The Big Lie and the Totalitarianism of the Right
This post is based on remarks I will give at a Save Our Constitution teach-in at St. lawrence University this Friday. Fellow HNN member Steve Horwitz will also speak. My subject was the role of language in the current assault on the Constitution. I am working on a more encompassing discussion of contemporary right wing American totalitarianism, but these remarks stand by themselves.
The Troubling Dishonesty of the Republican Party and its Conservative Supporters
During his debate with Al Gore, George W. Bush took credit for a patient's bill of rights law passed in Texas during his governorship. To be sure, in 1995 Texas passed such a law. But Governor Bush vetoed it. In 1997 the Texas legislature passed an even stronger bill by a veto-proof margin. Bush couldn't veto it without its being overridden. So he attacked the bill, saying "I am concerned that this legislation has the potential to drive up health care costs and increase the number of lawsuits" and refused to sign it. The bill automatically became law without his signature.
George Bush was not reading from a prepared speech. He did not rely on research done by others. There was no compelling reason for him to bring the matter up. Further, and this is what is fairly new in American politics, he knew he had opposed the bill, and done all he could to defeat it, yet wanted American voters to believe he had supported it.
He must have been proud of his lie. During his campaign for President, Bush's website claimed "Under Governor Bush, Texas enacted some of the most comprehensive patient protection laws in the nation." And "While Washington was deadlocked, he passed a patients' bill of rights" (Joe Conason, Big Lies, p. 44, NYT 3/20/00, p. A.16.) George Bush committed deliberate fraud on the American people.
It was one of many, from No Child Left behind to Katrina and beyond,. I could use up my time listing them and not be done. I will turn instead to some in foreign affairs, and then explore their implications.
After the US toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, George Bush promised the new rulers they would receive a"Marshall Plan" to rebuild that forlorn country. The original Marshall Plan was devised by President Truman, General George Marshall, and a bipartisan congress to rebuild Western Europe, saving it from communism. It worked..
Bush's 2004 budget allocated Afghanistan zero dollars for rebuilding. An embarrassed congress added $300 million, a pittance given what needed to be done. Bush's promise to Afghanistan was worth less than the time it took him to make it.
We know about Bush's false statements concerning Iraq's supposed attempts to buy yellowcake uranium from Nigeria. But George Bush told many other lies about Iraq as well. For example, Bush told reporters"I would remind you that when the inspectors went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied, access, a report came out of the International Atomic Energy Agency - IAEA - that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need." (Wash. Post., 10/22/2002, p. A01) This report never existed and the inspectors were never denied access.
Bush also referred to an agency report revealing satellite photos exposing new construction at several nuclear related sites. A few weeks later the IAEA said there was no such report on that issue, either.
What it Means
We take too much pride in our cynicism about politicians, thereby falling victim to a politician who lies differently from others. Clinton lied about his sexual life. Most politicians exaggerate the promises they make and their opponent's failings. They also speak vaguely, trying to make everyone happy. These are the kinds of lies and evasions that are typical of democratic politics.
George Bush's lies are different, as are the lies of his principle supporters and co-conspirators. They lie to convince us they are doing the opposite of what they actually intend. This kind of lying is new. Pursued long enough, it makes democracy impossible, because citizens no longer know what policies those seeking their votes will really pursue. A politics of perpetual lies makes it impossible for us to think clearly. Up is down and black is red. As a people, we are unprepared for manipulative cynicism on this scale. It is institutionalized sociopathy.
What is happening is no accident. We make fun of Bush's famous inability to speak English coherently, his lies explained away as simply his inability to make himself clear. But Bush's prepared remarks are written in advance, and often carefully designed to give Americans one impression while never actually saying it. Bush's speech writers have perfected the tactic of deceptive terminology way beyond Bill Clinton's wondering what"is" is.
Regarding Saddam Hussein's supposed relationship with Osama bin Laden, the" New York Times wrote in 2003,"Mr. Bush has never accused Iraq under Saddam Hussein of a direct role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." Yet somehow the majority of Americans ended up thinking exactly that while listening to him. Why?
On June 28, 2005, Bush gave what was billed as a major foreign policy address regarding the Iraq war. He mentioned 9-11 five times. He told us “The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. This war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us – and the terrorists we face – murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent.” Later in his address he said “After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: the nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war.”
