My search for next year’s secrets led me to my old friend, the distinguished sidewalk prophet, in the hope that he might reveal a detail or two. But he was in a philosophical mood, and not in a prophetic mood. He should have expounded on the Mueller investigation, but, instead, he invoked Hitler and Goebbels, considered as historical authorities, and he revealed to me a secret of political science. To wit:
“Big Lie theory is not about the Lie. It is about the Leader, and about the stupid masses. The Hitler-Goebbels Thesis makes clear that, when the Leader proclaims a Big Lie, the masses may start out as skeptical. But ordinary people cannot imagine how anyone would have the audacity to promulgate a falsehood on such an outrageous scale—unless it were true. Especially someone they admire. So the people end up convinced. But that is not what we are seeing today.”
“Today we are in the realm of the Absurd Lie, which works in the opposite way. An Absurd Lie may be small, and it is not meant to persuade anyone. Everybody sees at a glance that an Absurd Lie could not possibly be true. Still, the person who proposes it stands by it. He insists. And, by continuing to insist, he makes a display of his own audacity. An Absurd Lie therefore elevates the liar into heroism. For only a hero would have the boldness and independence to stare into the camera and say what the petty truth-mongers declare to be forbidden. The more mendaciously he waxes, the taller he stands.”
Ah yes, it is a right-wing technique.
“Fascist or Stalinist, either way—though I think that, back in the day, the Stalinists showed a better knack for elevating the technique into high art. Bertolt Brecht wrote a clever play, The Measures Taken, on a related theme: how a group of honest Communist revolutionaries have to murder one of their own comrades for the wellbeing of the revolution, and have every reason to feel good about themselves for doing it. You exit the theatre convinced that, while anyone might murder his enemies, only a true leader would murder his own comrade. Transgression is strength. Betrayal is truth. It is thrilling.
“Lillian Hellman brought the same idea to Broadway in Watch on the Rhine—how the honest revolutionaries have to murder someone for the sake of defeating the Nazis, and the bourgeois in-laws have to go along with the murder, and everyone is therefore shown to be morally superior. It is very uplifting.”
But those are plays about murder, not about lies.
“Oh, murders, lies—it is all the same. It is rule-breaking. But you are right about the right wing. The current versions of leadership-by-transgression are almost entirely right-wing. Putin and doping at the Olympic Games—isn’t this the best example? The whole idea of sports is to obey the rules. Normally speaking, the revelations of Russian cheating ought to be a disgrace, but it is evident that, among the Russian masses right now, Putin has suffered not at all from the doping revelations. And anyone can see why.
“It is because, although the scandal demonstrates that Russia’s athletes are not as excellent as they may seem, Putin himself is shown to be more than excellent. He does not give a damn what the lowly moralizers have to say. He is fearless. Cheating is manliness. Disgrace, borne with aplomb, is honor. And here, of course, is the American president and his political successes. Not a week goes by without Trump’s mendacities being revealed by the press, which leads the president to lie about the press, too. And, just now, his approval ratings have gone up, instead of down. He has reached more than 38 percent in the RealClear Politics poll average, which may seem low, from the standpoint of conventional politics, but, given how he behaves, is amazingly high. Have you noticed that he has gone back to doubting Barack Obama’s citizenship? Here is machismo. If you are Trump’s supporter, birtherism is evidence of your own machismo. ‘Kenya’ swells the biceps. It doesn’t do much for America, but it makes you Great Again.”
But, please, all I wanted was a prediction for 2018!
“You don’t get it? Hell on earth is my prediction.”
Read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural analyses for Tablet magazine here.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.