There is a saying in German: “lies have short legs”–sooner or later, the truth comes out. What it does not say, and what we have learned over the last five years, is that although lies have short legs, they can still walk all over you. The air is thick with conspiracies claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump by shadowy forces, and that his defeat poses a real threat to the United States. Like everyone who does not believe these lies, I have been trying to make sense of them, and as is often the case with me, that has meant looking to the past for a guide.
I was struck almost immediately by similarities between the Trumpist election lies known collectively as the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth that animated German nationalists in the interwar years with its Byzantine intrigues involving Jews, liberals, Social Democrats, and communists as they ‘betrayed’ Germany to the Allies and sold their country out. But I was skeptical. Historical comparisons are a fickle enterprise–they can be edifying, but they can also fool you into seeing parallels and precedent that are not there. But when noted neoconservative David Frum and the liberal publication Salon both connected the beatification of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Trump supporter who was shot and killed during the Capitol insurrection on January 6, to Horst Wessel, a young SA trooper murdered by communists in 1930 and who became a mythological figure in National Socialism, I began to take my own thoughts more seriously. If the old far-right and the progressive left can agree that there are parallels between the modern American far-right and the nationalism of interwar Germany, then it was an idea worth exploring. Because I had been thinking the same thing: “I have seen this before.”
The Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth are both authoritarian fantasy that give voice to a dominant group’s fears about its place in society and its perceived loss of power or control. They do this by indulging and validating the group’s fears in an alternate reality. US media has tended to concentrate on the falseness of the Big Lie, but doing so misses the story the lie is telling through the targets the conspiracy chooses. The worlds of the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth are negative fables about who gets to belong and who gets to wield power, where undesirable social elements are destroying society and history, and where ‘real citizens’ are called upon to defend the world before it is unmade. They both insist that traitorous inside forces have conspired to destroy the nation, that the nation is knowable, ethically or racially definable, and that it belongs to a select group that is recognizable by its political allegiance and ethnic or racial identity. The belief itself is irrational, but the world the lie creates is rational, in that it has its own rules, symbols, assumptions, and tests of faith. To understand them is to understand the lie, and to understand the lie is to understand a darker side of ourselves.
I am, of course, not the first person to notice this similarity, or to make an explicit connection between the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back. In a column in the Boston Globe from November 11, 2020, Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, draws a direct link between the Stab-in-the-Back, Trump’s Big Lie, and the slide into autocracy. “What we face now in the United States is a new, American incarnation of the old falsehood,” he writes, referencing the Stab-in-the-Back, “that Donald Trump’s defeat was not what it seems, that votes were stolen from him by internal enemies–a left-wing party.” And the very phrase “the Big Lie” is itself a linkage between the authoritarianism of Trumpist politics and the ultra-nationalism of interwar Germany through the man who coined the term: Adolf Hitler. Hitler outlines the “big lie” in Mein Kampf in a paragraph dedicated to what he believed was a Jewish/Marxist conspiracy behind Germany’s defeat. In contrast to a “small lie” based on logic or persuasion, the “big lie” derives its power from its sheer size and irrationality. “The broad masses of a nation,” Hitler writes, “are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” It is not difficult to see our present moment in those words, nor does it take much imagination to sense the Big Lie in Snyder’s observation that the Stab-in-the-Back “push[ed] away from a world of evidence and toward a world of fears.” And, I would suggest, the fact that we have adopted the term “big lie” to describe the miasma of falsehoods, innuendos, dog whistles, and paranoid rhetoric of Trumpist politics suggests that we are, however vaguely, aware of the similarities, that nationalist politics have taken firm root in the Republican Party, and that they represent something profoundly dangerous, new yet ominously familiar.
I want to expand on the connection between the Trumpist Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back myth that Snyder lays out in his column, namely that the Stab-in-the-Back worked because it marked certain groups as “outside the national community” and created a world of fears apart from one based on evidence, and that it convinced millions that “some […] were not truly members of the nation and that a truly national government could not be democratic.” I want to read the worlds of fear the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back create; I want to take them seriously as systems rather than as a collection of lies. Because shifting the conversation away from ‘true or false’ and into ‘why and why not’ reveals Trumpism for what it: a symbolic universe that works itself upon the world through politics or political theater. The Big Lie has become its most powerful engine through a discernible if not imprecise ideology grounded in an emotional truth of national ownership that removes the believer from a reality too shocking to their identity and their place in society and history to accept. It fills this ideological wound with another reality that affirms the believer’s rightful place in the national and social hierarchy. And like the German right before it, the American right that is captivated by the promise and catharsis of the Big Lie has coalesced around a nationalist, authoritarian, racist, and undemocratic form of politics that seeks to stop the forces of change that they feel have betrayed the country.
On Sources and Translations
I have sourced this essay as thoroughly and as transparently as possible. Because the Big Lie is a current and evolving story, I have depended chiefly on online news articles and transcripts of Trump’s speeches, which I have linked to in the essay. All quotations after a hyperlink are from the preceding link. Once a new article is linked, all quotations are from it, and so on and so on. Generally, I have only linked to an article once, though there are a few exceptions to this ‘rule.’ On those occasions when I reference a source linked elsewhere, I have made sure to say in the text where the quotation is from. I have used in-text citations for print sources, or for articles I have only as digital files, or following hyperlinks when I have pulled a quotation from them that is not from the author themselves. Such quotations are followed by citations that look like this: (qtd. in [Author]: [page number]).
Because so much of the research and commentary on the Stab-in-the-Back is only available in German, or because I do not have access to the English versions, I have used several German-language sources. In the interest of readability, I have given all quotations from German sources in English only. All translations and whatever errors they may contain are mine. In the case of a particularly difficult work, or when I have taken some liberties in the translation for the sake of tone or flow, I have supplied the orginal German in parentheses. I have not included the original German in the body of the essay, but I have made an appendix of sorts at the end for the larger quotations, where you can see or read them for yourselves. I have linked all German-language sources with hyperlinks in the text when possible.
