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Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Donald Trump

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) shakes hands with then-real estate developer Donald Trump in a reception line in the White House's Blue Room, Washington DC. November 3, 1987. (Photo: White House Photo Office/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

The Big Lie, Media Complicity, and the Science of Propaganda

These successfulness of Republican lies are undermining our democracy and—as it happens—also threaten all life on Earth.

Thom Hartmann

Donald Trump is still insisting he won the 2020 election, despite having lost by about 7 million votes and being wiped out in the Electoral College.

Science, it turns out, is on his side.

Not the science of elections: the science of propaganda. 

New findings from psychologists at universities in California and Georgia and published in the journal Cognitive Research show that the more often a statement — regardless of its truthfulness — is repeated, the more emphatically it’s believed.

The researchers noted:

“Repeated information is often perceived as more truthful than new information. This finding is known as the illusory truth effect, and it is typically thought to occur because repetition increases processing fluency. Because fluency and truth are frequently correlated in the real world, people learn to use processing fluency as a marker for truthfulness.”

While modern science is affirming this truism, it’s been in use a long time. In the past century, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called out his day’s Republicans for using what we today call the Big Lie around several issues. Running for re-election in 1944, he said:

“The opposition in this year has already imported into this campaign a very interesting thing, because it is foreign. They have imported the propaganda technique invented by the dictators abroad. Remember, a number of years ago, there was a book, Mein Kampf, written by Hitler himself.

“The technique was all set out in Hitler's book - and it was copied by the aggressors of Italy and Japan. According to that technique, you should never use a small falsehood; always a big one, for its very fantastic nature would make it more credible - if only you keep repeating it over and over and over again.”

Back then Republicans were lying that Democrats had caused the Republican Great Depression (as it was called until the 1950s) and that FDR had “failed” to adequately prepare America for war with Germany or Japan (while Republican after Republican took to the floor of Congress to tell us, before the War, that “we can do business with Hitler”).

Now Trump’s lies (like about the election) are parroted daily by Republican politicians and usually echoed in the media without push-back. After all, Trump reportedly slept with a collection of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside: he would be fluent in Hitler’s Big Lie strategy.

Besides the addition of Trump’s lies, Republican lies haven’t changed a lot since FDR’s era, although they’re more focused and now repeated daily by thousands of rightwing websites, bloggers, podcasts, Fox “News,” and talk radio shows.

Over the past 40 years, Republican billionaires have built an extraordinary nationwide media propaganda machine. Their goal was directed towards justifying tax cuts for the morbidly rich and the deregulation of polluting industries, but now it’s been taken over by Trump acolytes promoting, among other lies, the idea the Democrats torture children and drink their blood.

The “useful idiots” in this scheme have been the American corporate and billionaire-owned media, who dutifully echo or leave unchallenged the GOP’s regular lies.

One of the Republicans most egregious lies — that America is evenly split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats and on the issues of the day — was most recently repeated during the last moments of Jake Tapper’s Sunday show on CNN this past weekend. Without a single word of push-back from the shows host.

While the Senate may be split 50/50, Democrats in the Senate represent over 40 million more Americans than do Republicans. And on issues like tax cuts for billionaires, the right to unionize, access to Medicare/Medicaid, climate change, the right to abortion, privatizing Social Security, drug prices, Medicaid expansion, and the minimum wage Americans are overwhelmingly on the side of Democrats.

So how did so many Americans end up believing the many lies that are daily pushed by the GOP?

In a word: repetition, just like the science shows works. Here are a few of their greatest hits, with each followed by my rebuttal:

*”Tax cuts produce prosperity.”

In a remarkable study published in 2020 by The London School of Economics looking at 18 wealthy OECD countries over 50 years, the researchers discovered, unambiguously:

“We find that major reforms reducing taxes on the rich lead to higher income inequality as measured by the top 1% share of pre-tax national income. The effect remains stable in the medium term. In contrast, such reforms do not have any significant effect on economic growth and unemployment.”

In other words, tax cuts for the rich make the rich richer and throw the nation into debt, but otherwise have no measurable effect on the economy.

Ever since Reagan, Republicans have been assuring us that if we just give more money to the “Job Creators,” they’ll use it to open new factories and raise wages. In fact, the morbidly rich simply put that extra money into their offshore accounts and money bins.

In fact, in the 40 years since Reagan first started the practice of massive Republican tax cuts for the richest Americans, there has been a $50 trillion transfer of wealth from America’s working class into the money bins of our morbidly rich.

The idea that tax cuts for the rich and corporations would produce prosperity was a lie from the beginning and still is, but Republicans are still repeating it after nearly 50 years of disastrous experience with neoliberal Reaganomics.

*”Immigrants bring crime.”

In fact, immigrants — legal and undocumented — are far less likely to commit crimes than American citizens. After all, who wants to either get deported or blow up their chances of becoming a citizen of the country they’ve taken such huge and often deadly chances to reach?

And the statistics aren’t even close. In a massive study funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, published by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, scientists discovered American citizens are 200% to 400% more likely to commit violent felonies against persons, drug crimes, and felony property crimes than immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.

But that won’t stop rightwing media from hyping every exception-to-the-rule when an immigrant is caught committing a crime. Lies, after all, are the coin of their realm.

*”Increasing the minimum wage worsens inflation.”

The minimum wage was established in 1938 and has been raised 22 times. If there had ever been— in all that time — even a single year when inflation increases could be tied to increases in the minimum wage every Republican in America would have the year memorized.

“You don’t want what happened in 1958 to happen ever again!” they’d warn us while wagging fingers in our faces. Except there is not even one single example of an increase in the minimum wage increasing inflation, which is why they never cite a single statistic or year.

