- Repetitive, objectively false presidential declarations are a form of propaganda utilized by authoritarian regimes.
- Donald Trump has demonstrated that this form of propaganda is effective in America.
- As America’s systems of checks and balances have failed to mitigate this form of propaganda, we need to consider limitations on Presidential speech.
President Donald Trump has made more than 20,000 objectively false statements and has demonstrated that if the President repeatedly states a lie as if it were a fact, eventually a significant fraction of the American public will believe the lie is an incontrovertible truth. This form of propaganda, known as the big lie, is having a pernicious influence on the health of Americans and our democracy. For the sake of both, we must prohibit the use of the big lie.
There are innumerable examples of Trump employing the big lie as a propaganda technique:
- He has repeatedly belittled the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the death of more than 1 in 1,000 Americans and the world’s highest per capita coronavirus death rate, one-third of Americans believe that the coronavirus is not a serious health issue nor does it warrant any mitigating public health initiatives.
- By repeatedly impugning the integrity of the 2020 election, he has convinced 77% of Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
- Trump has used the big lie to convince a significant fraction of the public that the Mueller report “was an Illegally Started Hoax”, his impeachment “was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers and liar”, his convicted Executive Office associates (Messrs Flynn, Manafort, Stone) were innocent, global warming is a hoax, etc.
The United States Office of Strategic Services explained Hitler’s propaganda methodology, in part as “…people will believe a big lie … and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.” Hitler repeatedly told the German people that they lost World War I, not as a result of their military’s failure, but because German’s Jews sabotage Germany. Ultimately this led to Hitler’s concentration camps, the death of 70-85 million people, and WWII.
Lest some believe that I am being hyperbolic, the eminently rational political analyst and bipartisan Presidential advisor to 4 presidents, David Gergen said that Trump’s propaganda technique is “following in the footsteps of Adolph Hitler.”
Although one might have expected that our systems of checks and balances (Congress, free press, independent judiciary) would have reigned-in a President who brazenly employed authoritarian propaganda techniques, we have discovered, unfortunately, that those checks and balances are inadequate in addressing this form of propaganda.
American politics has now entered a new era, in which politicians employ the big lie with impunity whenever it advances their political agenda.
America’s democracy cannot survive if the President of the United States, the person with the largest megaphone in the world, is permitted to employ the big lie propaganda technique.
The US Supreme Court has acknowledged that unfettered free speech is not in America’s best interest and limits Americans’ right to make public statements. The Court has prohibited people from falsely shouting fire in a theater, making false and malicious public statements about another individual or business, proscribed hate speech and prohibits the broadcast of pornography and curses over public airwaves precisely because the societal harms that are engendered by these types of speech outweigh the societal benefits of unfettered free speech.
One mechanism to rid society of the big lie is to create The Judicial Commission on Presidential Free Speech which would be empowered to define and proscribe politically significant, anti-democratic Presidential speech as propaganda. The Commission, created as a result of a Federal law, should fall under the auspices of the Supreme Court so as to protect it from political influences. It would be composed of senior jurists and a diverse group of highly respected Americans who are authorized to reprimand, personally penalize and make recommendations of impeachment against a President who repeatedly violates the Commission’s rules.
An alternative mechanism to rid society of the big lie is to employ the licensing authority of the Federal Communications Commission which currently prohibits television and radio stations from broadcasting pornography and curses over the public airways. In a similar vein, the FCC could prohibit the broadcast of the big lie over public airways, as the preservation of democracy is at least as important as prohibiting the public broadcast of the word sh*t.
Some will demur that limiting Presidential speech is a slippery slope and fixate on the question “how do we know when it is a big lie?” The Supreme Court Justice Potter said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” The Supreme Court will ultimately be forced to address this issue and will be able to create a legal definition of the big lie.
Some will demur that limiting Presidential speech will curtail important public political dialog. To them I say we are talking about preventing only one person in America from making egregious political lies. Clearly, we are not talking about limiting political discourse in America.
Permitting future Presidents to use the big lie, under the guise of free speech, will ensure that an authoritarian-inclined political leader will eventually rise to fill Trump’s political void. And once an authoritarian-inclined politician is in the Oval Office, he/she may move so fast in taking control of our three branches of government (as Trump nearly did) that they could permanently end our 244-year experiment in representative democracy before the subsequent election.
In 1787, Mrs.Elizabeth Willing Powel reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin “… have we got a republic or a monarchy.” To which Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”
If we hope to preserve our democracy for future generations and the health of all Americans, we must be willing to “think outside the box” and do what is logically necessary even if politically challenging. We must create a mechanism that will prevent the President of the United States from using the big lie propaganda technique before it is too late.
12/30/2020, revised 1/22/2021