The political “big lie” is nothing new. Plato’s Republic, written around 380BC, has Socrates and Glaucon discussing what they call the “Noble Lie”. It’s told to the lower orders by the elite Guardians to promote loyalty and social stability. From then on, the lie has a history that is anything but noble. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, written in the early 1920s, accused Jews of spreading the big lie to conceal their responsibility for Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Ironically, Hitler appropriated the big lie to claim the German army had not been defeated on the battlefield, but stabbed in the back by Jews and Communists. For good measure, he railed against international Jewry claiming it had enriched itself from the war. From there it was a straight line to the Holocaust.

Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, both knew the value of the big lie. Hitler believed more people would “easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one”. Goebbels argued that propaganda should be, “limited to a very few points, and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands”. Anything sound familiar? More recently in 2002, Frank Luntz, an advisor to George W Bush wrote, “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

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In the 1920s and 30s, it was easier to get away with the big lie. There were few sources of news and views for the general public. State control of the media silenced opposition to 1930s totalitarian regimes. In contrast, today’s proliferation of social media provides multiple platforms for differing views and interpretations. As a result, it’s easier to check the veracity of the unlikely; but it’s a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s more difficult to get away with the big lie, but social media has contributed greatly to the equally dangerous tsunami of small-scale falsehood that threaten truth and decency.

The presidency of Donald Trump and his use of Twitter and Facebook provides a case study of the corrosive effect of lies and half-truths. The Washington Post estimates that in four years, Mr Trump made nearly 30,000 false or misleading claims. Many of those targeted the bias and prejudice of his core support, seasoned with a generous pinch of racism and misogyny. It’s no coincidence that pro-Trump rallies are largely dominated by white, middle-aged males. Goebbels would have nodded approvingly of Mr Trump’s repetitive sloganising about Making America Great Again, building walls and stealing elections.

There is no room for complacency in the UK. Michael Gove has claimed “people have had enough of experts”. The corollary being, we should rely instead on ignorance to shape our views and actions. In Mr Gove’s world, there is a deep-rooted suspicion of fact and reasoning. In the US the drip, drip, drip of little lies that often conflict with one another and the truth, disorientated the general public. The UK variant can be crudely described as a bulls**t storm. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. James Delingpole, UK executive editor of Breitbart, described an Oxbridge education as, “spending three or four years being trained in the art of bulls**t. With the Bullingdon bullsh**ter in Number 10, what else could be expected? The Prime Minister’s occasional wry smile, suggests that even he doesn’t believe what he is saying.

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Mr Trump’s toxic legacy has polluted politics in the US and around the world. Lies and bulls**t have become the global political currency making it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. Mr Trump and his like should be held to account for the poisoned chalice he is handing his successor. For all our sakes, let’s hope Mr Biden can remodel the presidency in the image and values of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt and puts the genie of Trumpism firmly back in the bottle.

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