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Why do populists and dictators sometimes lie so ridiculously that it's entirely obvious it's untrue? What purpose do such blatant lies serve if no one takes them seriously? Examples of extremely improbable lies:

The Democrat position on abortion is now so extreme that they don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth.

(Donald Trump in 2019)

When [the head of the security] called me with tears in his eyes around midnight he said, ‘Aleksandr Grigoryevych, we can’t do it amicably, they took out knives, took out blades… First, they say, we slit our wrists, cut off our heads, and slaughter all of you, splatter everything with blood here’. Well, excuse me, this kind of threat is too much… So we’ll show the people that tape, and not only that one.

(Aleksandr Lukashenko after the riot police violently drove out legislators who went on hunger strike in the parliament to protest against his 1995 referendum; no tape was ever released, witnesses described the events completely differently)

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This is what is called the 'Big Lie' strategy in politics, coined by Adolf Hitler himself. It is defined as: 'A gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts, especially when used as a propaganda device by a politician or official body'.

The way it is used by dictators/totalitarians/cultists is fairly straightforward: instead of stringing their followers along with half-truths (and thus lose some followers each time as they reach their breaking point), they front-load their campaign with a gigantic, epic lie that if true, would perfectly explain why the current situation is bad and give a clear scapegoat that must be defeated.

They make it clear that in order to follow them, their followers have to believe this obvious lie, and it acts as a combination of a secret handshake and a sunk-cost fallacy wrapped into one. Followers of the dictator/totalitarian/cultist know who other followers are because the Big Lie is so fundamental that it changes a person's entire worldview. Sunk-cost fallacy because by making the Big Lie the cost of entry, you make it increasingly difficult to leave the group. By believing something so fundamentally wrong, you isolate yourself from your friends and loved ones who still believe their own senses, and any tiny lie after that point is just small potatoes compared to the Big Lie you've already internalized.

This is closely related to gaslighting, as both require the perpetrator to craft an internally-consistent narrative that makes people believe the perpetrator over their own senses. The difference is that gaslighting can be used by abusers of all sorts with a wide variety of end goals, while the Big Lie specifically refers to a political figure creating a fictional reality for the purpose of gaining power.

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    Of course, when Hitler used the term 'big lie' he was using it to describe the 'Jewish Lies' regarding German involvement in WW1. But it also does a good job of describing Hitler's lies about the Jews. So, irony or something. Apr 27 at 0:46
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    I agree with your general analysis, but I think the "Big Lie" concept as coined by Hitler doesn't really match it. His reasoning is that ordinary people lie small, so they will recognize small lies. They'd be ashamed to lie big though, so they can't comprehend that others may do so. Even if they see proof against it, something of the big lie will stick, and they will think that at least parts of it must have been true (which ironically is indeed one aspect of conspiracy theories).
    – tim
    Apr 27 at 6:46
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    And of course, Hitler didn't see this as his strategy, but accused Jews of it. The idea that Hitler was laying out his own strategy likely comes from the anti-communist propaganda film The Big Lie (which in turn accused the USSR of using the concept).
    – tim
    Apr 27 at 6:47
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    Interestingly a CNN piece by Ruth Ben-Ghiat (who wrote some history books on fascism) argues that politicians' big lies seldom come out of nowhere, and that politicians who use them also engage in numerous "little" lies.
    – Fizz
    Apr 27 at 6:54
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    @ShmuelNewmark - Its not irony, because they aren't unrelated. The term for that, coined by his fellow contemporary Austrian Sigmund Freud, is psychological projection
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 30 at 0:26
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Lies that seem obvious to you will be believed by significant numbers of people. The other party likes killing babies. A secret conspiracy of celebrities are drinking children's blood. The earth is flat. Vaccines contain microchips. Once you've got such a person's trust, they'll support you for ever.

To supporters who don't believe the lie, it's a joke, an exaggeration, playful hyperbole, satire. Of course the (scapegoats) don't literally control all the media and banks. Of course the other party leader isn't literally a foreign spy. Everyone gets that. But. But, you've got to admit, it would explain a lot, ha ha! They might not be literally trying to destroy the countryside, but they sure don't seem to care about it much. They might not control literally the whole media, but they probably control, like 80% of it, which is why it's so biased against us. They protesters might not have literally threatened to cut off everybody's heads, but they must have done something to provoke the treatment they received, right?

This kind of tolerated lie spreads a mood where people don't bother checking the details, because they have a feeling for the overall truth about who the good guys and bad guys are. It even encourages them to make similar statements, because we already established we care more about loyalty to the cause than the truth.

(Since you give an example of a Trump lie in the question, imagine if someone said to you, "Trump lies every time he opens his mouth." From an objective point of view, this cannot possibly be right. But it feels 'truthy' to anyone who already hates Trump, so it probably wouldn't get called out. Our tolerance for being lied to is surprisingly high.)

