Maybe you’ve heard about the “big lie.” It’s sometimes attributed to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and sometimes to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The idea is that brazen lies, often repeated, pack more punch than small ones. A quote attributed to Goebbels is often cited to make the point: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”
That sure sounds like a Nazi quote, and it’s gotten a workout lately, for obvious reasons, most recently in USA Today and in the Huffington Post, where the author names Hitler as the original source of the “big lie” theory and Goebbels as the one who perfected it.
But Goebbels didn’t write that passage. Nor did Hitler advocate for the “big lie.” The discussion of big lies in Mein Kampf is actually a smear against Jews. Because people can’t imagine that other people would tell big lies, Hitler wrote, they’re easily duped — a fact supposedly exploited by Jews.
Let that sink in. A truism about lying is based on a false quote that sounds too good to verify. So it circulates as fact.
But also consider this: I don’t know whether what I’ve just claimed is actually true. I’m borrowing expertise. My source is two professors who maintain a blog devoted to debunking the Goebbels quote. They argue that it is cited without a source because there isn’t one.
There are other sources, of varying degrees of credibility, that make the same point. One is a neo-Nazi website that takes offense at the slander against Hitler. Because Hitler would never, after all, endorse lying.
Anyone paying attention knows that we live in a “post-truth” world. But what does that mean?
It doesn’t mean that institutions have given up on truth as an ideal, clearly. In a recent book, Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism, Lucas Graves describes the emergence of fact-checking over the past decade as a distinct form of journalism, with the mission of monitoring and making judgments on the claims made by politicians and pundits.
What seems remarkable, set against the Trump administration’s glib embrace of “alternative facts,” is the dedication of some elements of the media to distinguishing fact from fiction. The three main players in Graves’ account — PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — may fail in their mission. They’re often railed against for doing so, by the Left as well as the Right. But they’re certain that their mission is achievable: The truth is out there.
That isn’t saying much, at one level, since even the most deluded fanatics claim to be truth seekers and to know the truth. Conspiracy theorist David Icke might well be sincere in his belief that alien lizard life forms control the levers of global power. The neo-Nazi website that debunks Hitler as the source of the “big lie” also quotes George Orwell on the power of Big Brother, to make the point that humanity can be easily duped. Rush Limbaugh has for years said that he’s right approximately 99 percent of the time. (PolitiFact examined 37 of his claims and found none to be true — and 30 of them to be mostly false, false, or “pants on fire.”)
But there’s no point in fact-checking Limbaugh, Nazis, Icke and their ilk since they have isolated themselves from the norms and standards that make that process relevant. What they offer is more like a religious faith, assertions that are beyond evidence or verification.
There’s a measure of faith, too, in what journalists offer, especially the new genre of fact-checking journalism. It’s a faith in the basic integrity and competence of institutions: faith that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics honestly gathers data on the unemployment rate, for example, and that the Census Bureau is professional in its mission of gathering demographic data. As Graves notes, “fact-checkers traffic in institutional facts, like birth certificates and joblessness rates, which rest on a tangle of definitions, conventions, and bureaucratic practices. These facts are more fragile than they seem.”
They’re fragile because their truth value depends on the authority of institutions. Most of us aren’t experts in the fields that produce them. What separates these facts from the claims of Limbaugh and Icke is their verifiability. In theory, you could cultivate the expertise, follow the same procedures and come up with the same facts. But you never will. Just as I’ll never learn German and read the works of Goebbels to verify that he wasn’t behind the famous passage attributed to him, though I’m persuaded that he isn’t.
Post-truth means post-faith. It’s an unwillingness to accept the facts established by professional norms and secular institutional authorities. More than that, it means rejecting those institutions’ claims to authority and expertise.
The Trump administration’s gush of lies corrodes democracy on many levels. Most fundamentally, it hollows out the foundation of public discourse. No matter how false they are, Trump’s tweets have more truth value, for his supporters, than the evidence presented by the “mainstream media,” government agencies or any other secular institution. Because it isn’t about the information; it’s about the source. In Deciding What’s True, Graves asks: “How can we meaningfully debate the merits of any position if we can’t even agree on the basic facts?” And what if we can’t even agree on where “facts” come from.
It’s pointless to prioritize the threats we face from the Trump administration. They’re diverse, profound and legion. They include long-term trends like accelerating inequality, as well as perversions specific to this presidency, like the fact that Steve Bannon now sits on the National Security Council. But Trump’s assault on facts and truth is at least as dire as any of these. And it poses an especially difficult challenge because progressives have their own reasons to despair over the condition of the nation’s institutions — their deep corruption by corporate money, their anti-democratic structure and their general capture by elite interests.
Having a president actively disdainful of truth will erode the basis for faith in those institutions even more. This is the awful reality. It’s also the case that a strong defense of the truth, working for institutions that foster and honor it, is essential to any hope for democracy’s survival. Defending truth is among the most radical acts of resistance we can mount in the era of Trump.
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