Donald Trump’s so-called big lie is not big because of its brazen dishonesty or its widespread influence or its unyielding grip over the Republican Party. It is not even big because of its ambition — to delegitimize a presidency, disenfranchise millions of voters, clap back against reality. No, the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election has grown so powerful because it is yoked to an older deception, without which it could not survive: the idea that American politics is, in essence, a joke, and that it can be treated as such without consequence.
The big lie depends on the big joke. It was enabled by it. It was enhanced by it. It is sustained by it.
When politicians publicly defend positions they privately reject, they are telling the joke. When they give up on the challenge of governing the country for the rush of triggering the enemy, they are telling the joke. When they intone that they must address the very fears they have encouraged or manufactured among their constituents, they are telling the joke. When their off-the-record smirks signal that they don’t really mean what they just said or did, they are telling the joke. As the big lie spirals ever deeper into unreality, with the former president mixing election falsehoods with call-outs to violent, conspiratorial fantasies, the big joke has much to answer for.
Recent books like “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell” by a former Republican operative and campaign consultant, Tim Miller, and “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission” by The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich place this long-running gag at the center of American politics. The big joke drains language of meaning, divorces action from responsibility and enables all manner of lies. “Getting the joke” means understanding that nothing you say need be true, that nobody expects it to be true — at least nobody in the know. “The truth of this scam, or ‘joke,’ was fully evident inside the club,” Leibovich writes. “We’re all friends here. Everyone knew the secret handshake, spoke the native language, and got the joke.”
Without the big joke, the big lie would not merit its adjective. Its challenge to democracy would be ephemeral, not existential.
The chroniclers of Donald Trump’s election lie typically seek out an origin story, a choose-your-own adventure that always leads to the Capitol steps on Jan. 6, 2021. In his book, “The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020,” Politico’s Jonathan Lemire pinpoints an August 2016 campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, during which Trump first suggested that the contest against Hillary Clinton would be rigged against him. This, Lemire writes, was when “the seeds of the big lie had been planted.”
Tim Alberta of The Atlantic starts six months earlier, when Trump accused Senator Ted Cruz of Texas of cheating in the Iowa caucuses. “That episode was a bright red, blinking light foreshadowing everything that was to come,” Alberta told PBS Frontline. In “The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party,” the Washington Post columnist (and my former colleague) Dana Milbank offers a far longer accumulation of lies from the right: The notion that Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved in the death of the White House lawyer Vince Foster, the illusions behind President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the birther concoctions, the death-panel ravings — all building toward the big one. “The G.O.P.’s quarter-century war on facts had come to this, a gargantuan fabrication aimed at discrediting democracy itself,” Milbank sums up. And Leibovich quotes Representative Adam Schiff’s view of how his House colleagues slowly submitted to Trump’s fantasies. “It’s one small lie, followed by a demand for a bigger lie and a bigger concession, a bigger moral lapse, until, you know, these folks that I admired and respected, because I believe that they believe what they were saying, had given themselves up so completely to Donald Trump.”
Such accounts reflect the common understanding that the big lie is really all the little lies we told along the way — a cycle of deceit and submission, culminating in a myth so powerful that it transcends belief and becomes a fully formed worldview. Lemire notes how Trump’s assertion that he had been wiretapped by President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign seemed like a pretty gargantuan lie at the time, one that Trump tweeted “without any evidence.” (Journalists love to note that the former president utters falsehoods “without evidence,” an adorable euphemism for “making stuff up.”) But even this one dissipates in the wake of the big lie. After “big,” the term “unprecedented” may be the election lie’s most common descriptor.