Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election has spread from the violent would-be insurrectionists of January 6 into broad swaths of the Republican Party with remarkable speed. The extent of that spread is shocking, encompassing GOP nominees for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, governorships, and various other state offices, as a recent study by FiveThirtyEight demonstrated:
Out of 552 total Republican nominees running for office, we found 201 who FULLY DENIED the legitimacy of the 2020 election. These candidates either clearly stated that the election was stolen from Trump or took legal action to overturn the results, such as voting not to certify election results or joining lawsuits that sought to overturn the election.
Moreover, an additional 61 candidates RAISED QUESTIONS around the results of the 2020 election. These candidates haven’t gone so far as to say explicitly that the election was stolen or take legal action to overturn it. However, they haven’t said the election was legitimate either. In fact, they have raised doubts about potential fraud.
All told, FiveThirtyEight estimates that 60 percent of American voters this November will have an election-denier of one sort or another on their ballots for one of these crucial offices. So it’s important to understand what these candidates are claiming. What does the “big lie” even mean nearly two years after the 2020 election and after a seemingly endless chain of wild claims by Trump and his supporters? And what does election denial suggest about the future of our democracy and of the major party that has embraced Trump’s falsehoods to an alarming degree?
Here, a closer look at the various threads that make up Trump-fueled election denial and how his corrosive fables have evolved during his career at the summit of Republican politics.
The “Establishment” is rigging elections.
Trump first began complaining that elections were being “rigged” at his expense in the early stages of the 2016 presidential primaries. At the time, this sort of talk was very much in the air. Indeed, you probably heard it more from supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders than from Trump supporters. It connoted a general complaint about the advantages “Establishment” candidates enjoyed rather than some specific charge of malfeasance in voting or election procedures. Trump’s first very specific complaint, that the Ted Cruz campaign had “stolen” the 2016 Iowa caucuses (which Trump lost), was really about negative campaigning and a false rumor that Ben Carson was dropping out of the contest.
Even if Trump’s claims were true, none of Cruz’s or Carson’s actions were illegal. But like the complaints of the Sanders supporters, they struck a chord among the many Americans across the political spectrum who identified with underdogs or suspected “the Establishment” of imposing its will on an unknowing public. These claims required no specific evidence and could be applied with some credibility to nearly any election. That gave them a sneaky, seductive power.
People are voting multiple times.
Trump’s first claim that the 2016 general election might be “rigged” came up at an Ohio rally in August, as the Washington Post’s David Weigel noted soon thereafter:
Trump pointed to several court cases nationwide in which restrictive laws requiring voters to show identification have been thrown out. He said those decisions open the door to fraud in November.
“If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” he told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.”
Republicans promoting voter-ID laws have long warned of the threat of fraud without evidence — and despite regular studies showing it to be rare and insignificant. Trump’s contribution to the dubious GOP anti-fraud cause was to escalate vague fears of unqualified voters skirting the rules to a bald-faced assertion of widespread repeat voting. Trump, of course, did not feel the need to address such safeguards as signature-matching systems and criminal sanctions against illegal voting or to distinguish different types of voting ID requirements. The voter-ID court cases he deplored typically outlawed extreme requirements that disadvantaged perfectly legal poorer and older voters.
Noncitizens are casting votes.
After his victory in the 2016 election, sore winner Trump complained that a popular-vote plurality had been stolen from him via “millions of illegal votes” cast for Hillary Clinton. And shortly after he took office, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller alleged that “14 percent of noncitizens are registered to vote.” This made-up claim led to the establishment of a presidential commission headed up by famed nativist and vote-suppressor Kris Kobach, which was soon disbanded without proving anything.
Voting by noncitizens in federal elections has been clearly illegal since 1996, with violations punishable by prison, fines, and deportation. The idea that millions of these votes escaped detection or didn’t leave a paper trail is preposterous. But such claims persist because they reinforce the same nativist fears that underlay “birtherism” (the false claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States), a malicious delusion Trump used to make himself a presidential candidate in 2016. More broadly, noncitizen voting allegations are central to the “Great Replacement,” a persistent racist conspiracy theory under which liberals and “globalists” are opening up borders to herd welfare-seeking non-white aliens into the country to vote and to overwhelm the citizenry by sheer numbers.