On the topic of spelling and punctuation: Since I use them essentially as proper nouns, I have capitalized both the Big Lie and the Stab-in-the-Back. It also helps, I found, to keep track of what I’m talking about when the terms are used so frequently.
And finally, I have provided a lists of works cited at the end of the essay with all articles and books I used to write it. As with the translations, whatever errors there are in the bibliographical informati9on are mine. I have to date never written a works cited page or bibliography without formatting mistakes, and I would be surprised if I started now.
Hagen’s treacherous spear: The Stab-in-the-Back
Throughout the First World War, the German Empire maintained that victory was at hand. Even in 1918, after almost four years of constant, brutal war that killed millions, saw its allies collapse, and a transatlantic alliance coalesce against it, defeat was not part of the official lexicon. According to state propaganda, Germany’s war effort was as strong as ever. Had the country not brought Russia to heel in 1917 after a series of improbably victories and the triumphant Treaty of Brest-Litovsk? And with the eastern divisions now free, did Erich Ludendorff not have a massive hammer with which he could smash the Allies in the west? Yes, there had been setbacks, but, the regime assured the population, Germany’s victory and its place as European hegemon were only a matter of time.
It was all a lie. By the spring of 1918, a keen-eyed observer could see that the empire was in dire trouble. Relentless industrial-scale war had exhausted the country. Extreme losses meant that the country was suffering a manpower shortage it could not overcome; Ludendorff’s spring offensive had all but destroyed what remained of the army; the country was encircled by a British blockade that the navy could not break, and which was starving the cities and denying the war effort vital supplies; and after a year of sporadic deployment, the Americans were finally arriving in force and bringing hundreds of thousands of fresh men to the battlefields in France. Germany was weak, had been outmatched in materiel and manpower, and the regime knew it. Germany’s first postwar president, Friedrich Ebert, admits as much in his speech to returning troops in December 1918, where he assures the men that “no enemy beat you. Only when the enemy’s superiority in men and materiel became ever more pressing did we give up the fight.” Confronted with such a hopeless situation, and in the face of the soldiers’ heroism, he says, Germany had the “duty” to surrender and “not to demand pointless sacrifice from you.” Ebert tries to soften the blow, and to thread a difficult emotional needle, by telling the men that they remained unmatched on the field of battle (a statement that, ironically, contributed to the development of the Stab-in-the-Back myth), but the fact remains that Germany’s military posture was fatally flawed and unable to match the forces arrayed against it. It simply could not have won the war. While the German High Command may not have expected their strategic position to fold as quickly as it did once the Allies began their counteroffensive, by summer 1918, defeat was inevitable. Or to paraphrase Beowulf, the empire’s fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.
When defeat did come, it was a shock to the population. For unlike France and Belgium, no enemy armies had set foot in German territory, let alone occupied it. When the war ended in November 1918, Germany looked, at least in the abstract, like it always had. For the average news consumer, who was not privy to confidential military reports and analyses, the collapse of Germany’s strategic position essentially overnight was so sudden as to appear unreal, like an effect without a discernible cause. Where were the armies who were holding back the enemy, and why were French, British, and American troops suddenly streaming into the country, occupying the Rhineland, and dictating terms? Was Germany not still in Belgium? This kind of defeat, which unfolded in one wild spasm, would be difficult for any people to comprehend, but the imperial regime’s nearly pathological insistence on denying the increasingly obvious reality of its weakness worsened the situation and made a healthy reckoning with defeat and the resulting national humiliation essentially impossible. Fed on a diet of strongman bluster and bellicose confidence, the German population was unprepared for surrender. There was simply no emotional context for the event, no collective grammar for the grief, and no channels for dealing with it. The nation had been emotionally sucker-punched.
This disorientation was worst for those on the right, who had believed in empire and the uniqueness and unmatched vigor and depth of the ‘German spirit.’ Defeat was no simple political disappointment; it was the wholesale destruction of an entire cosmos of assumptions about Germany’s place in the world, who deserved power, and who had the right to wield it. Raised in the heady and warlike mythology of German unification under Bismarck, when Prussia–and then Germany–had bested all its enemies to become the most powerful nation on the continent, the empire’s defeat at the hands of the effete French, the uncultured Americans, and the entitled British was an intolerable indignity. Germany was indomitable and the Kaiser had promised the nation victory, had shown them through all the years of war that they were destined for it. Defeat simply made no sense. To make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles imposed punishments on Germany that dealt very real blows to its international standing and its self-image. The empire “lost 13 percent of its territory and 12 percent of its population, including 14.3 percent of all arable land and 15 percent of the nation’s productive capacity” (Payne 149). Alsace-Lorraine, the spoils of the Franco-Prussian War–the conflict that had birthed the German Empire in 1871–was returned to France, the Saarland was separated from the rest of the country (its fate to be decided by referendum), the Rhineland was placed under military occupation for fifteen years, and the army was limited to 100,000 men and the navy to 25,000 (149). In addition, all of Germany’s colonies and overseas possessions were placed under League of Nations mandate and doled out to the British Empire, France, Belgium, and the Empire of Japan. Perhaps worst of all, Germany was forced to “recognize full responsibility for the war” and to pay massive reparation payments that reduced it to the “status of international debtor” (149-150). For the right, surrender and its accompanying humiliations were an existential catastrophe impossible to accept. And it did not: faced with the reality of loss and the dissonance of a state information and mythology apparatus that told them that victory was imminent, they looked for the true cause elsewhere. They looked within.
