Nightmares and RealitiesTrump’s Big Lie & How America Escaped Tyranny
With Joe Biden inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, Peter Jukes reflects on the trauma of the past four years and how Donald Trump has reminded us of a crucial lesson from history
After four long years, the nightmare is finally over. While his presidency brought particular shame on – and strife to – the United States, Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House has been a nightmare for the whole world.
This was no abstract night terror or ‘Project Fear’.
The US is still the most powerful global economy, and Trump’s exploitative policies towards the planet, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, his acquiescence to the agendas of extractive industries, his assault on wildlife and parks, have all left a mark on the physical environment which future generations will mourn.
As commander-in-chief of the world’s dominant military power, Trump’s tantrums and complicities were also always a constant menace. The US spends £732 billion a year on arms and defence, more than the next nine countries (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea and Brazil) combined. Despite the fears, Trump did not launch any major war. But his connivance with demagogues and dictators wherever he found them; his turning of a blind eye to simmering conflicts from Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, to human rights abuses in China, Myanmar or India, is like his negligent attitude to the Coronavirus: you can do harm by doing nothing. A wilful blindness can also kill.
Then there’s Trump’s soft power. Beyond the economic and military might, the US is still the global cultural force – its imagery, myth, narrative and ideology beamed into our living rooms and onto our smart-phones to incalculable effect. His role as a celebrity on The Apprentice brought Trump fame, but it was his ‘virtual war’, conducted by an organised army of what his disgraced former National Security Advisor General Mike Flynn described as ‘digital warriors’, which gained him political power.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, Trump ceased to be a reality TV star and became a unique political tool of US Big Tech. Peter Thiel of Palantir funded him. Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer set up Cambridge Analytica with Steve Bannon to pump out dark ads on Facebook from hacked information. YouTube videos from white supremacists and the far-right helped to radicalise thousands in his support. Reality TV may have created the image of Trump, but Silicon Valley turned that into a psychic weapon, with a Twitter alert late at night or early in the morning warning of some new assault on our sanity and reason.
And let’s not underestimate the psychic repercussions of the past four years, particularly on our children. I’m old enough to remember (just) the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and, according to my late mother, I was particularly upset by the televised state funeral since his son was the same age as me (all I remember is confusing the “lone gunman” with the Lone Ranger). But, just imagine a whole generation of young people brought up with the online rants and tirades, petty spats and spiteful vendettas of the most powerful person in the world.
The Trump Effect has been documented by teachers and psychologists. His hateful rhetoric has been used by hundreds of kids to bully each other in school. While many have described Trump in clinical psychiatric terms as a malign narcissist, his grandiosity and megalomania were not a delusion. His power over us was all too real. Trump traumatised us, turning us into versions of the mortified children of a manipulative, uncaring patriarch, such as the media mogul portrayed in the series Succession.
It is going to take years of help to get over his abusive parenting. But, most damaging and dangerous of all, have been his lies.
The Big Lie
“I can’t tell a lie” was the apocryphal maxim that came to define the virtues of the first US President, George Washington. The 45th President could barely open his mouth (or social media accounts) without lying.
According to The Washington Post, Trump had uttered more than 20,000 false or misleading claims by July last year – an average of 23 lies a day. Some of these were petty and vain, like the number of attendees at his inauguration. Some were big and potentially impeachable, like his business dealings in Moscow. By far Trump’s most damaging and dangerous untruth has been the Big Lie he has repeated since he lost the 2020 Presidential Election: that he actually won it by a landslide.
Four years ago, we were told by calming commentators that Trump’s voters took him seriously, but not literally. ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Build the Wall’, ‘Lock Her Up’, ‘Make America Great Again’ were just slogans and rhetoric, appealing to a disaffected base of US citizens who felt that Washington had become remote and that they had lost out due to globalisation and the decline of the US middle-class. But they certainly took Trump seriously over his baseless claims that widespread voter fraud had propelled Joe Biden to victory last November.