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One interesting theory I read a while ago was that a lot of these obvious lies don't bother the liars supporters at all and in fact delight them because they are an insult to their opponents.

For example, the school bully doesn't just deny eating your lunch, they say they didn't do it while blatantly consuming it in front of you and tell you that you probably ate it yourself and just forgot. Cue sniggering and high fiving from their sycophantic followers.

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    Exactly. At a certain level of power, one can tell an obvious lie which a few people might believe while all others are forced not to contest. To the power-hungry this is often pleasant. More importantly, it demonstrates their power to everyone in an obvious way.
    – dbkk
    Apr 27 at 23:12
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    The “big lie” answer is correct for the type of liar (say, an ambitious politician) that wishes to convince a population of a falsehood. But this answer is correct for the type of liar (say, an entrenched and powerful dictator) who uses the lie not to convince anyone, but rather to demonstrate their power: that they are above the truth and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
    – jl6
    Apr 28 at 6:43
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One of the premises for this question is shaky -- we needn't presume that if a politician says something ridiculously false, that it must be a lie. Quite a lot of the beliefs of humanity throughout history have proven over time to be false, yet most of those beliefs were not arrived by intentional dishonestly on the part of their respective adherents, because those adherents in those moments of belief might be:

  • Accepting some traditional commonplace idea which everyone they respect (wrongly) believes true.

  • Ignorant of scientific methods or scholarly practice, and therefore innocently too prone to give credit to inconclusive and incomplete data.

  • Themselves reasonably deceived by some formerly trustworthy, (but now secretly corrupted or manipulated), person, party, or authority.

  • Temporarily perplexed by some illusory confluence of plausible circumstance, or compounded accidents, so that an error takes on the appearance of truth.

  • Prejudiced in favor of authority, and too ignorant, or weary from overwork, to know whether an error in their education or some later public statement is true or not, so they go with their default assumption that their source authority usually knows better than they do.

So what seems like a obvious lie might instead be evidence of a misinformed, or credulous, or even a simple minded leader. As such, that leader easily maintains a public sincerity that further reassures their followers -- the leader doesn't look like they are lying, lacking in confidence, or in bad faith, so what they say seems more probably true.

And for those leaders that actually do lie, they can, if correction becomes unavoidable, later falsely claim they were acting in good faith using any of the reasons given above.


Note that one of the difficulties of leadership, and especially of leaders with dictatorial powers fond of punishment, is that such powers tend both to attract courtiers, and repel critics. So that bad news, (or even contradiction), seldom reaches the leader without various redactions by manipulative underlings. Such a leader may gradually become misinformed to the point of delusion.

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    This does not answer the question Apr 26 at 19:01
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    While there are some cases where the politician is legitimately making a mistake, there are plenty of examples of blatant lies. Like when they say that they didn't make some statement, even though there are clear recordings. Or when Trump inflated the size of his inaugural crowd.
    – Barmar
    Apr 26 at 19:48
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    Note that for a politician or similar powerful figure making an official statement 'ignorance' is usually not a valid excuse. It is part of their job to gather the relevant information. It doesn't really matter if they did and then lied anyway or failed to inform themselves.
    – quarague
    Apr 27 at 6:54
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    @Ekadh Singh: Yes, it does. Because any real answer has to take into account the possibility that the politicians AREN'T lying - that is, saying something they know to be false - they're just ignorant and/or stupid, and don't recognize that their statements are false. Classic example" Trump's repeated statements about the COVID virus.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 27 at 16:34
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    @EkadhSingh, Yeah, the point here is that what looks ridiculous to outsiders and historical hindsight can seem legitimate in the delusion of the moment. Dictators may think of themselves like baseball umpires, whose calls and decrees comprise are a kind of procedural truth, even if they're shown to be wrong on camera; or like committed method actors, who take on a role 100% -- if the script requires their character to say it, then that lie becomes their truth as an actor. The dictator's followers are like devoted fans, who love to watch scenery chewing big lie style acting.
    – agc
    Apr 29 at 20:35
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A populist leader (by definition) achieves power by manipulating and leveraging the emotions of some segment of society. Policy is secondary; facts are at best tangential. What matters to a populist demagogue is:

  1. Discovering or creating divisive, emotionally-triggering topics that a reasonable-sized portion of the populace will respond to.
  2. Amplifying the emotional impact of those topics through dramatic, hyperbolic rhetoric or imagery, so that this segment of the populace is reduced to blind, knee-jerk reactions.

Populist demagogues want to short-circuit higher reasoning and produce mob (herd) mentality; they achieve that mentality in their followers by driving up emotions and obscuring broader perspectives, so that followers are uninformed and pliable. Mobs of people in this state are similar to herds of animals: their collective behavior is predictable and malleable, much the way a shepherd can control and guide an entire flock with just a stick and a dog. A populist aims to stir people up and point them at targets, counting on the frenetic energy of intense emotion and constant group motion to induce a blind, thoughtless obedience.