Traitors had undermined Germany’s war effort, they decided, poisoned its spirit. They had stabbed the nation in the back, and were it not for their treachery, if Germany had been allowed to prosecute the war to its fullest ability, free from political concerns and mewling dissent, it would rule from the Pyrenees in the west to the Russian steppes in the east. In the right’s aggrieved imagination, it was the German Revolution of 1918-19, with its Novemberverbrecher (“November criminals”)–the communist revolutionaries and the left-liberal Social and Christian Democrat reformers–and not the allies’ superiority or mismanagement by the German High Command, that doomed Germany’s war effort. Ernst Troeltsch, a liberal Protestant theologian and philosopher who had opposed Germany’s entry into the First World War, outlined this popular conspiracy theory in March 1919:
“People are creating a legend in which Ludendorff could have and wanted to save the empire, but the revolution thwarted his intensions, and international social democracy delivered the killing blow to the empire with joy. All misery comes from the revolution, which has no national mindset (Gesinnung) or morals, and which is embracing the spineless (charakterlosen) Jewish democracy. That this is all nonsense, untruth, or even a baldfaced lie, does not concern the people” (qtd. in Niess: 40).
According to the Stab-in-the-Back, Germany’s defeat was the bitter fruit of a sprawling alliance between forces who were not only politically suspect to the German right, but who, by virtue of their character, were fundamentally un-German and opposed to the German state and the people it represented. Already one can see the outlines of an anti-Semitic national politics in which the state and German identity are defined in opposition to Jewishness, which serves as shorthand for the ethnic and national betrayal of defeat and the revolution that followed. “Jewish democracy” is not just unwanted, it is degenerate, invasive, completely incompatible with Germanness; it is lacking in national character (charakterlos) because it is, to borrow a term from our own times, “globalist” and hostile to a state rooted in a nationalist mindset.
The idea of Germany’s betrayal at the hands of unsavory social elements achieved national notoriety for the first time on November 18, 1919, when Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, former head of the German High Command and one of the most revered national figures in Germany, told a special committee charged with investigating Germany’s defeat that “an English general was right when he said that the German army was stabbed in the back.” The “core of the army” was guiltless, Hindenburg said, but it was clear where the guilt lay. If more proof were needed, he went on, one need look no further than the English general’s statement and “our enemies’ boundless astonishment at their victory” (qtd. in Ulrich). It was a stunningly disingenuous claim given that Hindenburg, along with Ludendorff, had personally convinced the Kaiser on September 29, 1918 that Germany had “definitively lost the war” and that he should accept the Allies’ terms of surrender. Furthermore, the English general in question, Major General Frederick Maurice, denied the statement, saying that “I never anywhere expressed the opinion that the end of the war was due to the fact that the German army was stabbed in the back by the German people. On the contrary, I have always said that the German armies on the Western Front on November 11, 1918 were no longer capable of further fighting” (qtd. in Ulrich). Yet the damage had been done.
Hindenburg’s endorsement of the Stab-in-the-Back before parliament gave legitimacy to the idea and helped a free-floating suspicion surrounding the end of the war to harden into hatred of civilian society and a mistrust of the democratic state, which many on the right saw as weak and duplicitous. According to Otto Dibelius, then general-superintendent of the Evangelical church of Kurmark in Brandenburg and an early supporter of Hitler’s (he would go on to oppose National Socialism for its attempts to influence the church) in a sermon on May 11, 1919: “a people who stabbed its army in the back, who sold out its brothers and sisters in order to extend the hand of peace to foreigners in careless trust, a people who celebrated its defeat with strikes and dancing–a people like that deserves a hard judgement from the hands of the just God” (qtd. in Niess: 40-41). By the early 20s, this apocalyptic version of the Stab-in-the-Back had become an “undisputed fact” in rightwing circles (Gallus). In the radical pan-German (Alldeutschen) and ethno-nationalist (völkisch) parties, the paranoia surrounding “dealing politicians from the moderate or left-liberal camp” had expanded to include entire groups, especially Marxists and Jews (Gallus), which nationalists had long viewed with suspicion as alien elements hostile to Germans and the German state. The result was a mural of German life rich in victimhood, where the once proud nation had been brought low by scheming and racially motivated betrayal. This is clearly Hitler’s assumption in Mein Kampf, where he writes:
“it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. […] By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.”
Jews and the left are inextricably linked in the Stab-in-the-Back because they embody the fear that the nation will be uprooted and that an internationalist mindset will replace personal ownership and with it loyalty to the state–what Hitler calls the “internationalization” of the German economy at the hands of “joint stock companies” and the “unscrupulous exploiters” of international finance, which he defines as a bizarre alliance between “money-grabbing capitalism” and its “faithful henchmen in the Marxist movement.” No longer rooted in soil and a traditional understanding of what Germany is, the state dies, and with it the social and spiritual home it embodies. Jews and Marxists represent the destruction of the state, economically and racially, by means of a featureless international order anchored in commerce. Their alleged victory in 1918-19 is nothing less than the unmaking of Germany on an existential level. The Stab-in-the-Back as Hitler describes it is a tale of a country that had become foreign to itself through machinations of internal enemies, and the only way to rectify the issue was to throw the enemy down and for ‘real Germans’ to reclaim their state, their culture, and their history for themselves.
These fears were, however, not confined to the fringes on the right; the Stab-in-the-Back quickly became a source of “communication and self-assurance” across “a broad right spectrum” (Gallus), where it served as an “ideological connection between conservative elites and National Socialism” (Boris Barth, qtd. in Gallus). Belief in the Stab-in-the-Back now marked one as a member in the resistance against a decadent, degenerate, and un-German social and political alliance. What had begun in shock and a nebulous feeling of disbelief had become a belief of its own, a quasi-religious battle for what many on the far right saw as the essence of Germany.
