Call it “The Big Lie,” or “Alternate Facts.” Tell a nation and a people who gave the world Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Martin Luther and Goethe that “You didn’t lose the War. You were stabbed in the back.” Make them yearn for a “savior” to avenge all the “wrongs.” Then sit by and watch the “savior” start a world war and kill millions.

Do the same in the country of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Tell the people the 2020 election was a fraud and they were cheated. Tell them Black and brown people are conspiring to destroy Anglo Saxon civilization and impose a socialist revolution. Tell them the “Deep State” and liberal intellectuals will take away their guns. Tell them the press is the enemy of the people, then bring them to the Capitol on January 6 and inspire an insurrection that disgraced 250 years of democratic tradition and national history.

It’s about how people, political parties and governments respond to stress. Simple solutions are easy. Autocrats use them and they work. Lies don’t matter. Keep them simple. Tell them over and over again. Get as many people as possible to repeat them. Blame someone, or an idea. Personify the solution in a “strongman” who can step in and sweep away the grievances and fear. All of us are susceptible, especially now.

The 2020 pandemic killed upwards of 561,000 people. It took away millions of jobs and shuttered the economy. There was isolation. Families couldn’t hug. People died alone, cut off from those they loved and cared about. Pile this atop decades of economic inequality.

In a 2018 article, “A Rigged Economy,” Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University economics professor and Nobel Prize winner, looked at the past 40 years of American history and wrote, “The U.S. has the highest level of economic inequality among developed countries. Whereas the income share of the top 0.1% has more than quadrupled and the top 1% has almost doubled, that of the bottom 90% has declined. Wages, adjusted for inflation, are about the same as they were some 60 years ago.”

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That was the last Gilded Age. We’ve arrived at another.

Democracy is messy and inefficient. It lapses. It stresses easily. It’s fallible. It’s said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

HL Mencken was harsher, writing, “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” prophetically predicting in 1921 that, “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Winston Churchill was more positive, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.” Churchill didn’t mention truth and trust. Democratic government is a dialogue. It demands truth and trust on the way to consensus. It’s introspective. It’s at once a conversation and a compromise. It’s not about shibboleths and platitudes. It’s about open minds and critical attitudes. It’s about engagement and hard work.

Mark Zuckerberg had a dream that Facebook and social media would broaden and strengthen the common dialogue that is democracy. It failed — not as a medium. It failed because too many of us respond to aphorisms — simple solutions for complex problems; the essence of the Big Lie. We’ve grown lazy. We don’t think. Words have meaning and lies are powerful. History rhymes.

Sinclair Lewis looked to Germany in 1935 and wrote the novel, “It can’t Happen Here.” In 2021 I worry that it just did.

Events