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This is why authoritarian leaders use the ‘Big Lie’

- January 26, 2017
Students chant: “Elections now!” during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 23. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Many commenters have noted that the Trump administration is remarkably indifferent to the truth in its public statements, often making statements that are obviously at odds with the facts. The easily debunked falsehood about the size of the crowds at the inauguration ceremonies is only the most recent example. Some have compared President Trump’s unembarrassed lying to the “big lies” of the great dictatorships of the 20th century, prompting two questions. Why do authoritarian leaders lie, and can this tell us anything about leaders in democracies?

Western political thought has three main arguments about why lying may be useful. First, some kinds of lies can hold political systems together: Myths such as Plato’s “Noble Lie” can cement shared values among citizens. Second, lies can be strategically valuable. This idea is represented by Machiavelli’s argument that princes should lie when necessary to achieve their goals. Finally, lies can cement the loyalty of subordinates. All three provide insight into how and why authoritarian societies and leaders lie.

Lies can be founding myths but myths may not be enough

All societies tell myths about themselves. Sometimes these are created cynically by leaders who don’t believe in them, but the most effective myths are not produced by cynics. The Communist regimes of the 20th century were (in their beginnings at least) led by true believers in Marxism, not conscious liars. Myths that are historically plausible are also more likely to do better — as the historian Stephen Kotkin has argued, the Communist myth was especially effective in the Soviet Union in the 1930s because other myths had been discredited by the Great Depression. It was only when this myth too was discredited by events that it ceased to be persuasive.

This may explain why many people buy into Trump’s narrative of “America First.” It resonates among large sections of the American population because other narratives seem similarly discredited.

Where there isn’t competition from alternative sources of information, myths can become deeply embedded over the longer term. They can shift people’s values in directions chosen by ruling elites. For example, East Germans who were exposed to socialist propaganda for 45 years are more likely to want to distribute wealth evenly than West Germans, who were not similarly exposed. Germans who came of age when the Nazis were in power had more anti-Semitic attitudes than Germans who came of age before or after.

Yet myths did not make the East German regime more popular or save it from collapse in 1989. Indeed, many East Germans condemned the regime because it didn’t live up to the standards of its own propaganda. Furthermore, large scale change in attitudes is only really possible when a regime controls schools as well as media — schooling was the key factor influencing the growth of anti-Semitism under the Nazi regime. Most regimes — and certainly most democracies — don’t have that kind of complete control, so their preferred narratives are vulnerable to challenge.

Lies can also be tactically useful but within clear limits

As most politicians know, lies can also be used for short-term political advantage. Here the problem is usually one of credibility: How can one make claims that aren’t backed up by the facts but are nevertheless credible to specific audiences at particular time? Again, this question goes back thousands of years: The Sophists of Classical Athens were accused of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger.”

It’s hard to fool large groups of people for long periods of time. The psychological literature on persuasion suggests that people can be persuaded to believe in many false things, especially when they have little personal experience or interest in the matter, or explicitly trust the source of the false message. But it is difficult to get people to keep believing claims that conflict with what they can see with their own eyes, or that conflict with their deep seated identities.

For example, the Venezuelan government has consistently claimed that an “economic war” waged by Venezuelan elites aided by the United States has led to the country’s economic crisis. Ordinary Venezuelans — even self-identified government supporters — have become ever more skeptical over time, as evidence accumulates before their eyes. Venezuelans who are not committed to the government’s ideology tend to avoid government propaganda by switching TV channels or finding alternative information sources. Even governments that fully control the media, like the 20th century USSR or the North Korean government today, have a hard time getting people to buy into clearly false claims. When governments lie with impunity, people start thinking everything the government says is a lie. When Romania was governed by Communists, most people could not even trust the weather report.

Thus, the media in many authoritarian governments does not normally make clearly false or easily debunked claims, as political scientist Tom Pepinsky notes. Instead, propaganda often focuses on unfalsifiable narratives about the goodness of the leader or the greatness of the nation, as in North Korea today.

When propaganda does make clearly false claims, it may attempt to distract and entertain rather than to simply persuade. Modern Russian propaganda, for example, appears to “work” not by striving for ideological consistency or persuasiveness, but by providing a high volume of information, entertainment and falsehood that doesn’t persuade but through its volume drowns out other sources of information. It thus avoids the dullness that doomed much authoritarian propaganda in the 20th century. Similarly, the Chinese government uses social media propaganda for strategic distraction rather than to directly argue over facts. A version of this logic might argue that Trump’s more outrageous statements serve to distract the public.

Lies and loyalty

Finally, lies can help ensure the loyalty of subordinates who are forced to repeat them. These kinds of lies need not be credible at all to people outside the regime. The more incredible a lie is, the more it can credibly signal loyalty to a political leader in conditions of low trust. When a subordinate repeats an obviously ridiculous claim he or she is degraded, and bound more closely to the leader. Something like this might happen in democracies too. Some news reports have suggested that White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked to publicly defend the turnout at the inauguration in part to demonstrate his loyalty to the administration.

In open democracies, a public commitment to certain implausible claims (e.g., the claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or was not born in the U.S.) may draw sharp lines between groups, mobilizing supporters while enraging the opposition without being “literally” believed. But implausible lies are more important in the murky environments of many authoritarian regimes, where secrecy and fear make it difficult for rulers to know if their subordinates are truly loyal. These regimes typically need to “dramatize” their cohesion, showing in convincing ways that they are in fact unified to deter internal challengers.

Political elites may have to publicly abase themselves by denouncing former friends, proclaiming that failed policies are successful and otherwise showing that they embrace the “master narrative” of the regime, however ridiculous it may be. Something like this seems to be happening right now in Venezuela, where public commitment to plainly absurd narratives appears to be a prerequisite for high position in the government.

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Xavier Marquez is a senior lecturer in the political science and international relations programme at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is the author of “Non-Democratic Politics: Authoritarianism, Dictatorship, and Democratization” and blogs at Abandoned Footnotes.