The growing emphasis on the mystical nature of the conflict is apparent in Hindenburg’s evolving language around the Stab-in-the-Back myth. In his speech before parliament in 1919, he had been content to imply liberal politicians’ guilt. But in his memoirs Aus Meinem Leben (Out of My Life) from 1920, he casts Germany’s defeat and the alleged betrayal that caused it in mythological terms by comparing the end of the war to Siegfried’s betrayal and murder in the Das Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), the 13th-century German version of the ancient Germanic Sigurd myth as a High Medieval epic. “Our exhausted front collapsed,” Hindenburg writes, “like Siegfried under terrible Hagen’s treacherous spear” (qtd. in Wittstock). In Hindenburg’s telling, honorable and forthright Siegfried stands in for Germany and Hagen for the perfidious, unpatriotic forces that sabotaged the war effort. And just as Siegfried is cut down by Hagen, his close friend and sworn brother, Germany had been laid low by its own misplaced trust. Framed in the context of the Nibelungenlied, Germany’s loss goes from a military defeat to a grand time-defying epic with clear heroes and villains, rights and wrongs. Siegfried is a man motivated by honor and duty, while Hagen is seduced by the allure of Siegfried’s vast treasure. Germany’s enemies, Hindenberg implies, were self-servingly ambitious, loyal only to the promise of personal gain (a claim that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hitler’s). These cowardly enemies had, like Hagen before them, struck down honor for worldly treasure, and in so doing had set in motion a series of events that brought the glorious kingdom to ruin.
Left unspoken in Hindenburg’s comparison is the Nibelungenlied’s imperative for revenge, or its consequences. For after Siegfried is slain, his widow Kriemhild spends years assembling a private army of sworn knights with generous gifts from Siegfried’s treasure. She then uses her army to destroy all the men who had conspired to murder her husband. It is possible that Hindenburg was aware of the revenge subtext in his simile, but the accidental prophecy of his allusion to the Nibelungenlied is hard to deny. Because at her moment of triumph–when the fates of Günther, Hagen, and the great Hunnish king Etzel (Attila) are sealed– Kriemhild is hacked to pieces in Etzel’s burning throne room. Likewise, the German right would embark on its own campaign of revenge, and like Kriemhild it would achieve moments of vengeful catharsis–the French army was, for example. forced to surrender in 1940 in the same rail car in which the German armies signed the armistice in 1918–but the price would be unimaginable. The racialized nationalism that coalesced in the Stab-in-the-Back myth killed tens of millions of men, women, and children through war and genocide, the European continent was laid waste, and the war caused philosophical and social wounds that still seep. Like Kriemhild’s campaign for revenge, the German right’s crusade against shadow foes would end in fire and disaster. For all its obsession with a stab in the back, the right and its fantasies stabbed the world in the heart. And the wound was nearly fatal.
“The Crime of the Century:” The Big Lie
Media coverage has tended to frame Republican embrace of Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud as an act of cynical political opportunism, and there is a lot of truth in that. Trump remains broadly popular among conservatives, and he is still the central powerbroker and ideological focal point of the Republican Party. Yet crass political calculation does not account for the centrality of election conspiracy theories in the modern conservative movement, where echoing Trump’s claims of election fraud have become the litmus test for party membership and ideological purity, even as Trump’s popularity among the general public has remained static. A base motivated by the Big Lie and fortified by voter suppression efforts in Republican-run states may indeed lead to electoral victories, but it is by no means a given that the strategy will succeed. More than anything else, the Big Lie is a story whose primary purpose is the creation of a unified political and social identity that explains the inexplicable and gives voice to deeper concerns about race, power, and fears of national and cultural contamination and decline.
The modern Republican Party sees itself as a bulwark against a creeping leftist assault on traditional American society and the decline of American power. It sees itself as standing against what Alabama Representative Mo Brooks calls in his statement of support for the would-be Capitol Hill bomber on August 19, 2021 “dictatorial Socialism” that threatens “liberty, freedom, and the very fabric of American society” (qtd. in Breuninger). The Big Lie is this fear expressed in and validated by an ideological mythology, where anxieties are given form through symbolic images of ‘real America’s’ enemies that circle true patriots like hungry wolves. The diverse conspiracies in the Big Lie explain and rationalize fear while also reinforcing and radicalizing it. It transforms fear from nebulous emotion into a way of seeing and being in the world. The rogues’ gallery of paranoid passion plays that make up the Big Lie are not random pastiches of rightwing talking points or images: they are legible symbols in their own right that, when taken together, paint the picture of a world under siege by ideological and racial adversaries.
Insistence that Antifa or Black Lives Matter are responsible for the January 6 insurrection (a claim participants deny) is perhaps the most blatant synergy between racial and political anxiety that the Big Lie has to offer. In both groups, the right has found its nemesis, organizations, according to the Big Lie’s adherents, as radical as they are. Antifa and Black Lives Matter offer a perfect real-world stand-in for the fantasy of an aggressive, totalizing leftwing tide obsessed with sweeping away all that makes America what it is. Fears of an ascendant China, and with it the fall of American hegemony and free-market capitalism to communism, find expression in accusation reminiscent of the racial paranoia of Yellow Peril and the baroque plots of pulp serials: that vote tallies were stuffed in Joe Biden’s favor using bamboo-laced ballots from “the south-east part of the world.” Similarly, the idea that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s family conspired with Dominion Voting Systems to steal the election from Trump resurrects Latin American communism as a force committed to the destruction of the American experiment. More importantly, the Chinese and the Venezuelan plots connect the Democratic Party to a vast international leftist conspiracy and imply that it is tacitly if not actively working with traditional ideological enemies to achieve power. The conspiracy symbolically marks the Democratic Party as more loyal to ideology and an internationalist communist/leftist project than to country. They are ready-made traitors constitutionally hostile to Americanness and national loyalty by virtue of their beliefs; they lack, to quote Ernst Troeltsch, a “national mindset.”