Voting by mail is rife with fraud.
Trump’s signature 2020 “rigging” claim involved systemic attacks on the legitimacy of voting by mail, a long-standing option in most states and the way a majority of voters participate in elections in a steadily growing portion of the country. Trump gave a dress rehearsal in 2018 when he complained that Florida Republican candidates Ron DeSantis (running for governor) and Rick Scott (running for the U.S. Senate) should have been declared the winners before a tide of overseas military and civilian ballots showed up “out of nowhere” to change the outcome (they didn’t, of course).
In 2020, when the COVID pandemic naturally led a lot of voters to prefer casting ballots from the safety of home, Trump began hammering away at the practice. He was very clearly laying the pretext for contesting a possible election loss. In fact, Trump had a crafty dual strategy: By demonizing voting by mail, he discouraged his own supporters from using this convenient voting method. And because votes cast in person are counted first in most places, this alignment of party and voting method guaranteed him an early and completely misleading lead on Election Night 2020, which he could exploit to claim victory and allege that later-counted votes were fraudulent. And that’s exactly what he did in the wee hours of November 4.
Election results are counted incorrectly.
As Trump’s insurrectionary efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat continued, his legal team and activist supporters tossed out a wide variety of anecdotes suggesting fraudulent counting or handling of ballots. These ranged from jumbled initial results (soon corrected) in northern Michigan, to debunked claims of illegally “cured” ballots in Pennsylvania, to supposed substitution of USB drives containing voter data in Georgia (which turned out to be an exchange of ginger mints). During a notorious press event on November 19 held by Trump campaign lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis, the attorneys peddled conspiracy theories about communist tampering with voting machines, among other fables (leading to major defamation lawsuits by manufacturer Dominion Systems against Giuliani and Powell). None of these claims held up in the various courts where they were offered in support of unsuccessful efforts to overturn election results.
Perhaps the most elaborate set of phantom charges of voting-machine tampering fed the infamous Arizona election audit, a five-month fishing expedition authorized by a subset of Republican legislators looking into results from Democratic-leaning Maricopa County. The charge fell to Cyber Ninjas, the right-wing firm conducting the inquiry, which called for “a full forensic audit of ballot tabulation equipment, the software for that equipment and the election management system used in the 2020 general election.” To the extent that the audit produced any tangible results, it actually showed an increase in Joe Biden’s margin of victory.
“Deep state” institutions can’t be trusted.
Unfortunately, every debunked claim involving a “stolen” 2020 election left just enough doubt to reinforce a more pervasive and entirely unrebuttable argument: that those in charge of making, implementing, and enforcing voting and election laws are irredeemably corrupt and even evil. The “deep state” conspiracy theory requires no evidence; indeed, the fact that those allegedly stealing elections leave no tracks is simply proof of their malevolent and all-encompassing power. It all becomes a circular argument: Because MAGA folk don’t trust the election system, the election system lacks public confidence and is thus untrustworthy.
And lurking behind most of the MAGA “stolen election” arguments are less fully articulated but very real doubts about the legitimate right to vote of people who have the “wrong” opinions, or the “wrong” personal finances, or the “wrong” religion, from the point of view of Trump’s supporters. Scratch an election-denier and you will often find someone who believes Trump’s “American Greatness” is a divine or patriotic mandate that must be fulfilled by hook or by crook — or by a bogus charge of fraud. Indeed, many of these folk believe deep down that democracy is a fraud.
To be sure, not all the Republican candidates embracing or at least winking at 2020 election denialism are fully invested in the darker anti-democratic implications of the lies they are enabling. But the long-term damage to public trust in our institutions is ongoing. The most terrifying aspect of the delegitimization of the last presidential election is that it is an evergreen precedent: Its claims can and probably will be made before and after every election won by the “wrong” party. Some critics of the endless relitigation of 2020 urge the election-deniers to look forward rather than backward. The bad news is that they probably are.
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