Why the Republicans' Big Lie works so well: A sociopathic party, and a damaged country

Democrats and the media need to understand the truth, right now: This is an existential struggle for democracy

By Chauncey DeVega
Published May 18, 2021 11:13AM (EDT)
Trump supporters near the US Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Trump supporters near the US Capitol following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Republican Party and the right-wing movement are expert and prodigious liars. This causes great frustration and anger for Democrats, progressives and others who believe in real "we the people" American democracy. The American people have become massively confused and disoriented by the Republicans' torrent of lies.

Why are the Republicans able to lie so much and so easily? There are two primary reasons.

The foundational explanation is that the modern Republican Party and right-wing movement are sociopathic. The Republican Party meets those criteria, as I explained in an earlier essay at Salon:

As detailed by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, exhibiting three or more of the following traits is sufficient for the diagnosis of sociopathy:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
  • Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms and obligations
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them
  • Very low tolerance to frustration, a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence
  • Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment
  • Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalization for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders adds these two qualifiers:

  • Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
  • Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead

The day-to-day practical explanation for the Republican Party's habitual lying (and that of the right more generally) is that it is a highly effective political strategy for helping them win and keep power.

To that point, the Republican Party's policies are unpopular with the American people. If Republicans told the truth about those policies, they would rarely or never be able to win free and fair elections.

Moreover, today's Republican Party is almost fully a neofascist political organization and personality cult centered around Donald Trump. Its goal is to overthrow America's multiracial secular democracy and replace it with an apartheid-style plutocracy (flavored with theocracy). Assaulting empirical reality, undermining any sense of shared truth and values and replacing it all with an approved narrative that serves their goals is a primary method that fascists and authoritarians gain control over a society.

In his own way, Republican strategist and mastermind Karl Rove predicted such a future in 2004 with his observation about the Iraq war: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." 

Donald Trump publicly lied at least 30,000 times while president and faced few if any negative consequences for that behavior. Moreover, he came within several thousand votes of "winning" the 2020 presidential election because of his strategic use of lying, deception and trickery, including voter suppression and voter intimidation.

After their defeat at the ballot box, Trump and his allies and followers then weaponized the Goebbels-inspired "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was somehow "stolen" from him by Joe Biden and the Democrats. The Big Lie was integral to Trump's coup attempt and his followers' attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Big Lie is also being used as fuel for the Republican Party's Jim Crow-style efforts to prevent Black and brown Americans from voting.

In all, Donald Trump was not a cautionary tale for today's Republicans. He was a role model for present and future behavior.

New research from the political advocacy and research group Democracy Corps shows that the Big Lie strategy is working.

Contrary to what the hope-peddlers and happy-pill sellers of the mainstream news media would like to believe, the Republican Party is not in disarray, in the midst of a "civil war" or "trying to find its soul." The party is largely united behind Trump and the Big Lie.

Democracy Corps summarizes the findings of its new research on Trump support in battleground states:

We conducted a large, mostly cell phone survey with an oversample of Republicans in the 2022 battleground for the U.S. Senate, governorships, and House, and it is painfully clear Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, and Kevin McCarthy know their party. The Trump loyalists who strongly approve of him are two thirds of those who identify as, "Republican." And they are joined by the Trump aligned to form a breathtaking, three quarters of the party in the electoral battleground states and districts that will decide who leads the country. 

Their report also finds that "Donald Trump's loyalist party is totally consolidated at this early point in its 2022 voting," and that Republican voters are more engaged with the 2022 midterms than are Democrats. "And with such high early engagement of Republicans and white working class voters in this survey," the report concludes, "the era of Donald Trump shaping the electorate is not over either."

These findings are especially ominous for what they suggest about the efficacy of the Republican Party and right-wing's "cancel culture" and "culture war" narratives, despite the way members of the liberal chattering class may mock such strategies.

Democracy Corps further argues that "Trump's current focus on the stolen election" must not be dismissed as "an amusing side-show": 

It is about Blacks and Democratic politicians in the cities using illegal voting procedures and stuffing ballot boxes to steal away Trump's great victory his battle to save America. This survey shows what are the true drivers of GOP identity — the deep hostility to Black Lives Matter, undocumented immigrants, and Antifa. And imagine their reaction to the flood of unaccompanied children at the border, the guilty verdict in Minneapolis, and Black Lives Matter protests after each police shooting of unarmed Blacks.

