You probably know what a “zombie lie” is — an idea or proposition or theory that is demonstrably, logically and intuitively false but which, like a zombie, refuses to die. And it will eat your brain.
The term’s origin is uncertain, but I associate it with professor and economist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist who uses it to describe certain right-wing economic theories, such as the idea that the federal government can increase revenue by cutting taxes on the wealthy.
This notion isn’t logical, and, in fact, Krugman, other economists and experience have demonstrated that it doesn’t work.
Yet Republicans continue to embrace it, as embodied in the 2017 Trump tax cuts that mostly benefited the wealthy. By the way, during Donald Trump’s administration, the national debt increased by nearly $8 trillion.
Still, the idea won’t die. Like a zombie. Maybe this is why President George H.W. Bush called it “voodoo economics.”
Then there’s the election denial zombie lie. Former President Donald Trump contended that the 2020 election was rigged before, during and after it occurred. He hasn’t stopped, and he’s beguiled nearly 70% of his party into saying that they believe the same, despite the lack of evidence. In fact, considerable evidence puts the lie to the election denial zombie lie. But it lives on.
These two zombie lies are dangerous. The first one channels money to the already wealthy, who, in turn, channel money back to politicians who accept and propagate the lie, undermining equality and equity in our society.
The second zombie lie damages our republic; if we don’t believe in the validity of elections and the peaceful transfer of power, what sort of future does democracy have in our country?
But the third zombie lie can kill us. Literally.
This lie surfaces after every mass shooting, as it did last month after 18 people were killed during youth night at a bowling alley and at a bar in Lewiston, Maine.
Here’s how Sean Hannity expressed it during an interview with new House Speaker Mike Johnson: “If somebody really wants to kill innocent people, there’s a lot of ways they can do it beyond using a gun.” He found a compliant audience in Johnson, who said, dismissively: “In Europe and in other places they use vehicles to mow down crowds at parades. … It’s not the weapon, it’s the underlying problem.”
The heart of this particular zombie lie is the idea that the type of weapon used by a killer is irrelevant. If someone wants to kill, he could use a baseball bat or an ax or a paperweight or, as some right-wing radio commentators put it, a butterknife or a No. 2 pencil. Yes, they actually said that.
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But you can be assured of the absurdity of this lie by asking yourself whether you would rather be trapped in a bowling alley with a deranged killer wielding a baseball bat or even a six-shooter or one with a high-powered assault rifle with several 30-round magazines.
In terms of killing capacity, an assault rifle has the same relationship to the muskets of 1789 as a Lamborghini has to an ox cart. High-capacity, semi-automatic weapons make mass shootings possible, and they make law enforcement’s response to them much more difficult and dangerous. Would police officers have hesitated for 74 minutes before taking on the shooter who massacred 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, if he had been armed only with an ax? Unlikely.
How do these zombie lies continue to rise from the dead like Lazarus and Jesus when they do our society so much harm?
First, they require people who really, really want to believe them. In the case of these three zombie lies, a minority of the citizenship — the rich, the fervent right wing as embodied in the cult of Trump, the gun fetishists as embodied in the National Rifle Association — is sufficient.
And zombie lies require an indifferent or compliant majority. Therefore, wealth inequality grows, mass shootings persist and, if we’re not careful, Donald Trump will reclaim the presidency, insisting that American democracy was rigged all along.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.
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