With this in mind, it's incorrect to think of a populist demagogue as someone who creates an explicit lie; that would imply that demagogues actually care about 'truth' and aim to obscure it. It's more appropriate to recognize that questions of 'truth' or 'falsehood' are function of a higher reasoning, and that demagogues wants to dispose of higher reasoning as much as possible in their quest for power. Demagogues seek out things that are already emotionally triggering, then blow them out of all proportion to increase the emotional pressure on their followers. This kind of exaggeration might appear as a lie from the perspective of someone using higher reasoning, but for the demagogue it is merely a goad used to inflame followers into action. Demagogues don't care whether what they say is a lie or a truth; they will say whatever comes to mind, and keep doubling down as long as it has the desired effect of inducing blind reactivity. Followers on their end don't 'believe' the lie in the common understanding of that term; they 'believe' their emotions and their instincts (and likely enjoy that thoughtless, stimulated state of emotionality), and so settle into a collective mindset that accepts whatever is said as a justification for the way they feel.

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It's not obvious to the people who need to be deceived

A lot of what we know we do not know because we have seen it. In fact, most of what we know comes from being told things. When we are told something that does not fit with how we know the world to be, we either investigate it for evidence or dismiss it as false. Most of the time this works. I can tell you that Lincoln Cathedral used to be the tallest building in the world, until it got struck by lightning and rendered shorter. That is true. I can tell you that the terracota army has fewer statues than there are world records held by Usain Bolt. That is, to the best of my knowledge, false.

But neither of these claims will make you believe any others more or less easily. Some claims will. If I tell you that my political opponent is a liar who wants to close down the community centre, that claim makes you lets you dismiss anything they say out of hand. They are a liar after all.

So, what happens when I discredit all my political rivals? Well, you can't listen to them, obviously. But the mainstream news calls me a liar. Me! Clearly, they're in on it too. Wow, there's a lot of liars. Someone's probably behind all this. Say, you ever notice how many Mormons are running things? I wonder if there's something up with that.

So we go from "My rival mayoral candidate is a liar" to "The Mormons are running everything". And someone else might take it further. Now, you'd think something would snap someone out of this. But what? See, any evidence for this is conclusive. Two Mormons on the city council? Proof of conspiracy. And dishonest populism, totalitarian dictatorships, these people tend to have some pretty strong thought terminating clichés. It's all Mormon propaganda/Swedish deception/the lies of the illuminati. Any time anyone says anything that conflicts with your worldview/delusions, say one of these and you don't need to listen. Note that cults also use these tactics. Another one is building identity around a belief, where you become not a lonely guy who doesn't go out much but an Übermensch fighting the conspiracy. This one works very well on people who are going through life changing circumstances.

Another effect of this is that there is a strong emotional cost to listening to anything that would make you less extreme. You can not listen to the enemy without significant psychological pain. Not only would you be surrendering to the villains, but that would mean you were never the Übermensch after all. So for a lot of people the only way to go is further from reality. QAnon is an example of this. Most dictatorships have this to some degree.

So, once you only listen to increasingly radical views, what would do you know? Or at least think you know? You know your enemies are evil, in the same way you know that Australia is real. You haven't seen it yourself, per se, but to say that it isn't true is absurd.

Basically, it is possible to make someone incredibly disconnected from reality, to the point that what seems to be a colossal lie to you seems unremarkable to them.

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  • Another option is: They mix huge lies and some truths so the listeners come to situation when they are extremely jaded to everything and don't believe in anything, so they don't know the difference between what is good for them and what is bad. Feelings are what is important, what feels good vs what is actually good for you.
    – jo1storm
    Apr 28 at 9:45
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As to the use of some of the biggest lies of them all, the mythology around the Kims in North Korea...

In keeping with the modern mythologies that pervade North Korea's version of history, which is seen as crucial to the cult of personality and political control, it is alleged that Kim Jong-il was born on Mount Paektu at his father's secret base in 1942 (his actual birth was in 1941 in the Soviet Union) and that his birth was heralded by a swallow, caused winter to change to spring, a star to illuminate the sky, and a double rainbow spontaneously appeared. These claims, like those surrounding his father, are apocryphal and continued throughout his life.

This seems rather odd, as that level of, easily disproven, lies seems it ought to bring discredit to the government. Except that it serves to weed out the unfaithful by moving them to reveal themselves:

Hwang Jang-yop, the highest level North Korean defector, has said that the country is completely ruled by the sole ideology of the "Great Leader". He further said that during the De-Stalinization period in the USSR, when Stalin's cult of personality was dismantled in 1956, some North Korean students studying in the Soviet Union also began to criticize Kim Il-sung's growing personality cult and when they returned home they "were subject to intensive interrogation that lasted for months" and "Those found the least bit suspicious were killed in secret".

This is an entertaining compilation of some of the bigger lies.

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