Do you remember how, just a few short months ago, supporters of Donald Trump staged a violent insurrection? How they stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of last November’s presidential election, looting and vandalizing the seat of American democracy? The fact that they carried firearms, explosives and handcuffs, some wanting to kill Vice-President Mike Pence, e others to run the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, over with a car? And how the whole thing was incited by the former president, Donald Trump, who told the mob beforehand to “fight like hell"?
If you are willing to admit that you remember these things, you’re in a smaller minority than you might think. In recent months, Republicans haven’t been content to just block the creation of a congressional committee to uncover new facts about the insurrection. They’ve also moved to rewrite the history of the facts we already know. Republican legislators and rightwing media have suggested either that nothing of particular note happened that day, or that if it did, it was the fault of leftwing agitators like “antifa” and Black Lives Matter. Completely unmoored from reality as they may be, Republican voters seem about split between the two explanations, con 48% saying that the people at the Capitol were “mostly peaceful, law-abiding Americans” and 54% saying they were a leftwing mob.
Often lies like this are designed to obscure what the party itself does. As Republicans have moved more and more overtly towards rejecting the democratic process, they have to try all the more furiously to cover up their tracks. If the party were forced to admit that the man who they twice put forward to be president – and may yet put forward again – had instigated a violent insurrection, it would be hard for them to continue to function as a democratic political party. Rather than admit what they really are, they prefer to deny what they did.
But the attempt by Republicans to rewrite history extends beyond lying about their own behavior. Like pathological liars everywhere, Republicans spin vast, conspiratorial stories in which they always emerge as either the hero or the victim. Ridiculous claims that the election was stolen or that coronavirus was a minor event which the media overhyped to harm Trump are intended to recast the story of America’s recent history in a way which legitimizes the party’s ceaseless war against expertise, fact-based media and political opposition.
What makes Republican lies so insidious is that they have many purposes beyond being literally believed. As Russel Muirhead and Nancy L Rosenblum have argued, they are often “conspiracy without the theory”. No evidence or explanation in support of them is offered because factual belief is not the point. Anziché, they serve to have believers demonstrate their loyalty. To repeat something clearly untrue is a sign of debasement but also dedication, one that reaffirms one’s identity as a loyal member of the movement. The lies also draw a clear line between believers on the inside and those on the outside who react furiously to the blatant falsehoods. This only intensifies the perception among Republicans that they are under relentless siege from hostile forces, making the lies even easier to repeat.
The inability to reach a shared understanding of recent history poses a grave danger. While political parties and factions will always disagree over how to interpret the world and its history, the give-and-take and trust which are vital to the functioning of democratic politics depend on a common baseline understanding of reality. Decades ago, the political theorist Hannah Arendt ha scritto that factual truth is “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us”, by which she meant that it sets the parameters and limits of political struggle. If one side refuses to accept those limits, it is signaling that it is capable of doing almost anything to gain the power necessary remake the world in the shadow of their lies.
Another of Arendt’s observations was that once a common understanding of the world has been lost, it is incredibly difficult to reconstruct. The sheer scale of the apparatus which works to rewrite history – from TV and radio to social media posts to online propaganda outlets – creates a snug cocoon of validation which is hard to penetrate, especially when it is shared with others. Psychologists have demonstrated that human beings are hard-wired to dismiss information that contradicts their worldview and threatens their social relationships. If everyone else in your circle – at home, at the bar, on social media – is accepting the historical rewrite, the easiest thing to do is go along with it. Failing to do so could mean losing friends, falling out with family and questioning the fundamentals of your own identity.
All of these forces create powerful incentives which will remain in place for as long as the party remains committed to its assault on American democracy. It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war, but it is also the first victim of would-be autocrats and revolutionaries. Today’s Republican party has plenty of both. For as long as it and its supporters continue to travel down their current path, they will remain dependent on the constant rewriting of history. There’s no other way for them to keep going. As for where exactly they’re going – that’s a question which ought to worry us all.