Fifty years from now, what will the history books tell us? Will they say, without fear of contradiction, that the United States narrowly missed an attempt to overthrow democracy in the years of the pandemic? Or will they tell us that there are still questions surrounding a stolen election?
I want to think that the latter will no longer be at issue. That the Big Lie of 2020–21 has met a well-deserved death. But even if that is true, I suspect there will always be those who don’t believe that the attempt to pervert our electoral system and thus, our democracy, was in reality an attempted coup. Who persist in believing that the people involved were, in reality, trying to stop the steal.
If you tell a big enough lie, does it really ever die?
There are two lies in particular, two Big Lies that have haunted Western Civilization in general and the United States in particular for generations.
The first and longest standing of these is the lie that Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. In the first place, even at the time that is not quite true. Jesus was convicted by the Sanhedrin, a council of rabbis, for a variety of crimes against the Jews. But because he claimed to be “King” of the Jews, he was turned over to Pilate, who thought that was a bit treasonous, so he had him whipped and turned over to the Romans who were more or less bound to take umbrage and did the actual crucifying.
None of this necessarily involved the Jewish people as a whole, and it certainly did not involve anyone born after @33 A.D. Nevertheless.
It did not have anything to do with the Jews living in the cities of Europe, tasked with the profession of money-lender because that was forbidden to Christians who needed the money. And it didn’t have anything to do with these Jews growing rich because they were good at their jobs. So the death of Christ was certainly no excuse for Christians to turn on them and confiscate their wealth when it suited them to do so. Nevertheless.
If there were any European Jews entirely innocent of both the death of Christ and growing wealthy off of Christians, it had to be the Jews of the countryside, Jews living in small homesteads and villages throughout western and eastern Europe. The Jews of Tevyi, you might say. The pograms that exterminated countless Jewish settlements over the years were generally carried out by local mobs blaming local Jews for one misfortune or another. Ignorance of Jewish customs and blatant lies and conspiracy theories abounded, making it relatively easy for any local politician to translocate his own failures to a rumor, sometimes fabricated, about any Jewish community. And if there were none of these, the accusation of “Christ-killer” could always be raised, certain to rile up any mob of Christians. It seems none of them realized that it was the crucifixion itself that defined Christianity. The story that Christ died on the cross to save us made that death necessary. And poor Jews living in the hinterlands certainly had no part in that. Nevertheless.
The lies and fabrications and misunderstandings and suspicions that surrounded Jewish communities for centuries at last culminated in the Nazi horror of the Holocaust. I use the word “culminated” cautiously. We may have thought that after the extermination camps there was no lower that humanity could go. We may have thought that one of the longest told lies of Western Christendom was finally dead and buried. Not so fast.
The second Big Lie has been around for only a little more than 400 years, but it was swiftly concocted and taken to heart in order to expand a nascent empire. That Big Lie told early America that Africans were created to be subservient to Europeans, that their black skin meant lower intelligence and ability, and that any who demonstrated otherwise were merely aping (in the closest possible analogy) their white superiors.
Yes, people argue. There had been slavery before. Most cultures held slaves at one time or another. Even Africans. But never had there been a need for unpaid labor like there was in the Americas, a need that could not be filled by the local peasant class. There was no local peasant class. Native Americans could not be held to labor on land that had once been theirs — they knew the country too well. And although both poor white immigrants and imported Africans were both held, for a time, as indentured servants — obligated by law to be set free after so many years of labor — there were not nearly as many whites available for field work, and a time came when it had to be decided who, if any, were to be kept in chattel slavery. And when that time came, the color of one’s skin made the decision easy. Papers and judicial opinions were written about the qualities of black men and women that made them unfit for anything other than chattel slavery. These papers and opinions were lies told by people who convinced themselves so thoroughly of the truth of the lies they told that it soaked into the soil of what became the United States of America that when proofs that it was a lie popped up here and there it was scarcely to be believed. Even after a Civil War had been fought to rid ourselves of the condition of race-based chattel slavery, the idea of it never really died.
By the time I was a girl in the 1950’s, the idea that black folks were as good as white folks was still a bit radical. I remember deciding that they must be, but I can’t say I believed it in my heart of hearts. I just liked being radical and saying things that other people found shocking. Like that I didn’t believe in God or that there was nothing wrong with sex before marriage. The very fact that other people found equality between the races shocking tells the whole story. The Big Lie was still very operational.
As it seems to be today. The sullen armies of Trump echo both of these Big Lies: that neither Jews nor African-Americans (or, by extension, anyone showing visible melatonin) are one with the tribe of humanity that claims European descent. And to this they have added another one. One political party, the Democrats, stole the election of 2020 from Donald Trump through voter fraud and installed an imposter, Joe Biden, in his place. They have gone so far as to pass legislation meant to keep the ballot restricted to those whom they designate as fit to govern. Time will tell.
My point, if I haven’t already hammered it in hard enough, is that it is far from impossible for Big Lies to take root in a body politic that sees an advantage in it. At some point it escalates from something that someone heard to something everybody accepts. It goes from a rumor to a truism, from “Hey, did you hear?” to “It is known.”
All the Big Lies have traveled this route. Jews killed Christ. Africans are inherently inferior. And “The election was stolen?” Will the laws limiting election participation passed in the immediate wake of a rumor of election fraud become necessary to, as their proponents believe, stop the steal? Will another Big Lie end democracy as we have known it? Or will this one create an unholy trinity of Big Lies that never die? We’d best be careful. It’s not like it’s never happened before.