Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” — that Joe Biden stole the U.S. presidential election — has stoked a domestic revolt and tarnished America’s global stature.
An image of then President Donald Trump appears on video screens before his speech to supporters from outside the White House in Washington, 6 January 2021. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
With live images broadcast around the world, the attack on the Capitol in Washington on January 6 shocked Americans, dented their country’s self-image as a beacon of democracy and highlighted the destructive power of a big lie repeated endlessly by a national leader.
Watching followers of Donald Trump smash windows and push their way past guards and police brought back memories to me of similar scenes while covering Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
The mayhem, which left five people dead, played out after Trump addressed a crowd estimated at 30,000 to once again repeat his contention that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“This is the most corrupt election in history, maybe the world,” he said, urging the crowd before him to go to the Capitol, the seat of Congress, to help “take our country back.”
A cross-section of U.S. society attacked the Capitol.
It was not the first time a charismatic leader whipped a crowd into a frenzy, and it won’t be the last.
But it was the first time that a U.S. president urged fellow Americans to march on America’s vaunted symbol of democracy to help overturn the result of an election that Trump lost by an uncontestable margin but claimed to have won by a landslide.
There was another difference: In most countries, crowds attacking government buildings or taking to the streets in protest are often made up of young people trying to get rid of autocrats. Look back to the Arab Spring, Iran’s Green Movement or the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine.
In Washington, it was a cross-section of society, many middle-aged or older, trying to keep a would-be autocrat in power.
Those arrested for taking part in ransacking the Capitol were not only fringe radicals but a wide range of Trump supporters — Americans with jobs, families and previously unblemished reputations.
They included a wealthy real estate agent, former military and police officers, municipal employees, the son of a New York judge, a school therapist, a two-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer and the chief executive of a data analytics company.
So firm was their belief in Trump’s unfounded claim of a stolen election that many proudly posted pictures and video of their participation in the storming of the Capitol on social media.
Extremists behind a veneer of regular lives.
The assault prompted a flood of analyses on the need to crack down on right-wing violence as vigorously as successive U.S. governments have pursued Islamic extremists.
“We have to go after the people doing the incitement, the people who are very serious about doing these attacks with the same intensity that we did with al-Qaeda,” said Elizabeth Neuman, a terrorism expert who served for three years in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security.
But it is difficult to prevent attacks or discover threats when extremists hide behind the veneer of regular American lives.
A week after the mob ransacked the Capitol, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for “ inciting violence against the government of the United States.” The former president now faces a trial in the Senate. Conviction would require 17 of the 50 Republicans in the Senate to vote against their party — unlikely.
To draw a line under the Trump era, the Washington Post newspaper published its final tally of the “false or misleading claims,” a polite phrase for lies, he made in his four years in office. The factcheck unit’s total: 30,573.
Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ about the election will poison U.S. politics for a long time.
Some lies are more durable than others, and many of those that the factcheckers listed will soon be forgotten. But the “Big Lie” of the stolen election (hashtag #stopthesteal) is likely to poison American politics for a long time to come.
More than 74 million voted for Trump. And while estimates vary on how many of those voters are convinced Joe Biden won the 2020 election by fraud, it is worth noting that a poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents taken before, during and after the assault on the Capitol found that 79% approved of him.
How long such widespread support will last after Trump was barred from Twitter and Facebook after the storming of the Capitol is a matter of conjecture.
But even if only half the Americans who voted for him — tantamount to the combined population of Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden — President Biden’s declared aim of bringing unity to the divided country will require near super-human skills.
For another durable Big Lie promoted by Trump, look back to the “birther” myth he promoted between 2011 and 2016. According to this fabrication, Barack Obama was an illegitimate president because he was not born in the United States. His birth certificate from Hawaii, Trump insisted, was forged.
After launching his presidential campaign, Trump finally admitted in 2016 that Obama was born in the United States. Still, a YouGov poll taken three years later found that fully one in three Americans still thought it “probably true” or “definitely true” that Obama was born in Kenya.
‘We all have a duty to defeat lies.’
Analysts and opinion writers tend to shy away from comparing contemporary U.S. politics with Nazi Germany. But there have been repeated references to Trump’s “Big Lie,” a phrase historians attribute to Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, who said:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Trump began casting doubt over the fairness of his country’s electoral system almost immediately after winning the 2016 election, claiming he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because millions of illegal immigrants voted for her.
More than a year before the 2020 elections, he began saying the only way he could lose would be by electoral fraud. After more than 150 million Americans had cast their votes on November 3, he repeated claims of fraud again and again.
Millions of Americans believe him — but not the courts who rejected an array of lawsuits, not the Supreme Court, not state election officials, not Trump’s own attorney general.
“There is truth and there are lies,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “Lies told for profit and for power. And each of us has a duty and responsibility … to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”
Three questions to consider:
- What was Iran’s Green movement?
- In U.S. elections, winning the most votes does not necessarily mean winning the elections. Why?
- How much influence do you think social media have on politics?
Bernd Debusmann began his international career with Reuters in his native Germany and then moved to postings in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the United States. For years, he covered mostly conflict and war and reported from more than 100 countries. He was shot twice in the course of his work: once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria. He now writes from Washington on international affairs.