The conspiracy does not limit itself to the left, of course; it also implicates the inner workings of the state itself, or countries traditionally considered American allies. The belief that the FBI orchestrated the insurrection points to a distrust of government power, particularly intelligence agencies that make up the alleged ‘deep state.’ The claim that Italian military satellites had been used to rig the election for Joe Biden is overly specific and almost charmingly random at first glance, but it is not hard to unspool the appeal it has for believers in the Big Lie: the fate of the United States is not its own, and the once great power is now the tool of shadowy international cabals. The United States is so fallen from its former place that even Italy, which possesses nothing close to American military, economic, or political power, is able to interfere in American affairs. It is an image tailor-made to express a sense of profound national humiliation, and it dovetails with the broader emotional truth of the Big Lie: the United States is beset by enemies big and small, who are united by their distain for America, its people, traditions, and way of life.
In its completeness and depth, the Big Lie conspiracy resembles what J.R.R. Tolkien calls a “Secondary World” in his essay “On Fairy-stories.” A secondary world is a created universe so real that “you believe it, while you are […] inside” (60). While “inside it,” Tolkien says, what the storyteller creates is true, but “the moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, the […] magic has failed” (60). The Republican Party has continued to echo Trump’s claims of a stolen election because it cannot afford to abandon them. Doing so would not only undercut Trump as a political figure, it would undermine the conservative movement’s entire reason to exist. The Big Lie is the load-bearing wall in a sprawling nationalist, authoritarian-minded architecture where shadowy, unscrupulous forces both within and without have joined together to destroy American society, values, and history. Perpetuating the ‘truth’ of the Big Lie is necessary for this world’s survival, because admitting that Joe Biden won the election–to allow disbelief to enter the world–would destroy the “magic” of the Trumpist movement, and with it the shared universe that casts Trump’s followers as defenders of the faith and the last line of defense against final darkness.
It may have begun as a cynical ploy to remain in power while shielding Trump’s ego from the wounds of defeat, but the Big Lie has since grown into a self-justifying and self-perpetuating ideology of its own. The Big Lie and the insurrection it inspired have become, as David Graham points out in The Atlantic, proof of Trump’s willingness to fight for the right’s vision of America against what many conservatives believe is an apocalyptic decline of the American way of life. In September 2020, Graham writes, “83 percent of Republicans in a YouGov poll said the American way of life was under threat.” Furthermore, “Trump’s incessant claims since November 3 that the election had been stolen only reinforced this apocalyptic thinking, by seeming to confirm that what rightly belonged to Trump and his backers had already been seized from them.” The Big Lie, with its vast conspiracy spearheaded by minorities, leftwing radicals, and foreign co-conspirators functions as a vast imagination sink into which the right can pour all its grievances, suspicions, and anxieties. What emerges is a world of almost operatic combat between the forces of good and evil, of upright tradition against degenerate modernity. It is a world that affirms the worst in America while allowing its adherents to live out a promised perfected future through fantasy, for when Trump or his movement once again attain power–when the stain of illegitimate defeat is expunged–America will return to its former and promised glory.
The basic conceit of the Big Lie is that, as Trump puts it in his speech in Phoenix on July 24, 2021, the “country is being destroyed by people who have no right to destroy it.” On its face, this sounds like a simple rehash of the familiar lament that the election was “the crime of the century” or a “scam,” but Trump routinely positions grievances about his election loss in a context that hints at a broader defintion of who does or does not deserve power. Immediately after warning in Phoenix of the nation’s imminent destruction, for example, Trump declares that “critical race theory is being forced into every facet of our society.” It would be a mistake to assume a firm ideological bedrock in Trump’s grievances, but if his political career has proven anything, it is that he is an unusually astute observer of his movement’s emotional motivations, and he is remarkably skilled at giving voice to them in a rhetorical style that says what they want and what they mean without stating it directly. So it is not a coincidence that Trump invokes the specter of critical race theory after declaring that the Democratic Party does not deserve power, for critical race theory has become a popular cause of concern on the right, one that cuts to the center of larger anxieties about a loss of ‘traditional’ (white) American power in contemporary society, and which provides the Big Lie with animating energy. Race binds the twin concerns about social power with anxiety surrounding national identity in much the same way the association between Marxism and Jewishness expressed and hardened rightwing rage and antidemocratic sentiment in the Stab-in-the-Back myth. Like its German counterpart, the Big Lie conjures images of a country alienated from itself, where unworthy social elements have usurped the true patriots’ mandate and destroyed the idea of the nation by uprooting it from its traditional self-understanding.
Critical race theory has become an obsession in rightwing media because, the thinking goes, it divides society along racial lines, or is “unpatriotic” because it “tells white people that they’re racist […] just for being white.” Trump plays explicitly on this last theme in his speech to CPAC on July 11, 2021, where he says that “we stand up to political correctness and we reject left wing cancel culture” that is “dragging us backward into the past,” and “bringing our country down” in the eyes of our enemies, like Russia and China, who use racial discord in the United States to humiliate the country on the world stage. Worse still, critical race theory is “teach[ing] our children to hate their country.” Discussions of race, Trump says, are unpatriotic because they deny a history that emphasizes American greatness. “We are proud of our country,” and “we teach the truth about our history,” he goes on to tell the crowd; “we honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln,” and we “strongly oppose the radical indoctrination of America’s youth.” The price of Joe Biden’s victory is the minds of America’s children, the country’s collective psyche, and the idea of the nation itself. To allow a Democratic victory is to wake up in a country made foreign to itself and hostile toward its own being.