The proof of this was the assault on the US Capitol on 6 January by more than 8,000 people, who marched down the Mall on Trump’s orders to “fight” for him and prevent the certification of the presidential vote. Dozens of police investigations are ongoing, but it is clear that this was no random riot but a planned insurrection, with an agenda to prevent the peaceful transition of power by force of arms, or even kidnapping and murder.
It might have seemed unlikely that a ragtag of MAGA hats, survivalists, QAnon conspiracy loons, white supremacists and militia types in fancy dress could have brought American democracy to a halt with a ‘self coup’ to keep Trump in power. But they nearly did. That the insurrection failed is due to the bravery and guile of Capitol police officers such as Eugene Goodman, who diverted marauders away from the Senate floor moments before it was secured.
At that moment, on 6 January 2021, the nightmare ceased to be virtual and became real. All those discussions of whether Trump’s authoritarian style was soft, pre- or proto fascism became academic. As the historian Timothy Snyder explained, using the examples of Stalin and Hitler, the ‘Big Lie’ is the precondition for authoritarian violence.
The Big Lie serves two purposes. Most importantly, for Donald Trump, it elevates the leader. Whether people actually believe the Liar-in-Chief is ultimately irrelevant: what appeals to them is his will to power; his ability to twist reality to his ends. You don’t respect a compulsive liar, you fear them. It’s the shock and awe of his mendacity that appeals. It opens up that quasi-religious ‘leader-shaped’ hole in our minds which longs to be free of the complexities and conflicts of modern democratic pluralism and succumb to a higher authority.
The leader commands the more he lies. But the real danger to democracy comes when that Big Lie confronts reality. Having known several sociopathic fantasists and frauds in my life, there always seems to be a violent culmination; an explosive moment like the collision of matter and anti-matter. As Voltaire described it: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
Trump’s insurrection is a reminder of the importance of truth and the ultimate cost of lies. If you seek to erase or negate reality with your own confabulations or propaganda, at some point, you begin to erase or negate the people who would contradict you.
The inauguration of Joe Biden today not only asserts the primacy of reality over fantasy, it also shows the resilience of US democracy against one of the greatest threats that the American republic has faced since the Civil War.
One of the reasons that Trump is now out, and we can all sleep easier in our beds, is because the founding fathers of the United States imagined that an elected president could turn into a tyrant and so they designed their state with that nightmare scenario in mind: bad people taking power.
Every morning, American schoolchildren, service personnel and officials swear allegiance, not to a head of state, but to the US Constitution. Unlike the UK, where the armed services declare fealty to the monarch, the US is a republic. “We’re a government of laws,” Joe Biden said in a speech in response to the attack on the Capitol, “they are the guard rails of our democracy, and that’s why there is no president that is a king, no congress which is a House of Lords.”
Over the past four years, those guard rails have been battered and broken. Many of those famed constitutional checks-and-balances failed to constrain Trump’s corruption and will to power. But, at the crucial moment – when it came to the 2020 election and the challenges to Biden’s key victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia – the guard rails held. Election officials, many of them from Trump’s own party, refused to succumb to the blandishments and threats from the President and his more violent supporters. The judiciary – even though the federal and supreme courts are stuffed with Trump nominees – threw out his unevidenced claim that Biden’s victory was fraudulently obtained.
America escaped by the skin of its teeth. But it escaped, because it had already imagined the worst, and prepared for it.
In 1862, a year into the war against the secessionist states and months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln declared that evidence mattered. “We cannot escape history,” he told Congress. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
With a promise to focus on racial injustice and climate change, as well as emergency measures to cope with the medical and economic impact of the Coronavirus, President Joe Biden may have a chance to turn one of the darkest chapters of modern American history into an era of progress and reform. But he will only be able to do so if Americans are willing to confront the darker angels of their nature and combat the lies, big and small, which mean we can never learn from history.
“We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” was a key message of the new president’s inaugural address. “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden told the scant crowds at socially distanced ceremony. “There is truth and there are lies.”
It is a message still to be heard by America’s former colonisers, the fractured ‘rump Trumpocracy’ still in power in Britain, who have not yet begun to face up to the Big Lies of Brexit, sovereignty, structural racism and our faded post-imperial power.