In a cable to Washington in 1944, George F. Kennan, counselor at the United States Embassy in Stalin’s Moscow, warned of the occult power held by lies, noting that Soviet rule “has proved some strange and disturbing things about human nature.”
Foremost among these, he wrote, is that in the case of many people, “it is possible to make them feel and believe practically anything.” No matter how untrue something might be, he wrote, “for the people who believe it, it becomes true. It attains validity and all the powers of truth.”
Mr. Kennan’s insight, generated by his experience of the Soviet Union, now has a haunting resonance for America, where tens of millions believe a “truth” invented by President Trump: that Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost the November election and became president-elect only through fraud.
Lying as a political tool is hardly new. Niccolo Machiavelli, writing in the 16th century, recommended that a leader try to be honest but lie when telling the truth “would place him at a disadvantage.” People don’t like being lied to, Machiavelli observed, but “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”
A readiness, even enthusiasm, to be deceived has in recent years become a driving force in politics around the world, notably in countries like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and the Philippines, all governed by populist leaders adept at shaving the truth or inventing it outright.
Janez Jansa, a right-wing populist who in 2018 became prime minister of Slovenia — the home country of Melania Trump — was quick to embrace Mr. Trump’s lie that he won. Mr. Jansa congratulated him after the November vote, saying “it’s pretty clear that the American people have elected” Mr. Trump and lamenting “facts denying” by the mainstream media.
Even Britain, which regards itself as a bastion of democracy, has fallen prey to transparent but widely believed falsehoods, voting in 2016 to leave the European Union after claims by the pro-Brexit camp that exiting the bloc would mean an extra 350 million pounds, or $440 million, every week for the country’s state health service.
Those who advanced this lie, including the Conservative Party politician who has since become Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, later admitted that it was a “mistake” — though only after they had won the vote.