Public discussions of race that implicate American society or institutions in oppression are not dangerous to the kind of American citizenship Trump outlines at CPAC because they drag America into the past (Trump’s promise to make America great again is inherently backward-looking, after all), but because they resurrect the ‘wrong’ past. They insert racism into a version of America that is race-less, and therefore essentially white. Trumpist history is, as Megan Garber observes in her profile of Tucker Carlson’s brand of daytime-friendly American nationalism, fundamentally ahistorical. America as Trump and his followers articulate it is “not […] a nation but […] an ongoing work of fan fiction,” one “so enamored with its own woozy mythology that it treats reality itself as unpatriotic.” Patriotism in the Trumpist mold means to worship the idea of America as it exists outside of time. America is a feeling, a fantasy shared with like-minded individuals, not a place with real people and problems, and anything that spoils that feeling, like an accounting for historical wrongs and present injustices, is un-American. The perfect, frozen, immutable, and conspicuously white past that Trump references in his CPAC speech stands in direct opposition to a ruinous American present where, as he says in Phoenix, “crime is surging. Inflation is soaring. The border is gone;” where rioters were “threatening to destroy Washington, DC” during the George Floyd protests; and where immigrants from all over the world are poised to “destroy” the county on a “human basis.” “The Democrat obsession with race,” as Trump calls it at CPAC, is a threat because it denies the unspoken agreement of American society that portions power according to a racial caste system that places whiteness, and only whiteness, at the top of a steep socioeconomic pyramid. The push to include minority experiences, and in some cases to forefront those experiences, in American history is an existential threat to a social order dictated and upheld by race and sealed by a convenient loss of memory.
This looming threat of a radical conspiracy led by Black voters and their allies in the Democratic establishment to overturn traditional American society is the closet thing to an ideological center the Big Lie has. Even before the election results had been fully counted, the Trump campaign began to challenge returns in areas with high Black and brown voter turnout. “If successful,” Bloomberg News noted on November 21, 2020, the Trump campaign’s efforts to challenge votes in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities “would disproportionately disenfranchise Black voters.” Trump’s attempts to “expose voter fraud that simply does not exist in […] overwhelming Black population centers,” as the Associated Press put it on November 22, 2020, is even more striking because Trump’s loss was due to defections in the suburbs, not the cities. According to a post-election analysis by Harry Enten, “Joe Biden won in large part because of a dramatic improvement in the suburbs surrounding the major cities.” Trump did not lose, Enten concludes, because of a “grand conspiracy of big city machines;” he lost because “suburban voters were tired of him.” Despite this fact, as Bloomberg’s analysis out, “Trump and his allies aren’t contesting the outcome of the election in the suburbs,” where he actually lost. Instead, they chose to focus on the inner cities in a campaign of voter disenfranchisement with a pronounced “racial tone.”
The Trump campaign’s concentration on urban centers with high Black populations is not difficult to decipher: it plays on old tropes of Black criminality and implies that Black voters are corrupt and untrustworthy, and that any party which depends upon them is criminal itself. Race and crime are not just connected in the the Big Lie’s secondary world, they are synonymous. Singling out Black voters as the source of voter malfeasance marks them as damaged, while ignoring the suburbs–which Trump erroneously characterizes as overwhelmingly white–signals that only white votes and white voices are real and can be trusted. Trump was not subtle about this connection. In July 2020, when it was becoming clear that the deteriorating COVID-19 pandemic posed a real threat to his reelection chances, Trump attempted to use racial rhetoric around the suburbs to stoke white fears and to garner white support. In a rally in West Texas, Trump “bragged […] that he had ended a government program that tries to reduce segregation in suburban areas” before telling the crowd that the desegregation program had been “hell for the suburbs” (qtd. in Karni), and that he would make sure that “there will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs” (qtd. in Karni). The presence of Black homeowners in suburban neighborhoods is, in the Trumpian imagination, wholly ruinous: it destroys home values and the cohesiveness of the community. More distressing still, it is the vanguard of a leftist plot to destroy America itself. Or as Trump tweeted to the “Suburban Housewives of America” days before the West Texas rally, “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream” (qtd. in Karni).
This kind of apocalyptic language reduces debates about social justice into a Manichean dichotomy of order or chaos, an authentic America or a subversive cabal. ‘Real’ American history and civil engagement celebrate America; other stories are illegitimate at best and nefarious at worst. Un-American elements are coming for the nation’s very nature, and if the George Floyd protests and the campaign to remove statues of Confederate or slave-owning historical figures sparked anxiety on the right about a culturally hostile left, and about who does or should have power in the United States, the 2020 election validated those fears. Almost overnight, America as a reactionary segment of conservative voters had understood it had been toppled by an alliance of leftists and people of color determined to poison society and to subvert the will of the American people–the real American people.
The issue at the heart of the Big Lie’s universe is not just that people got to vote who shouldn’t have, it is that those same people, by virtue of their politics, race, or ethnicity, are traitors to the United States, fundamentally opposed to national history and shared values–they are a real and present danger to the American way of life. Behind rhetoric about ‘fair’ or ‘secure’ elections there is an argument about social and political legitimacy and who has a right to it. When Trump complains in a disjointed interview with the Washington Post about the “thousands” of “dead people that voted,” and then goes on to single out the “illegal immigrants that voted,” or the “Indians who were paid to vote in different places,” he creates a symbolic relationship between the unnatural and illegal act of the dead voting and minority participation that marks minority voters as inherently fraudulent, wholly criminal and devoid of real motivation. Because the minority voter as s/he exists in the imaginary world of the Big Lie is, in a sense, dead. Minorities never vote of their own volition or according to their wishes or priorities: they are pawns inserted into the electoral process by a corrupt Democratic Party intent on, as Trump says in Phoenix, “seizing power and destroying everything we hold dear as Americans” and cementing its political and social domination through fake election wins. The minority voter is essentially a zombie, a vessel in the form of a man or a woman that is driven by impulse and crude stimuli, and satisfied only by victory, by consumption. It is a not a real person, and as such, its vote is illegitimate. In contrast, the Trump voter who believes in the Big Lie has faculties and can choose; they have a sense of responsibility, and the sword and shield of their conviction–he or she is real in a way a minority voter is not and can never be because they are of America and America exists for them.
