From “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder
As observers of totalitarianism such as Victor Klemperer noticed, truth dies in four modes.
The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. In 2017, the American president averaged six lies a day. The next year it was sixteen, the following year twenty-two. In 2020 he told on average about twenty-seven lies a day. This figure is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld.
The second mode is shamanistic incantation. As Klemperer noted, the fascist style depends upon “endless repetition,” designed to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable. The systematic use of nicknames such as “Sleepy Joe” and “Crooked Hillary” displaces certain character traits that might more appropriately have been affixed to the president himself. Yet through blunt repetition over Twitter, a president managed the transformation of individuals into stereotypes that people then spoke aloud and internalized. At rallies, the repeated chants of “Build that wall” or “Lock him up” did not describe anything that would actually happen, but their very grandiosity established a connection between the speaker and his audience.
The next mode is magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction. A billionaire is someone who can pay neither his taxes nor his debts. Liberating the wealthy from taxes will not increase the national debt. Fighting corruption means selling the presidency for favors. A disease that kills hundreds of thousands will vanish. The vote is always rigged, and you should vote for me anyway. Black people are taking the vote away from white people, although American history shows that the opposite has been the case.
Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason. Klemperer’s descriptions of losing friends in Germany in 1933 over the issue of magical thinking ring eerily true today. One of his former students implored him to “abandon yourself to your feelings, and you must always focus on the Fuhrer’s greatness, rather than on the discomfort you are feeling at present.” Twelve years later, after all the atrocities, and at the end of a war that Germany had clearly lost, an amputated soldier told Klemperer that Hitler “has never lied yet. I believe Hitler.”
The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims a president made when he said that “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truths of our individual discernment and experience. What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant. At the end of the war a worker told Klemperer that “understanding is useless, you have to have faith. I believe in the Fuhrer.”