Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I remember watching TV and seeing two-bit dictators of banana republics, surrounded by sycophants, lying blatantly and openly while everyone around him nodded in silent agreement. The thing that stood out about those lies was that they were obvious lies. Easy disproved. Exaggerations to the point of absurdity. Lies about the big and lies about the small. But there he stood proclaiming this “truth” as though the mere proclamation would make the statements true.
I would laugh to myself at the ridiculous nature of it all.
But now I realize that those specific types of lies — the exaggerations to the point of absurdity, the obvious nature of them, the ease in which they could be disproved, lies about the irrelevant and important, and the frequency in which they were told — were, in fact, the point. I now realize that this was a weapon being used right in front of us. These types of lies specifically have a unique purpose that helps a tyrant or dictator take and keep power. They do it in a number of different ways.
First and foremost, they are instant loyalty tests. Think of it this way: If the dictator stands in a room and says 2 + 2 = 4 and everyone nods in agreement, he has learned nothing about who is supporting him and who is not. But if he says 2 + 2 = 5, or 10 or 30 and people nod in agreement, he knows that they are loyal. They will defy their own truth and even reality and defer all that to him. This is why blatant lies about the big and the small are important. People who will stand by him and agree regardless of the importance or lack of importance is key. Some people thinking the small lies are unimportant will let them go while other people will speak up for that same reason. They figure it is inconsequential. Others may be prone to speak up when the lie is about something of importance while others will remain silent in fear. This is why the dictator needs to lie about all things great and small.
At this point, it will also be helpful to look at the nature of dictators or tyrants. In non-democratic systems, the dictator’s power is derived from what he can extract from others. Initially, the power may be voluntarily given but once given coercion is often used to continue to build a power base. And loyalty is of supreme importance to a dictator to maintain power. A person who is absolutely loyal has ceded his/her authority and power to the dictator.
This particular sort of lie is an instant loyalty check and he will use it frequently to see if he finds anyone in an unguarded moment that may indicate something other than complete loyalty.
While politicians in democratic systems also want loyalty, ultimately their power is derived from the people and votes and not through the extremeness and ruthlessness to which they can cause others to act on their behalf. And, in healthy democracies, leaders lying blatantly about the big and small — things that can be easily disproved in the minute — are often deemed by the people as being unfit to rule. Lies like this in healthy democracies tend to diminish power not expand it.
There is a second and another important impact of these lies. They will tend to force people to be even more loyal. One common scene from the dictator’s playbook is going around a table or having people line up to express their loyalty to “dear leader” in extreme terms. They will expound on the leader's greatness and skills and their gratitude to serve him. These are always public displays and it serves at least three purposes:
1. It is a signal to others of the dictator’s power and strength. People may think twice about crossing him or speaking up.
2. It makes it harder for the person expressing their loyalty and appreciation to later say something negative. If they do, the leader can immediately go to where the person said something else and call into question their credibility. “Which are you going to believe? What the person said here or what the person is saying now? Either way, this person is a liar.”
3. This might be why a person who has made statements publicly is less likely to go against those public statements or it takes more for them to do it. This is often subconscious but it is a well known powerful psychological effect.
The dictator will give power to those he trusts and move people out of positions of power whom he does not trust.
As time progresses and this permeates the entire government, this sort of lie becomes a weapon of mass destruction but not in the way you may think. I am finishing Lies: Weapons of Mass Destruction. A link will be provided when it is done.
But there is one more thing that needs to be said and that is that the acceptance of these lies in democratic systems may be a sign that the democratic system is under extreme distress and possibly failing.
As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out in How Democracies Die, democracies now die quietly:
“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves…. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d’ etat, asin Pinochet’s Chile, the death of democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace is burned. The President is killed, imprisoned, or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped. On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks on the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance….because there is no single moment — no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution — in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells.”
The acceptance of these sorts of lies in democratic systems maybe like a canary in the coal mine or it could also be that once this happens en masse and the opposing party loses its will, the acceptance of these lies is more like a requiem for the democracy.
While other weapons are used to usurp power (like brute force), the power of blatant lies as a weapon for someone who is trying to gain power can not be understated. In democracies when these blatant lies are not penalized and rebuked but are instead rewarded with more power, then that democracy may be in crisis whether it realizes it or not.