When researchers decided to seriously dig into the topic, they found that a massive 10% increase in the minimum wage may have as much as a .1% — one-tenth-of-one-percent, or ten cents on a $100 product — impact on inflation, but that’s never been recorded in American history. Wages simply aren’t that large a part of the price of most goods and even most services.

*”Union bosses are bleeding workers dry.”

This is a favorite of the multi-billion-dollar union-busting industry to roll out in their mandatory “reeducation” sessions with captive workers who are considering voting for unionization. It’s a complete lie.

Unlike workers’ actual bosses, whose compensation typically goes up with profits, union “bosses” are simply employees of heavily regulated nonprofit organizations (unions) who work on a salary. They earn just a small fraction of what the actual corporate bosses take from the companies they’re trying to unionize.

When they’re successful, however, union bosses do reduce corporate profits by forcing companies to give their workers better pay and benefits. Which is why corporations are willing to pay millions of dollars a day, in some cases, to bring in these high-powered law firms to intimidate workers.

*”American elections are corrupt.”

This one depends on how you define “corrupt.” If you mean that dead people are voting or people are voting multiple times in multiple states, that’s so rare as to compete with the Loch Ness Monster for headlines.

After all, with millions of dollars and over a hundred lawyers and lawmakers, Republicans tried in 60 courtrooms (including the Supreme Court) to prove even a single case of election fraud that may have affected the outcome of the 2020 election: they failed every time.

On the other hand, if you define “corrupt” as Republican elections officials purging millions of voters — most people of color, students, city-dwellers, and the working poor — from the voting rolls, then maybe there’s some truth to it. But that’s not the line Republicans are selling.

*”Guns will keep your home safe.”

This is one of the deadliest lies Republicans promote. A massive 2014 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine found that having a gun in the home doubles the risk of residents of that home being victims of homicide and triples the risk of successful suicide.

Nonetheless, the big gun manufacturers and their Russian-supported NRA shower millions on Republican politicians all across America, so now guns have become the top cause of death among children here, something that’s never happened in any developed country, anytime in history, anywhere else in the world.

America now has about 120 guns per 100 people, while in most other developed countries the ratio is around 20 guns per 100 people. In many countries — Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example — it’s fewer than 1 gun per 100 people.

We are awash in blood and gun violence because of this Republican lie.

*”America is a Christian nation as the Founders intended.”

This lie is vigorously promoted by the Christian nationalist movement, led by multi-millionaire preachers and televangelists who are not only profiting from it but also have acquired considerable political power through it.

America, in fact, was the first democracy in the world that was founded in an entirely and explicitly secular fashion. The only prominent Founder who promoted the idea of America as a Christian nation was “Give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry, who was both Virginia’s largest slaveholder and refused to sign the Constitution when it was finished in the fall of 1787.

Jefferson, Franklin, Rush, Washington and numerous others among the Founders didn’t even consider themselves Christians, and those who did — most notably John Adams and James Madison — were outspoken about the dangers of mixing religion and politics.

President Madison’s first veto, in fact, was to strike down a law that gave a DC church money to run a poorhouse; he said in this veto message that it would strike a bad precedent for the American government to give any money whatsoever to any church for a function that government should run itself.

Madison, who was a regular churchgoer (Jefferson attended, too, because until the Revolution the law in Virginia required church membership and attendance as a prerequisite for running for political office), was concerned that government money would corrupt the religion he loved; Jefferson was worried that if “priests” ever became politicians it would lead to the ruin of the republic.

The two debated the issue of which was the greatest danger to America regularly: it turns out both were right.

*”Global warming is junk science and CO2 is good for plants so we need more of it.”

This is so facially absurd it shouldn’t even require mentioning, but there is literally not a single elected Republican at the federal level (at least that I know of) who will contradict it.

Like with the gun industry, the fossil fuel industry pays their politicians very well, and, since the Supreme Court legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision and its predecessors, that money has worked to hold the GOP in the blood-stained clutches of the industry.

And now these Republican lies about climate change threaten all life on Earth.

*”Republicans favor democracy around the world instead of dictatorships and are particularly tough on China.”

So much happened during the Trump administration that Americans can be forgiven for forgetting that Trump, in 2019, promised Chinese President Xi that he wouldn’t object if Xi brutally crushed the Hong Kong independence movement.

Trump was working on getting Chinese patents for his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line and other Ivanka-branded items (including coffins, voting machines, and almost any other category available) so, as CNN reported on October 4, 2019:

“The remarkable pledge to the Chinese leader is a dramatic departure from decades of US support for human rights in China and shows just how eager Trump is to strike a deal with Beijing…”

Trump’s so-called “trade war” with China was a joke; he imposed a few cosmetic tariffs that backfired and the Chinese didn’t take seriously because they were done by executive order rather than an act of Congress.

After hubby Jared got $2 billion for selling America out to Saudi Arabia, Ivanka seems to have lost interest in her business dealings in China. But in the meantime, the democracy movement in Hong Kong was completely crushed and its advocates are now dead or in prison.

Every one of these lies, among others, are vigorously promoted by GOP-aligned media. 

Their constant repetition has led average Republicans to fervently believe them, to the detriment of both the United States and, particularly with climate change, the future of life on Earth.

FDR was right to call out the Republican Party for their Big Lie strategy back in the day. Tragically, he was 80 years too early for today’s Americans to realize the long, deep roots of the modern GOP’s propaganda strategy.

Over the past 40 years, our media has been largely complicit, echoing these Republican Big Lies. It’s well past time for American media to take its responsibility to present the truth seriously.


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