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Image: Donald Trump waves as he departs on the South Lawn of the White House.
Al Drago / Getty Images

'The Big Lie' is not a phrase in need of a new definition

At issue is a figure who believes the existing definitions of words and phrases are fine, until he thinks of a way to manipulate language to his benefit.


Donald Trump and his allies were peddling lies about the 2020 presidential election within hours of the polls closing on Nov. 3, but the seriousness of the misinformation campaign escalated in the days, weeks, and months that followed. The intensity of the deceptive propaganda reached dangerous levels in early January, culminating in an insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol.

A few days later, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) appeared on NBC News' "Meet the Press" and was asked about colleagues such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose recklessness contributed to the unrest. "They're going to have a lot of soul searching to do," Toomey said in the interview. "And the problem is they were complicit in the Big Lie.... That's going to haunt them for a very long time."

There was no mystery as to what the Pennsylvania senator was referring to. Much of the political world had already recognized the significance of the "Big Lie" framing and the degree to which Trump and his followers had embraced it. NBC News added yesterday, use of the Big Lie "to describe Trump's false narrative of a stolen election — a reference to a Nazi propaganda strategy — was popularized earlier this year."

And now, evidently, the former president has decided to rebrand it, issuing this written statement yesterday.

"The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!"

In other words, as far as Trump is concerned, his lie isn't the lie. The former president would have people believe that the real lie is that he lost the election.

As a matter of political propaganda, this is ham-fisted, clumsy, and impossible to take seriously. But I'm also struck by the frequency with which Trump has decided that he's unsatisfied with the actual meaning of words and phrases, leading him to try to commandeer the language to suit his own purposes.

In the not-too-distant past, for example, there was a phenomenon known as "fake news," in which made-up stories were presented as news reports. When Russian disinformation sources tried to boost the Republican's 2016 candidacy, Trump decided to change the meaning of "fake news," applying it to independent journalism he didn't like.

In 2019, for example, the then-president tried to rebrand a government shutdown as a "strike" for reasons that never made any sense. A year earlier, he said he disapproved of community colleges -- not the institutions, just the label -- and insisted, ''Call it 'vocational' and 'technical.' People know what that means. They don't know what a community college means.''

Trump similarly tried to change the labels and definitions of everything from the coronavirus to the "Southern White House."

At issue is a political figure who believes the existing definitions of words and phrases are fine, until he thinks of a way to manipulate language to his benefit. At that point, the language should be redefined -- or at times, un-defined -- in order to suit his purposes.

About a month into his White House term, Trump bragged at a meeting with business leaders, "I'm good at branding." What I think the Republican probably meant with the boast is that he's preoccupied with branding, and as we were reminded yesterday, he still is.