There is no escaping the reality that Trump's Republican Party is a self-consciously and self-confidently anti-democratic, anti-immigrant party that will battle for the future of white people in a multicultural America.

The Trump loyalists — again, two-thirds of the party — respond with deep emotion to the term, "MAGA," that captures their whole embrace of Trump's battle to make America great again. And it is an unfinished battle and campaign.

If Democracy Corps' polling data and other analyses are correct, then the future of American democracy is even more imperiled than many political observers have so far accepted or understood. The Republican Big Lie strategy (and all the little lies that sustain it) would not be effective if their voters and other supporters had not been trained, for years or decades, to respond positively to it.

This socialization process begins with foundational lies, dogma and myths about the Republican Party, such as the ludicrous contention that it believes in "small government" and "fiscal responsibility." During the last few decades, Republican administrations have invariably increased the size of the budget deficit. Serious economists have also shown that "supply-side" or "trickle-down economics" are a massive intellectual fraud.

Republicans have repeatedly cut taxes on the richest Americans and corporations, leaving the economy and the federal budget in far worse shape, compared to Democratic administrations. "Small government" has been shown to be a racist term of art, used to justify destroying the social safety net and undermining the common good in ways that disproportionately impact Black and brown Americans.

For decades, the Republican Party and movement conservatives have branded themselves as defenders of "freedom." But in practice they have supported Christian theocrats and others who want to take away women's reproductive rights, end secular democracy and limit the civil and human rights of other groups they deem to be "less than" or not "real Americans," such as nonwhite people, the LGBTQ community Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups.

Through Fox News, right-wing talk radio, the internet and social media, the spread of conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation, the Republican Party and conservative movement have created a fact-free alternate reality for their followers. In that echo chamber, lies and misrepresentations about empirical reality and the truth are laundered and transformed into narratives that serve the groupthink and collective cult mentality of the American and global right.

Fake right-wing "populism" rejects science, critical thinking and other forms of expert knowledge as tools of "political correctness," used by "elites" to manipulate and oppress the "freedom" and "liberty" of the "average person." In that sense, "populism" is a breeding ground for lies.

Social scientists and other researchers have shown that Trump's followers ignore his lies (in effect endorsing them) because they view him as not "politically correct" and a type of "outsider" who is "taking on the system" on their behalf.

Researchers have also shown that enthusiasm for Trump's campaign and presidency were and are directly related to support for his lies.

In addition, Republican politicians are significantly more likely to lie than are Democrats. Republican voters have been trained to understand that political lying is normal — if not perhaps even virtuous.

Today's Republican Party and broader right-wing movement are tied together by white identity politics, white supremacy and a commitment to defend "traditional values" and "white America."

Because politics is now a core aspect of how Republicans and Trumpists define their personhood, lying is easily normalized. False claims have become integrated into their thinking about the world and reality.

Right-wing Christians are among Trump and the Republican Party's most loyal followers. While telling lies is supposedly contrary to their faith, white evangelicals and Christian nationalists support the lies told by Trump and other "saviors" if they are perceived as serving the purpose of helping to create "God's kingdom" in America and around the world.

What can be done to counter the Republican Party and Trump movement's powerful weaponization of lies against American democracy and a healthy society? This new post-Trump world, in which neofascism is not a hypothetical possibility but is ascendant and growing in power, requires pro-democracy forces to adopt new ways of thinking.

Democrats, the news media and the American people need to accept that when Republicans, Trumpists and their allies and followers lie it is not a miscommunication, an error, a misunderstanding, a moment of confusion or honest disagreement about questions of public policy and politics. When Republicans and other members of the right lie, it is a weapon — and part of a determined strategy to undermine democracy and reality itself.

Democrats and the media also need to accept and understand that today's Republican Party and right-wing movement are not engaged in "normal politics," where the rules and norms of a healthy, functioning democracy are respected by all sides, where there is give-and-take, honest negotiation and then final compromise in the service of the public interest.

Ultimately, the struggle for American democracy in the Age of Trump and beyond is existential. It will be decided around basic questions of what is true and what is not — and the public's willingness to know the difference and then act accordingly. Based on the historic power of the Big Lie, the forces of democracy are fighting at a great disadvantage.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Big Lie Commentary Donald Trump Elections Republicans Social Science