Lies are not harmless, especially in democracy

“The great masses of the people … will more easily fall victims to a big lie than a small one.” — Adolph Hitler, 1933

There is a rhetorical tug-of-war swirling around Donald Trump’s claim that election fraud cost him the White House.

For months the New York Times and the Washington Post have been busy converting Trump’s big lie into a less offensive falsehood. At the other end of the tug, President Biden, taking a tell-it-like-it-is approach, recently said, “The big lie is just that: a big lie.”

The tug-of-war gained momentum on Jan. 7 with this New York Times headline: “Trump’s Fraud Claims Died in Court, but the Myth of Stolen Election Lives On,”

A Washington Post headline chimed in on May 9: “How the Election-fraud Myth was Spread by Russell Ramsland,”

And then, in a July 12 editorial Michelle Cottle, a member of the New York Times editorial board, wrote: “Big lie promoters are leaping into races at all levels … and making the 2020 fraud myth Topic A.”

President Biden has it right. By calling the big lie a myth the newspapers are aiding Trump’s ongoing attempt to corrupt our election process. Here is why.

Harmless Myths. Many, maybe most, readers apply the common, everyday usage of “myth” to mean a rather minor, mistaken view of reality–like the Santa Claus myth or a poster found on a doctor’s office wall titled, “The top five myths of the flu.”

These readers are very likely to conclude Trump’s big lie is not so big after all, that it is simply a forgivable, little white lie.

A trip to the dictionary, however, should convince most Americans that their everyday use of the word does not accurately describe what we know about Trump’s big lie.

Lies and Liars. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, tells us a lie is, “An assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive…an untrue or inaccurate statement that may or may not be believed true by the speaker.”

My guess is Mr. Trump knows full well he lost the election but his super-sized, loser-averse, ego demands that he promotes the big lie. If, against all evidence to the contrary, Trump actually believes he won the election we are not dealing with a congenital liar, but with a person possessing a seriously distorted view of reality.

Myths are not Lies. A myth is defined as, “A popular belief or tradition … embodying the ideals and institutions of a society…beliefs that people have in common, accepted as true and acted upon as real.”

If lies are meant to deceive their listeners, myths, especially nation-building myths, are meant to inspire civic values. In fact, we as a society, have historically embraced a number of powerful myths–including individualism, populism and egalitarianism–to shape the evolution of our civil and political society and its institutions.

Polls show about 30% of American adults — a shamefully large number of duped citizens — claim Joseph Biden did not legitimately win the presidency. But numbers alone can’t convert a widely accepted falsehood into an idealized, democratic myth.

It is time headline writers end this foolish tug-of-war by never again suggesting Trump’s fake election fraud is anything but a big, fat lie.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., a public affairs writer, lives in the Buffalo area.


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