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"Fascist states are founded on lies, and sustained by collective lying. It is the fuel they run on. And such is the world of lies that our President would like to draw us into," Freudenburg writes. (Photo: Julio Cortez / AP)

Why We Need to Go Back to Fascism 101

Donald Trump and the Tiberian lie

Kirk Freudenburg

By now the daily rituals of a diseased symbiosis that has developed between the President and the better angels of our news media have become depressingly familiar: Donald Trump says something outrageous, self-serving, and patently false, and responsible journalists snap into action, aligning facts to prove that he has told a lie or, at the very least, wildly distorted the truth.  They show images, cite evidence, provide context and history, and so on.  But before they can finish stating the obvious, the President has tossed them another piece of red meat, in the form of yet another falsehood, even more outrageous than the last.

"Donald Trump is getting things done with these lies that no amount of 'exposure' can frustrate. He pays no price for having them exposed, and he rather seems to enjoy watching responsible journalists scramble to expose them."

Clearly, Donald Trump is getting things done with these lies that no amount of ‘exposure’ can frustrate.  He pays no price for having them exposed, and he rather seems to enjoy watching responsible journalists scramble to expose them. 

What journalists routinely get wrong about the President’s lies is to assume that he tells them in order to deceive.  But these lies are of a radically different kind.  No ‘pants on fire’ rating on a PolitiFact ‘Truth-O-Meter’ can discredit them because they are drawn from an anti-democratic playbook, where deception is a side-effect of lying rather than the principal aim.  Donald Trump does not object to having his most ludicrous assertions exposed as lies.  He objects to their not being accepted as lies.  This sounds odd, I realize, but anyone who has studied the inner workings of fascism knows that the most outrageous lies of any given imperator, ‘father of the fatherland’or il duce are not about deception; they are about demonstrating the leader’s power to impose deceptions.  

I come at this not as a journalist, but as a scholar of ancient Rome.  Consider, for example, the ‘founding lie’ that was told by emperor Tiberius at a meeting of the Roman Senate on September 17, 14 AD.  Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, had recently passed away.  Tiberius, the deceased emperor’s adopted ‘son,’ stood before the Senate and read out Augustus’s will.  In it he was named Augustus’s heir.  This was new territory for the Roman Senate.  Technically speaking, emperors should not exist: they were anathema to Rome’s ‘republican’ constitution.  For those gathered in the Senate that day, Augustus was not only their first emperor, he was their first dead one.  So what were they to do?  Could a dead emperor just name someone in his will to make that someone the next emperor?  Were they, as senators, to have no say in the matter?  Or perhaps they did not really need an emperor, especially one as unlikeable as Tiberius.

Such were the unspoken thoughts that floated on the air.  Tiberius knew what they were all thinking.  After reading the will, he launched into a speech wherein he seemed to suggest that he would not accept the job that had been loaded onto him by Augustus’s will.  Only Augustus, he claimed, now worshipped as a god in heaven, had shoulders big enough to do the work of running the world. 

It was at this point, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, that ‘the senators burst into tearful laments and appeals.’  They begged Tiberius to accept the job in full, reminding him that that was what ‘the god’ Augustus had so clearly intended by naming him his heir.

Tiberius’s lie had done its job. 

Everyone in the Senate that day knew that Tiberius was lying; that his offer to share out his powers with the Senate was political theater, encoded to send the following message: ‘I, your new emperor, Tiberius, hereby propose the following fiction: that I am a decent old republican Roman; an unwilling emperor who would much rather putter in his garden than run things.  You, the senators who know what’s good for you, accept this falsehood by acting as if it were true, and repeating it collectively for all to hear (I will be listening); you accept it not as the truth, but as the lie I have just invented, and thereby you concede to my power to impose my fictions on you.’ 

That is the grand prize that the Roman emperors sought with their lies: not to have them accepted as truth, but to have them accepted as lies.  This was a loyalty test: a power grab that put the senators under Tiberius’s microscope.  Tacitus says that, above all, the senators who heard Tiberius tell his lie that day feared ‘seeming (lit. ‘being seen’) to understand’ him, and that is why they fell over themselves with fawning lamentations.  In other words, they were to understand that he was lying to them, but they were not to be seen understanding.

Fascist states are founded on lies, and sustained by collective lying.  It is the fuel they run on.  And such is the world of lies that our President would like to draw us into.  

A few short years ago, we in the Humanities and Social Sciences were busy addressing micro aggressions, all the while a ‘Reality TV’ entertainer was successfully winning hearts and minds by telling hateful and fantastic lies: Barak Obama was born in Kenya; Mexicans are rapists, and so on.  There was nothing ‘micro’ about these aggressions.  My point is not that we were wrong to care about the small stuff.  It’s that we took our eye off the ball.  We made the mistake of thinking that macro hatreds were a thing of the past.  But to understand where we are at with this President, his Senate, and his Fox News, we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the gaudy big stuff of Nero, Henry VIII, and Mussolini.  We need to go back to Fascism 101.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Kirk Freudenburg

Kirk Freudenburg is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics at Yale University, and a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (FAAR 2002). His Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, co-edited with Shadi Bartsch and Cedric Littlewood, appeared last November.

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