In 2004, the University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes issued a study reporting Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters believed that Saddam Hussein had been providing help to al Qaeda; 55 percent believed that the 9/11 Commission had proved that point. But the commission's report had disproved it and Bush had been forced to deny it. Those conducting the survey observed that respondents held these beliefs because they said the Bush administration and conservative media had confirmed them. See Sidney Blumenthal here.
Many patriotic Americans believe we must trust George Bush because he is our President. They do not want to listen to the man in the Oval Office with the same skepticism they would when listening to a used car salesman or a sociopath. It is these trusting American men and women whom George Bush has most deeply betrayed. But also betraying them are the over-paid bozos, empty suits and bimbos pulling in small fortunes while telling us, as did Sean Hannity's after 9-11:"Thank God, we have an honest man in the White House!"
By encouraging perpetual fear among us, George Bush creates an environment where many believe he is all that stands between us and destruction. By demonizing all who disagree with him as disloyal, his henchmen and women claim the safety of the nation depends on our agreeing with the Liar in Chief. Along the way a democracy becomes a dictatorship. As Bush himself put it: “I’m the commander. See, I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel, like I owe anybody an explanation.” The Washington Post, 11/19/02
According to the Constitution being “the commander” is not in the President’s job description.
In a viable democracy most citizens have neither time nor interest to stay on top of the news, but enough do so popular values tend to be represented in government policies. The political opposition plays a vital role in keeping those in power at least somewhat honest, and holding their feet to the fires of criticism when they go astray. That is why visibility, access to accurate information, and publicity are so important even though few actually make direct use of it. But when discovering what is happening becomes difficult because leaders lie and use fear and emotion and careful wording to mislead Americans, and attack the motives of their critics rather than addressing their criticisms, the democratic process breaks down.
The Big Lie
And so we come to the politics of the Big Lie, a term made famous first by the Nazis, who accused the English and Jews of it while practicing it themselves. It became a central staple of Soviet rule as well. Its logic in service to the consolidation and ruthless abuse of power was simple, and effective. A report by the American Office of Strategic Services describing Hitler’s psychological profile captures the point well:
“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” - OSS report page 51
I suspect some will dismiss my remarks, saying “diZerega is saying Bush is like Hitler.” That is not my point though the similarities are interesting. My point is that those seeking irresponsible power in a democracy need to arouse and sustain people in high levels of anxiety, fear and anger. Whether Nazi, fascist, Communist, or Caesarist, all such people are compelled by a common logic to pursue similar methods. Ideology is secondary. It is merely a frill on the logic of power.
George Orwell was one of the Twentieth Century’s most insightful opponents of totalitarian rule. In 1946 Orwell observed:
The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is . . . something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.
From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.
Consider what David Suskind wrote about his encounter with an unnamed White House aide:"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'" The aide told Mr. Suskind,"That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." Joe Conason, Big Lies, p. 44, NYT 3/20/00, p. A.16.
Rewriting history is fundamental to the Bush Presidency. After he was landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off San Diego for his “Mission Accomplished” foto op moment, the White House web site headlined the speech Bush gave as"President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." Now it says"President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." A word was deleted. Orwell would undrestand.
And now it is happening again, on a bigger scale. See George Bush in action, rewriting history.
This is not Nazism. It is Caesarism: subverting a republic into an empire organized around the will of a single leader. George Bush is no Hitler. In his tolerance for incompetence, degeneracy, and self-indulgence, George Bush resembles Caligula far more than he represents Hitler.
But liars need followers, and why are so many people willing to follow?
In 1917 a totalitarian movement destroyed the fledgling Russian democracy. Fifteen years later the Weimar Republic was destroyed by the Nazi Party. Unlike Russia, Germany had a long experience with internal democratic politics and significantly, the Nazis never obtained a majority of the vote in a free election. In Germany’s last free election their popularity fell. Nevertheless, they triumphed, and ultimately destroyed their country.
Even so, it may seem unduly alarmist raise the specter of totalitarianism. We are the world’s oldest major democracy. We triumphed over Nazi Germany and Communism. How could we fall victim?
