The evolution of the Big Lie: An American tradition of denial

Nick Douglas July 04, 2021
Photograph taken during the civil rights movement by Bruce Davidson

What is known today as “The Big Lie”—Republicans refusing to accept the results of a fair and free election— is a misnomer. Refusal to accept facts is not really a lie. But the Republicans who refuse to accept the outcome of the election are lying to themselves and others and continuing a dangerous American tradition. “The Big Lie” should be called the Third Big Lie.

The tradition of “Big Lies” started with the “discovery” of the Americas, this, for lack of a better term, is the First Big Lie. The Second Big Lie happened when the South refused to accept that they were defeated in the Civil War. The First and the Second Big Lie made the Third Big Lie possible. 

After the Civil War former Confederates, Lost Causers, Redeemers and Southern sympathizers sought to rewrite history. They began The Second Big Lie: Ignoring the fact that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, insisting they’d fought in order to preserve states’ rights.

Former Senator Rick Santorum was recently fired from his job as a commentator at CNN for spouting the First Big Lie. (That white colonizers) “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans,” he said at the time, adding: “There isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.” This attitude, held over from the original colonizers 400 years ago, was the foundation of the extermination of Native Americans and the stealing of their land, and the foundation of the Second and Third Big Lie.

The roots of each Big Lie share components that are so alike it is eerie: 1. A lack of acceptance of defeat; 2. Ignoring provable facts; 3. Overtly racist controversy, or racist undertones; 4. Believed and promoted overwhelmingly by whites; 5. A dangerous fantasy, reactionary revision of history; 6. (In Two of the Big Lies) Chaos precipitated by a racist sitting president who is impeached; 7. (In Two of the Big Lies) Politicians and citizens too conciliatory towards traitors (the seditionists of the Civil War; and the mob that attacked the Capitol January 6th). 

While many American history books insist that the Native Americans in North America were defeated and conquered by Europeans, facts show that 90% of the estimated 8 to 16 million Native Americans who were in North America before 1492, were killed by diseases like colds, influenza and smallpox that Europeans brought with them. Friendly tribes of Indians helped Europeans survive here in North America when they came. Even when Native Americans made treaties with the first colonizers every treaty was broken. This continued when the colonies became the United States. The American lexicon is filled with racist names and undertones about Native Americans even in the names of our sports teams that have recently changed their name due to pressure by Native Americans and people of goodwill calling out this racism.

Many people in the South refuse to accept the fact that the South was defeated in the Civil War. After the Civil War Former Confederates, Lost Causers, Redeemers and Southern sympathizers sought to rewrite history, revising history books and displaying monuments and statues as if the Confederacy had won the war and was formed to promote the common good. Even today many Southerners continue to display Confederate flags and defend symbols of a defeated Confederacy. 

The Second Big Lie prevented the South from moving out of the malaise of slavery. Refusing to admit defeat, the evils of slavery, or to accept its abolition, the South replaced slavery with overtly racist Black Codes, Jim Crow and segregation. This held the South back in every measurable component of economic, social and political well-being compared to the rest of the U.S. 

There is no doubt that the citizens and legislators responsible for these laws were white. There is no doubt that the violence that Southerners used to enforce segregation and Jim Crow was carried out by white citizens. There is no doubt that today Southern sympathizers and people displaying Confederate symbols are overwhelmingly white and Republican.

Seventy percent of Republicans believe that the election was somehow stolen in 2020. In 2012 90% of self-identified Republicans were white.

The first white settlers denied facts about their dealing with Native Americans. Settlers stole a continent and displaced and destroyed numerous tribes. This carnage and denial of facts of the First Big Lie paved the way for the descendants of those white settlers and slaveholders to commit to the Second Big Lie about the Civil War, slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow and segregation.

By allowing the First and the Second Big Lie to flourish and go unchallenged, it made it easier for many of the same states and some white descendants to back the Third Big Lie.  

Much of the Third Big Lie rhetoric about election fraud centers on areas with large populations of voters of color like Maricopa County in Arizona, Atlanta, Georgia or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

In the South, after the Civil War black elected officials faced violence and many were killed. White officials that supported Reconstruction were intimidated and attacked. Senator Charles Sumner was brutally beaten with a cane in the Senate when he spoke out against slavery. After 2020, elected officials faced an armed insurrection at the nation’s capitol promoted by the loser of the election, former President Trump. 

After the Civil War, the North was conciliatory towards Southern seditionists and traitors. President Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder and avowed racist, not only ignored the problem of overwhelming violence against freed slaves in the South but went further. Johnson pardoned nearly every Confederate sympathizer or former Confederate who approached him, allowing former Confederates to rejoin postwar society, hold office and reclaim confiscated land and property. Johnson also appointed former Confederates to important posts in the South. Thousands of traitors, murderers and seditionists went unpunished for their crimes after the Civil War and many returned to hold civil and political office. The Third Big Lie is believed and more prevalent in these former Confederate states because we allowed the Second Big Lie to flourish and go unchallenged. It made it easier for many of the same states to back the Third Big Lie of the stolen 2020 election.

Republicans and especially Republican leadership has been mute or completely distorted the details of the armed rebellion at the Capitol on January 6th. Some have even gone so far as to say that the insurrection was just like “a regular tour of the Capitol.” Video and audio recordings of January 6th show just the opposite. It was a violent mob that killed and injured police and quite probably would have injured elected officials if they had gotten the opportunity. 

In 1865, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act and vetoed extending the power of the Freedmen’s Bureau twice.  Johnson’s opposition to the mainstream of legislation and public opinion created chaos in the South for years to come and caused him to be the first president to ever be impeached. 

Trump was impeached twice: Once for criminal behavior and once for fomenting the January 6th insurrection. His racist rhetoric throughout his term cannot be overlooked. Hate crimes and hate groups increased by 30% during his tenure in office. His failure to acknowledge defeat and accept the peaceful transfer of power mandated by free and fair elections created unprecedented post-election chaos. His presidency will go down as one of the most chaotic in history.

As of today, only about 800 of the crowd of nearly 10,000 supporters of the Third Big Lie Trump used to incite the mob on January 6th have been apprehended for crimes. Trump has faced no punishment for his role in the insurrection. Republican leaders are refusing to have a commission to look into the causes of the insurrection, afraid that it might spoil their chance of seizing control of Congress in 2022.

The First and the Second Big Lie stopped the nation from moving forward on race for hundreds of years. The Second Big Lie threw the South into a malaise of economic and social underachievement and underperformance which persists to the present day. The Second Big Lie left the Civil War and the country unsettled.  

Because of the Third Big Lie, America is unsettled now. The lie that the results of the election were somehow fraudulent and Trump’s refusal to concede the election to President Biden leaves the 2020 election unsettled in the minds of 70% of self-identified Republicans. 

It remains to be seen if we will allow the Third Big Lie to delay advancement on issues of race, as the Second Big Lie did after the Civil War. It is an urgent question because racial and social justice issues have only become more deeply entwined with the problems of income inequality, healthcare and climate change over the past 160 years. 

But whatever you call this latest fiasco, this tradition must stop for us to move forward. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 3, 2021


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