Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor in San Francisco, is co-counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
Political lies, like the disproven assertion that there was any significant ballot fraud in the 2020 election, are not harmless. Every one of us who believes in civil society must fight them with truth. That is the way to preserve a free and peaceful society.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has starkly shown us that big lies lead to the opposite.
Look back to the start of Putin’s barbarous invasion of Ukraine. Even though Ukraine’s heroic president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, Putin justified the attack as a “military operation” to “de-nazify” a neighboring country.
Russian soldiers clearly believed the lie that helped justify criminal actions. In March, they put a black bag over the head of 33-yea- old Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the Ukraine city of Melitopol, and kidnapped him. They told him “they wanted to liberate the town from the Nazis.”
The soldiers’ misbelief illustrates the core principle of totalitarian propaganda: The more outrageous the lie, the better for a strongman seeking to make war on enemies domestic and foreign.
As Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels put it: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. … [T]he truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
In Ukraine on April 8, we saw how Big Lies are not only destructive but also become habit-forming. A Russian Tochka-U missile hit the main train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, killing more than 50 civilians, including five children, and injuring more than 300 others. The Russians preposterously blamed Ukraine for murdering its own people.
Because Big Lies are essential to totalitarian leaders maintaining domestic power, external enemies are not the only ones who suffer from the state’s mistruths. On April 7, students in the Russian city of Penza turned Irina Gen, their English teacher, into authorities. Speaking about Russian invaders during class, she said: “They wanted to reach Kyiv to overthrow Zelensky. This is a sovereign state.”
She faces 15 years in prison.
Weeks before, in Buryatia, 3,700 miles east of Moscow, someone reported archery coach Valery Yakovlev to police for tearing down a large letter ‘Z’ that had been placed on his school’s entrance. The letter has come to symbolize the Russian war, as tanks and military vehicles invading Ukraine have prominently displayed a “Z.”
Which brings us back to Goebbels. He called it “vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie.”
Attention in America must be paid to these lessons about what comes of attacks on truth. On April 10, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey released a campaign ad titled “Stole,” in which she says: “The fake news, big tech and blue state liberals stole the election from President Trump.”
Importantly, investigations continue to confirm the falsity of Trump’s continuing claims. On April 6, Arizona’s Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, released his report on Maricopa County’s election. Though as a Republican Senate candidate he had every incentive to play to the Trump base, he “turned up bupkis.”
The best he could do was say that he found “serious vulnerabilities” in the system. That didn’t cut it for GOP state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who said Republicans “want arrests, not letters and drawn-out investigations.”
There you have it. No matter what the facts show, “lock them up.”
Critically, individuals continue to stand up for truth. Republican Stephen Richer, Maricopa’s elected recorder, quickly rebutted the narrative that there was any factual basis on which to question the vote in Arizona. And on April 5, Princeton historian Julian Zelizer also told us that even Trump admitted the truth when, while speaking to a group of Zelizer’s colleagues months earlier, he spoke the words “when I didn’t win the election.”
One doesn’t need a megaphone to speak one’s truth about the importance of preserving American democracy against the attack on it by lies, small and large. Speaking to neighbors and on social media both matter.
We also have the vote. The November midterms provide each of us with the opportunity to say that we value our freedom and that the truth is vital to it.