those who are fooled.”
The willingness, even enthusiasm, to be deceived has become a driving force in politics around the world in recent years, particularly in countries like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and the Philippines, all of which are ruled by populist leaders who can shave the truth or make it up right away.
Janez Jansa, a right-wing populist who became Prime Minister of Slovenia – Melania Trump’s home country – in March, was quick to accept the lie he won from Mr Trump. Mr Jansa congratulated him after the November vote, saying, “It’s pretty clear that the American people voted for Mr Trump.” He lamented “facts that have been denied by the mass media”.
Even Great Britain, which sees itself as a bastion of democracy, has fallen victim to transparent but widely accepted lies and voted to exit the European Union in 2016 after pro-Brexit camps claimed that exit from the bloc would add an additional £ 350 million, or $ 440 million, every week for the country’s public health system.
Those who put forward the lie, including Conservative Party politician who has since become Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, later admitted it was a “mistake” – but only after they won the vote.
Bigger and more caustic lies that not only play around with numbers but reshape reality have found extraordinary appeal in Hungary. There, populist leader Viktor Orban has viewed financier and philanthropist George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, as the shadowy mastermind of a sinister conspiracy to undermine the country’s sovereignty, replace native Hungarians with immigrants, and destroy traditional values.
The strength of this conspiracy theory, which is sometimes linked to anti-Semitism, said Peter Kreko, executive director of Political Capital, a research group in Budapest that has long been critical of Mr. Orban in its appeal to a “tribal mindset” that sees All Issues as Fight between “good and bad, black and white” that is rooted in the interests of a particular tribe.
“The art of tribal politics is that it shapes reality,” said Kreko. “Lies become truth and explain everything in simple terms.” And political struggles, he added, “are becoming a war between good and evil that requires unconditional support for the leader of the tribe. If you speak against your own camp, you will give it away and be expelled from the tribe. “
What makes this so dangerous, said Mr Kreko, is not only that “tribalism is incompatible with pluralism and democratic politics”, but that “tribalism is a natural form of politics: democracy is a deviation”.
In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s deeply conservative Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015, has promoted its own purposeful, reality-changing conspiracy theory. It revolves around the party’s repeatedly debunked claim that the deaths of dozens of high-ranking Polish officials, including Kaczynski’s brother – then Poland’s president – in a plane crash in western Russia in 2010 was the result of a Moscow-orchestrated and sponsored conspiracy. or at least covered up by the party’s rivals in Warsaw.
While Polish, Russian, and independent experts have blamed bad weather and piloting errors for the crash, the belief that it was a bad game has resonated with die-hard lawyers. It has both strengthened and reaffirmed its view that the leaders of the previous centrist government are not only political rivals, but also traitors who grapple with Poland’s centuries-old enemy, Russia, and the former Polish communist elite.
The usefulness of lying on a grand scale was first demonstrated almost a century ago by leaders like Stalin and Hitler, who coined the term “big lie” in 1925 and came to power because Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the Germans and Soviet dictators, lying was not just a habit or a convenient way of grinding away undesirable facts, but an essential tool of government.
It tested and bolstered loyalty by forcing subordinates to cheer on statements they knew were false and garnered the support of ordinary people who, Hitler recognized, “are more likely to fall prey than to the great lie of the little lie “because they might fluctuate in their lie. Daily life about little things:” It would never occur to them to invent colossal untruths. “
By promoting a colossal untruth of his own – that he had won a “holy landslide election victory” – and sticking to it despite numerous court judgments, Mr Trump has outraged his political opponents and even left some of his longtime supporters behind at his mendacity.
With this big lie, however, the president has embarked on a path that often works – at least in countries without solid independent legal systems and news media and with other reality checks.
After 20 years in power in Russia, for example, President Vladimir V. Putin showed that Mr. Kennan was right when he wrote from the Russian capital in 1944: “Here, men determine what is true and what is wrong. ”
Many of Putin’s lies are relatively minor, such as the allegation that journalists who exposed the role of the Russian security service in the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny worked for the CIA. Others are not, like his insistence in 2014 that Russian soldiers played no role in the conquest of Crimea from Ukraine or in fighting in eastern Ukraine. (He later admitted that they “naturally” participated in the conquest of Crimea.)
But there are differences between the Russian and the defeated American leaders, said Nina Khrushchev, professor and expert on Soviet and other forms of propaganda at the New School in New York. “Putin’s lies are not like Trump’s: they are tactical and opportunistic,” she said. “You’re not trying to redefine the entire universe. It still exists in the real world. “
Despite his open admiration for the Russian president and the system he presides over, by insisting that he won in November, Mr Trump is imitating Putin not so much as borrowing more from the age of Stalin who is imitating engineering A catastrophic famine that killed millions in the early 1930s declared, “Life has gotten better, comrades, life has gotten happier.”
“That’s the big lie,” said Ms. Khrushchev. “It covers everything and redefines reality. There are no holes in it. So either you accept the whole thing or everything collapses. And that is exactly what happened to the Soviet Union. It collapsed. “
Whether Mr. Trump’s universe will now collapse after some allies fled and Twitter snapped up its most powerful megaphone for broadcasting untruths is an open question. Even after the siege of the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, more than 100 members of Congress voted against the election result. Millions of people still believe him, their beliefs strengthened by social media bubbles that are often as hermetically sealed as Soviet-era propaganda.
“Absolute control over people’s thoughts,” Kennan wrote, “depends not only on the ability to give them your own propaganda, but also on the fact that no one else is feeding them from anyone else.”
In Russia, Hungary and Turkey, the realization that the “other companion” cannot offer a competing version of reality has resulted in newspapers, television stations and other outlets no longer following the official line.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shut down more than 100 media outlets and, through bullying by the tax police and other government agencies, forced leading newspapers and television stations to transfer ownership to government loyalists.
This attack began in 2008 with allegations by Mr Erdogan and his allies that they had discovered a vast underground group of coup plotters and subversives, including senior military officers, writers, professors, editors and many others.
“The group was completely invented, a total invention,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy and author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.”
This big lie, based on some facts, convinced not only devout Muslims who are hostile to the country’s secular elite, but also liberals, many of whom viewed the military as the greatest threat to democracy. The trials dragged on for years before Mr Erdogan acknowledged that the case against the alleged underground group was a sham.
Long before Mr Trump, said Mr Cagaptay, the Turkish leader, who has ruled since 2003, saw “the power of nativist and populist politics” rooted in falsehoods and “the idea of the deep state brought to the fore to justify crackdown on him . ” political opponents.”
Mr. Trump’s rise also helped empower a cousin of the big lie – a boom in social media disinformation and the fiction of far-right conspiracy theory.
It has been largely embodied by the global expansion of Qanon, a once obscure fringe phenomenon that claims the world is run by a cabal of powerful liberal politicians who are sadistic pedophiles. Mr Trump has not turned down Qanon students, many of whom attended the Capitol mayhem last Wednesday. In August he praised them as people who “love our country”.
To some extent, every new generation is shocked to learn that leaders lie and that people believe them. “Lying has never been as common as it is today. Or more shameless, more systematic and more consistent, ”wrote the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Koyré in his 1943 treatise:“ Reflections on Lying ”.
However, what worried Mr. Koyré most was that lies don’t even have to be plausible to work. “On the contrary,” he wrote, “the coarser, the larger, the coarser the lie, the easier it is to believe and obey.”