For the believer, the Big Lie is both a catastrophe and a comfort, a warning and a rallying cry. For by ‘discovering’ and revealing the lies and conspiracies behind the 2020 election, the Big Lie introduces a sense of agency, even superiority, into a psychological world defined by a loss of control, anxiety, anger, and disappointment. When Trump tells the crowd in Phoenix that “the radical left communist Democratic party stole this election, and we caught them,” he is calling them to action in a time of terror and utmost danger, but he has also made the fear understandable by giving it a name. He has reaffirmed ‘real America’s’ ability to sniff out enemies and defeat them, no matter how devious or powerful they may be. ‘Yes, they are clever,’ he says, ‘but we caught them just the same. No one can beat us. No one should or will beat us. And if they they do, it is because they cheated, and we will make them pay for what they have done.’
In the Big Lie, everyone is equal parts victim and avenger, and Trump’s rise was, for a large part of the American electorate, a moment of vengeance against political and social foes. His career has functioned as both a promise and a fulfillment of that revenge. For while Trumpism might promise to make America great again, there is also a sense of living that victory in the present through the Trumpist movement, that having Trump at the head of government and willing to fight un-American forces is a completion of his campaign slogan. For his followers, Trump’s loss is more than an ordinary political defeat–it is a complete reversal of fortune and the death of a revolution. If Trump represents what America should be, his defeat was, for his most diehard supporters, like watching the death of the American dream, or even America itself. Defeat simply made no sense. Confronted with existential stakes this high, many of his followers simply could not accept the reality of defeat, and the Big Lie told them they should not.
Biden’s win should not have been a shock, of course. Even though recent analysis of pre-election polls has revealed that the polling error in 2020 was the worst in forty years, Biden led Trump consistently in head-to-head surveys beginning in September 2019 and continued to do so all the way to Election Day. Despite a massive polling error, the scenario the polls pointed to as the most likely outcome–a Trump loss–came to pass, albeit much more narrowly than expected. Trump could have still won the presidency had only a handful of states he lost gone his way, but his defeat was not surprising to anyone who lived outside of the secondary world of the Big Lie. But like the German High Command in the last months of the First World War, Trump and his campaign insisted on the inevitability of victory despite obvious indications to the contrary, even going so far as to brand defeat inherently illegitimate. Trump began to personally cast doubt on the 2020 election’s integrity in tweets as early as April 2020, and as the months passed, denial of defeat and hostility toward the election became a prominent theme in his stump speeches, where, the campaign hoped, it would motivate a massive voter turnout that would repeat Trump’s surprise 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. At a rally on August 17, 2020, for instance, Trump told the crowd to “make sure your vote gets counted. Make sure because the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
The results of this antidemocratic denialism are as predictable as they are unsettling. Primed by months of propaganda to see Trump’s victory as inevitable or defeat as counterfeit, Trump’s most loyal supports found the president’s loss impossible to accept. There was, they said, “no way in hell” Trump could have lost. A poll just a week after the election found that “70% of Republicans […] say they don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair,” and that belief has only hardened in the intervening months. In a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted in March and released in May 2021, “two-thirds (66%) of Republicans agree that the election was stolen,” compared with only twenty-nine percent of the general American public. And a Yahoo News survey conducted from late June to early August 2021 produced identical results: “66 percent of Republicans continue to insist that ‘the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.'” The durability of belief in the Big Lie testifies to the sealed atmosphere of rightwing media and the essential role the Big Lie has assumed in the conservative movement. Trumpism spun a reality that allows no outside air, no doubt or disbelief. Trump’s loss was and remains incomprehensible to those invested in the Big Lie and the fight against un-American forces it embodies. With no permissible ideological offramp, there has been nowhere for believers to go except further into the Trump movement’s emotional theater of cultural warfare, conspiracy, and grievance.
On January 6, metaphorical warfare became real as the apocalyptic promise of Trump’s post-election rhetoric achieved a new urgency ahead of Congress’s certification of the election results, the final ceremonial act that would seal Trump’s defeat. Trump himself sensed this tension and fed it in his speech from the Ellipse before the storming of the Capitol. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by radical-left Democrats,” Trump told the crowd just before the mob stormed the Capitol, “which is what they’re doing.” Once again raising the issue of statue removal (“You know they wanted to get rid of the Jefferson Memorial,” he says, and “they’ll knock out Lincoln, too”) as shorthand for a leftist assault on culture, Trump casts the conflict as an existential test of the American spirit, but one that confirms that the country belongs to Trump Republicans and not to the leftist ‘them’ represented by the Democratic Party and the incoming administration. “Our country has had enough,” he says, and “our election was over at 10 o’clock in the evening” when Trump was “leading Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia.” All the votes counted later, votes predominantly from Democratic or minority voters, are illegitimate, and their victory is the final act in a “siege” of American society that had begun long before Trump’s presidency: “our country has been under siege for a long time,” Trump said on January 6, “far longer than this four-year period.” The eruption of violence at the US Capitol following this speech would make clear just how far Trump’s followers would go to prevent the loss of ‘their’ America, and just how seriously they saw the threat, and how closely they believed their fortunes were tied to their president’s.