The answer lies with the logic compelling a group with unpopular views seeking power over a free society. Because democracy thrives on robust public debate, and exposing crooked and corrupt leaders, it threatens such people. Their solution is to deliberately destroy reasonable political discussion in our country, turning every issue into a battle of"good" versus"evil" and then claiming the mantle of"good." This strategy is explicit.
Republican strategist Newt Gingrich's campaign committee published a handbook for Republican candidates. One section was titled"Language, a Key Mechanism of Control." Note the term" control." Gingrich recommended Democrats always be described using words such as anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child, bizarre, cheat, coercion, corrupt, decay, destructive, devour, hypocrisy, intolerant, liberal, lie, pathetic, selfish, sick, and traitors. Such people are not to be reasoned with, they are to be crushed.
For Republicans, Gingrich urged continual association with words such as care(ing), children, choice, citizen, commitment, common sense, courage, crusade, dream, family, freedom, liberty, moral, peace, pro- flag, pro-children, and so on. Dichotomize, then seize the good words and repeat them all the time, and people find it difficult to think clearly about what you are saying.
In a guideline written for Republican members of Congress, Frank Lutz, Republican pollster and tactician, wrote that while the party needs more support from women, there was no need to actually do anything for women’s interests. Lutz explained “ Women consistently respond to the phrase 'for the children' regardless of the context. From balancing the budget to welfare reform, 'for the children' scores highest of all arguments offered. Therefore, rather than creating a 'Compassion Agenda,' Republicans need to create a communication framework that involves children ... .“ It is no accident that Bush referred to children 11 times in a speech on tax cuts and in a speech on"faith based initiatives" -- the count was up to 35.
Radical Right sympathizers in the media picked up this vocabulary of deceit and division, continually assaulting those they oppose as moral degenerates, cowards, and traitors. Avoiding addressing competing arguments, they wrap themselves in claims of virtue and patriotism, claims that evaporate in the light of clear thinking. Michael J. Fox’s experience with Rush Limbaugh who accused him of going off his meds or faking his symptoms, not knowing his shaking was because of his meds, is a revolting example of these people’s degeneracy. To the extent Limbaugh is believed, he never has to address the substance of Fox’s argument about medical research. Another example is James Dobson, the supposed Christian who heads Focus on the Family, blaming the pages for the trouble Mark Foley got himself into.
Bit by bit, the Radical Right is destroying the possibilities for political discussion among well meaning citizens. They lie, manipulate, and debase the meanings of words, and viciously attack all who question them."Liberals" are now described by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Tom DeLay and other radicals in terms close to how Nazis described Jews. Other times liberals are equated with communists, even though it was liberals who created NATO laying the foundations for winning the Cold War without a major conflict and the millions of lives it would have cost. You are probably alive today because of a foreign policy based on containment, designed by Democrats and accepted by Republicans for decades. Far more major Democratic leaders in the government have served in the military than is true for the Radical Right. They walk their talk at least some of the time, the Radical Right just talks and talks, and seeks power.
They peddle three drugs to the American people: fear, self-righteousness, and anger. Combine them in a victorious movement and you can kiss American democracy good bye.
Gus diZerega - 11/1/2006
You may well be right. I'm no expert on that issue. (Although I caution about single motive- mono causal explanations of complex phenomena.)
But American aid, whatever its intent, did provide important benefits to its recipients in the bleak years immeduately after the war. Even so I agree 100% that economic liberalization and the influence of men like Erhard was what made a full recovery possible.
hen Bush spoke of a Marshall Plan my immediate reaction was that in the absence of the institutional and cultural framework needed to modernize it would fail. Even so, I figured at least some Afghanis might be better off. Little did I expect it to be simply a lie.
Mark Brady - 10/31/2006
"The original Marshall Plan was devised by President Truman, General George Marshall, and a bipartisan congress to rebuild Western Europe, saving it from communism. It worked.."
This is misleading, to say the least, even though I'm sure it was not your intent.
Marshall Plan aid was offered to Eastern European countries and refused. The resurgence of Western Europe was not the result of the Marshall Plan, more the outcome of economic liberalization. Thank Ludwig Erhard, not George C. Marshall. The Marshall Plan is more accurately seen as a form of outdoor relief for U.S. exporters. See Henry Hazlitt and Tyler Cowen and many others on the reality of the Marshall Plan.