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Henningsen: Big Lie, More Rope

This election cycle pits two powerful political strategies against each other. On one side, the “Big Lie”: the notion that an outrageous falsehood, the bigger the better, repeated often enough, becomes believable. On the other, what I call “More Rope”: the idea that, with no restriction and endless opportunity, those given to Big Lies will eventually over-reach and self-destruct. Usually credited, first, to Adolf Hitler and his henchman Joseph Goebbels, who blamed Jews for Germany’s loss in World War I, the Big Lie was successfully appropriated in mid-century America by Red Scare zealots like Joseph McCarthy, who proclaimed that everything from the rise of Red China to the popularity of rock and roll was the product of an enemy within – a vast hidden Communist conspiracy. The Big Lie works because of repetition: you hear it so often you simply stop objecting to it.
Soon, you’ve come to accept it. And it’s more powerful when it reinforces thinking and attitudes that many people have, but are afraid to articulate.

More Rope is a courtroom strategy, often used in trials where an allegedly aggrieved party advances a dubious claim to a massive settlement. Here an attorney discredits a witness by encouraging him or her to talk and talk until they’ve tied themselves into so many knots that a jury is convinced they’re either delusional or outright lying. Like the Big Lie, More Rope depends on sustained exposure. But it unmasks the lie rather than conditioning one to accept it.

Both can be successful. McCarthy held sway with the Big Lie for years before falling to More Rope in televised Senate hearings.

What should be clear is that, in each strategy, success depends on the response of an unpredictable audience.

So each is a risk – will repetition lull people into unthinking acceptance of something they once knew to be false, or will the exaggeration that comes with regular repetition lead them to give the lie to the Big Lie? There’s no reliable answer and that’s what makes the contest exciting - and scary.

Long ago Mark Twain captured this drama, wondering “whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

This year provides another opportunity to find out.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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