Since the insurrection, Trump and his allies have worked to portray the assault on the Capitol as either “a normal tourist visit” to Washington, or as a peaceful protest by “a loving crowd.” None of this stands up to the briefest scrutiny or a look at the brutal and disturbing footage from the attack. But statements like these are revealing nonetheless. Because when viewed from within the Big Lie, the crowd’s physical violence and property damage are acts of love, but only for the world the lie exists to protect. Storming the Capitol, breaking its windows, smearing the Capitol Rotunda with feces, and lounging in ransacked offices are public displays of allegiance and commitment to the cause of Trump’s America and his exhortation just before the attack to “show strength,” to “be strong,” and to “fight like hell,” because they would “never take back our country with weakness.” If the government, and perhaps the state itself, are tainted and fraudulent, then tearing them down in the service of truth is an act of duty and affection. To people outside of the myth, the extreme violence and the chants of “traitor” aimed at the Capitol and Metropolitan Police, and promises of retribution against members of the United States Congress, and even Trump’s own vice president, are unconscionable acts of civic and social betrayal. But for those inside the secondary world of the Big Lie, they are a ritual of truth-telling and purification. The police officers, Senators, House members, and the vice president–all who stood in the way of the Trumpist movement of American renewal–had chosen the wrong side. They had made common cause with forces intent on upending or destroying American history and values–they had, to quote Otto Dibelius, “extend[ed] the hand of peace to foreigners in careless trust” (qtd. in Niess: 40). As such, they had earned “a hard judgement from the hands of the just God” (qtd. in Niess: 41). Indeed, movement and God are fused in the believers’ minds, so that the lie becomes a point of access to greater truths and a transcendent personal mission. To assault the Capitol was to turn Hagen’s spear at the last second, to secure forever the truth of an America that exists outside of time and for its own glory, and for the good of those who worship it, and only for them.
Given the cult-like belief the Big Lie inspires in its adherents, it is safe to assume that it is not going anywhere, and the racial nationalism we are facing in the secondary world the right has created is a longterm if not permanent fixture in American life and politics. It is also fair to assume that the Big Lie and its carrier movement, Trumpism, will not deescalate. In all likelihood, it will continue the trajectory of radicalization and hardening antidemocratic sentiment that began in earnest during the protests and riots in the summer of 2020, and which assumed existential importance to the movement in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the 2020 election. For Trumpism or the Big Lie to recede, or for its rhetoric or posture to relax, would require outside reality to intrude upon the internal universe that constitutes it, a process that would essentially mean its death. It is a sealed ecosystem, and as such, it is a radicalization engine; the deeper an initiate goes, the more connections they make between the plots, angles, characters, locations, and motivations that make up the conspiracies, the more committed and the more convinced they become. The more a person indulges in the Big Lie, the more a person becomes like the lie.
All of this raises the question of what we can or should do about it. I have no answers to that, but I will venture a guess. The situation has deteriorated too far, and the lies have become too engrained and self-perpetuating in political discourse for fact-checking to dislodge them. To combat the Big Lie and the Trumpist movement that nurtures it, we need to unmake the universe the lie has constructed, but not through facts because outside information that challenges the lie are are not permitted inside the believer’s reality. The most effective, and perhaps the only way to counter the Big Lie and its authoritarian ambitions is to build another world around it, to offer an alternative, positive set of assumptions about civic life, history, power, and society that are affirming, and which speak to people’s need for belonging and a sense of shared destiny. The ongoing arguments and hyperbole surrounding public health measures to end the COVID-19 pandemic make it abundantly clear that for some on the right, the idea of a shared mission–and perhaps even of society itself–no longer exists. There is no future in which persuasion by facts or storytelling talks the millions of committed election deniers and conspiracy theorists out of the secondary world that they have made for themselves. But we may be able to keep others from finding it and from mistaking the untruths they find there for truth.
We may not fully succeed, but if history tells us anything, it is that we cannot afford to fail. In 1945, German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno wrote that “a German is a person who cannot say a lie without believing it” (124). Of all the similarities between present-day America and 20th-century Germany, this is the one we can avoid, the one we must avoid. Because a country that believes in lies will make war on the truth, and ultimately, on those who tell it.
Hindenburg blames Germany’s defeat on the Stab-in-the-Back before parliament (qtd. in Ulrich):
“Ein englischer General sagte mit recht: Die deutsche Armee ist von hinten erdolcht worden. Den guten Kern des Heeres trifft keine Schuld. Wo die Schuld liegt, ist klar erwiesen. Bedurfte es noch eines Beweises, so liegt er in dem angeführten Ausspruche des englischen Generals und in dem maßlosen Erstaunen unserer Feinde über ihren Sieg.”
Major General Frederick Maurice denies saying the German army was betrayed (qtd in Urlich):
“Ich habe niemals an irgendeiner Stelle die Meinung Ausdruck verliehen, dass der Kriegsausgang der Tatsache zu verdanken ist, dass das deutsche Heer vom deutschen Volk rückwärts erdolcht worden sei. Im Gegenteil habe ich immer die Meinung vertreten, dass die deutschen Armeen an der Westfront am 11. November 1918 eines weiteren Kampfes nicht mehr fähig waren.”
Ernst Troeltsch describes the Stab-in-the-Back (qtd. in Niess: 40):
“Man schafft eine Legende, wonach Ludendorff das Reich noch habe retten können und wollen, aber die Revolution seine Absichten durchkreuzt und die internationale Sozialdemokratie dem Reich den Genickfang mit Freuden gegeben habe. Alles Elend komme von der Revolution, die keine nationale Gesinnung und Moral habe und sich der charakterlosen jüdischen Demokratie um den Hals werfe. Dass das alles Widersinn, Unwahrheit oder gar offenkundige Lüge ist, kümmert sich die Leute nicht.”
Otto Dibelius condemns the revolution and endorses the Stab-in-the-Back (qtd. in Niess: 40-41):
“Ein Volk, das seinem eigenen Heere den Dolch in den Rücken gestoßen hat, ein Volk, das seine Brüder und Schwestern preisgegeben hat, um den Fremden in leichtsinnigem Vertrauen die Friedenshand hinzustrecken, ein Volk, das seine furchtbare Niederlage mit Streiks und Tanzvergnügungen feiert […] ein solches Volk hat ein hartes Gericht verdient von den Händen des gerechten Gottes.”
Hindenburg compares Germany’s defeat to Siegfried’s murder in Das Nibelungenlied (qtd. in Wittstock):
“Wie Siegfried unter dem hinterlistigen Speerwurf des grimmigen Hagen, so stürzte unsere ermattete Front […].”
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