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Can The Forces Unleashed By Trump's Big Election Lie Be Undone?

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Well, last Wednesday, just before pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol in an insurrection that left five people dead, the president insisted...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.

MOSLEY: Trump has repeated that false claim over and over, a claim that's being called the Big Lie. NPR's Melissa Block asked historians to explain the significance of that term and where it leads.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's not just historians who call Trump's fiction that he won the election the Big Lie. President-elect Joe Biden used the term to slam Republicans in Congress who've amplified Trump's falsehood.

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JOE BIDEN: They're part of the Big Lie.

BLOCK: And Biden noted the term originated in Nazi Germany, embodied in Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

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BIDEN: We're told that, you know, Goebbels and the great lie - you keep repeating the lie, repeating the lie.

BLOCK: One of the Republican senators Biden was referring to, Josh Hawley, called the Nazi comparison disgusting. Hitler used the phrase Big Lie in his manifesto, "Mein Kampf." The Nazis' Big Lie, blaming Jews for everything wrong in the world, fueled anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: There are lies that, if you believe in them, rearrange everything.

BLOCK: Yale history professor Timothy Snyder specializes in Eastern Europe. He writes about authoritarian states and tyranny.

SNYDER: Hannah Arendt the political thinker talked about the fabric of reality. And a big lie is a lie which is big enough that it tears the fabric of reality.

BLOCK: In his cover story for this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Snyder calls Trump the high priest of the Big Lie. As for where big lies lead, Snyder writes, post-truth is prefascism. And Trump has been our post-truth president.

SNYDER: When I say prefascism, I mean when you take away facts, you're opening the way for something else. You're opening the way for someone who says, I am the truth. "I am your voice," to quote Mr. Trump.

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TRUMP: I am your voice.

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SNYDER: Which is something that fascists said, as a matter of fact. The three-word chants.

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UNIDENTIFIED TRUMP SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up.

TRUMP: Lock them all up.

UNIDENTIFIED TRUMP SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Lock her up.

SNYDER: The idea that the press are the enemy of the people.

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TRUMP: And it's become the enemy of the people.

SNYDER: These are all fascist concepts. It doesn't mean that Trump is quite a fascist himself. Imagine what comes after that, right? Imagine if the Big Lie continues. Imagine if there's someone who's more skillful in using it than he is. Then we're starting to move into clearly fascist territory.

FIONA HILL: People would say, oh, it couldn't possibly happen here, but so many things that we said couldn't possibly happen happen.

BLOCK: That's Fiona Hill, a historian who's spent decades studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, looking at how disinformation and lies are woven into authoritarian regimes. Hill was also on the National Security Council staff under President Trump. You may remember her testimony from Trump's impeachment hearing in 2019 when she refuted what she called the fictional narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election, given the Big Lie's roots in Nazi Germany, I asked Fiona Hill, is it a stretch, a poor analogy, to call Trump's claim that he won the 2020 election a big lie? Hill says no.

HILL: We get so bogged down on the terminology that we don't then just kind of catalogue what has been happening and inspect it for what it is.

BLOCK: What it is, says Hill, is a colossal falsehood meant to subvert the transfer of presidential power and to incite violence.

HILL: So I don't actually think that we should get caught up in the origins of where this term the Big Lie comes from because this is clearly a lie on a large scale that was meant to have political consequences and was also intended to pit one group of people within society against another.

BLOCK: Trump has told so many falsehoods that he has effectively normalized lying, Hill says. And he's taken his cues from the autocrats he publicly admires.

HILL: President Trump was also talking openly about removing term limits. Wouldn't that be great? And the thing is, everyone thought he was joking. But as I learned from observing him, he says things in these throwaway manners, but he's deadly serious. He's not joking at all.

BLOCK: Trump's use of the Big Lie comes from an age-old authoritarian playbook, says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, history professor at NYU and author of the book "Strongmen: Mussolini To The Present."

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: It's part of a much larger discourse of throwing any mechanism of democracy, any democratic institution into doubt.

BLOCK: Looking forward, Ben-Ghiat says while Trump will soon be gone from the White House...

BEN-GHIAT: He's also going to carry his victimhood cult with him, which will be stronger than ever. So we haven't seen the last of those lies and the pernicious effects they're going to have on our democracy.

BLOCK: Put another way, as historian Timothy Snyder writes, the lie outlasts the liar.

Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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