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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The 'Big Lie' is Always Violent: The Inevitability of Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

Trump Supporters at Protest Rally

Trump Supporters at Protest Rally

David E. DeCosse

John Minchillo/Associated Press

David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.


The Trump-inspired insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6 made clear what was always the case: Trumpian-sized lying will cause chaotic political violence.

This causal connection isn’t as common an ethical axiom as “do good and avoid evil.” But it’s one we should take to heart in a way that we haven’t: Political lies spread far and wide—like claims that Biden didn’t win the election in the face of overwhelming evidence that he did—always carry within them the logic and lust for violence.

We can see how this is the case by considering a few things that we haven’t sufficiently squared up to in these chaotic last years.

One thing is the fact that Trumpism doesn’t really have goals. Instead, it’s a corrupt process that uses the veneer of respectability—we’re fighting for freedom!—while lying, cheating, and bullying to get what it wants. In turn, what it wants is “winning” (in Trump’s often used phrase) by which it actually means dominating or humiliating others (often persons of color) in order to inflate itself. “Owning the libs” is really the goal, if we can call it that. Everything else is a means to that end.

Another thing to recall at this stark moment of American history are all the lessons learned from the massive political lying of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. The philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the extreme nature of such “Big Lies” always had within it the logic and lust for violence.

This was violence directed at reality itself which became something that regimes thought they could manipulate at will by their wholesale lies. Such lies also signaled to subjects of these regimes that power alone could forcibly dictate that there was no common, objective reality on which to rely other than the whim of the great leader. Finally, these lies signaled that the subjects of such regimes were themselves objects of contempt who could be manipulated by violence at will. If we can lie with such abandon, we can do with you whatever we want.

Trump’s presidency is nowhere near the totalitarian character of such 20th century regimes. But Trumpism’s perverse logic is on a path toward such a possibility. His preposterous lie that his inaugural crowd was larger than the 2009 crowd for President Obama began his presidency. That lie—contradicted by clear photographs—bore the implicit violence of seeking to change what was transparently real. His more destructive lie—that Biden lost the election—effortlessly blended its violent contempt for reality with its violent contempt for any Americans contesting the lie. And then it careened toward where it was always going to go: Real-time violence to own the libs this time in the form of civil insurrection, the looting of the Capitol, and five dead Americans.

By seeing this connection between wholesale political lying and violence, we can also see more clearly the culpability for the insurrection on the part of people like Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley. They’re both sophisticated constitutional lawyers and know Biden won. When they stood in the Senate and gave credence to lies that said otherwise, they were advocating for government based on the logic of violence but not for constitutional democracy.

They thought they could separate the lies about the election from the logic of violence embedded in those lies and from the related lust for real-world violence that the Big Lie always brings in its tow. It was no surprise that the violence baying at the rally nearby ended up crashing fatally through the Capitol doors. And, at this point, it’s no surprise either that self-proclaimed and self-deceived great moralists like Cruz and Hawley thought they could bargain with this violent moral reality but instead lost big. The truth will out. And so, too, will the violence embedded in the Big Lie unless courageous leaders stand up and refuse to give credence to forces bent on destruction.

Jan 9, 2021

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