In the shadow of Jan. 6, every interview with a Republican official has become an exercise in futility. Some, like Sen. Ron Johnson, are straightforward in endorsing lies about election fraud in the face of not just no evidence, but mountains of contrary evidence. Others, like every single other Republican senator and 90% of Republicans in the House, tiptoes along a pretense of accepting the outcome of the election, but still pretending that there’s something “right” about continuing to support the exact same conspiracy theories that led to camo-wearing insurgents smearing excrement through the halls of Congress.
Attempts to pin down any of these Republicans can be entertaining for the levels and techniques of question-dodging on display. But they’re also infuriating. Because:
- We’re not talking about some inconsequential point of policy disagreement. This is literally an ongoing existential crisis for the United States.
- This isn’t something that only happened on Jan. 6. It wasn’t just speeches that morning, and it wasn’t just the votes Republicans cast to endorse the idea of a “stolen election” that afternoon.
The Big Lie is something Republicans have been building for years. 2020 wasn’t the start of this cycle. Donald Trump rode into the 2016 campaign already declaring that any outcome that didn’t see him victorious would be the result of fraud. He spent every day of his time inside the White House polishing that election fraud turd and promoting conspiracy theories—any conspiracy theory would do—precisely so he could level the same charges in 2020.
The difference in the Big Lie 2020 wasn’t the lie, and it wasn’t Trump. It was how he got everyone else in the GOP to play along.
The horse he rode in on
Trump spent months of the campaign claiming that “people how have been dead 10 years are still voting.” That “millions of illegal immigrants are voting.” That “voter fraud is very, very common.” That wasn’t the 2020 campaign. That was Trump in 2016.
As FactCheck.org noted at the time, Trump spent weeks telling his supporters that the election was rigged. He urged his followers to “monitor the polls” and to “watch other communities.” In other words, Trump sent his red-hatted thugs into Black neighborhoods in an attempt to intimidate voters, because, he said, “we don’t want this election stolen from us.”
‘The first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly.’
Voter fraud wasn’t an add-on to Trump’s campaign. It was a core claim. Just weeks after riding down that golden escalator, Trump claimed that some voters were voting over and over again, with some of them voting “about like 10 times.” Trump was backed up by members of his campaign, such as Roger Stone. And in August 2020, Stone gave the definitive statement that would shape the future of the Republican Party.
“I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” said Stone. “If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.”
That was the coup Trump and Stone were preparing to launch in 2016, only Trump surprised them both by winning. Still, Trump’s team understood that keeping up the myth of voter fraud was essential to their future plans, those plans being to discredit any authority except their authority. Even on Election Day 2016, Trump told Fox News that the election had been “rigged” and that there would be “large-scale fraud.”
As Hunter covered on Daily Kos, even after he won that election, Trump didn’t stop trying to convince his followers that democracy could not be trusted. The polls were barely closed when Trump claimed that there was “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California.” As might be expected, he offered no proof for any of these chosen-from-a-hat states.
But it was only part of a larger claim that Trump made repeatedly: So many people had voted illegally, said Trump, that the results showing Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote were incorrect. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” said Trump.
It was a claim that, like the exaggeration of the small crowd at his inauguration, was easy to laugh off as just another example of Trump’s thin skin and expansive ego. It wasn’t. It was a continuation of a key strategy going forward.
By the time Republicans reached the 2020 election, they had literally failed to come up with an official platform. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have an unofficial one: using claims of voter fraud to end effective democracy. That was the plan. It still is.
Lack of evidence is a good thing
Then, as soon as he was in the White House, Trump launched a “voter fraud commission” theoretically chaired by Mike Pence, but starring the performance art of former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Why Kobach? Because as the Brennan Center wrote at the time, Kobach was already “one of the nation’s leading promoters of the myth of voter fraud and laws restricting access to voting.”
Kobach wasn’t alone. The plan to discredit American elections was also being pushed by such conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the Public Interest Legal Foundation. Both groups had been pushing voter ID laws for years. Those laws, like the 300+ “election security” bills now pending across the nation, had twin purposes: First, they suppressed Democratic votes, and in particular made things harder on people of color. Second, they promoted the false idea that voter fraud was a significant problem.
‘Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud ...’
By the time Trump came along, Republicans had been thoroughly steeped in voter fraud mythology. That gave state legislatures the support they needed to cut off Black voters in the near term … and laid the groundwork for the long-term strategy.
Unlike the 9/11 commission or the Jan. 6 commission now being stalled by Republicans in the Senate, Trump’s commission wasn’t in any sense bipartisan. In theory it had some Democratic members, but in practice they had no authority. They couldn’t ask for a subpoena and couldn’t contribute to a commission statement. In practice, Kobach ran the show, mostly without bothering with the pretense of holding commission meetings.
A year later, Trump quietly disbanded his voter fraud commission having produced exactly no evidence of something that doesn’t exist. But in a strategy that’s entirely conspiracy-theory based, a lack of evidence isn’t a problem—it’s an opportunity.
As the commission was closed down after having found nothing, the Trump White House sent out an announcement saying: “Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with basic information relevant to its inquiry.” Rather than provide any of that evidence, or even naming the states, the statement from Trump said that he was dissolving the commission to avoid “endless legal battles at taxpayer expense.” Apparently, if there were millions of fraudulent votes, it wasn’t worth trying to fix it.
In actuality, Trump’s commission had not even bothered to hold a meeting for months and had found nothing even worth further investigation. It didn’t matter. Finding no evidence was the best possible outcome. Actual issues can be fixed. Finding nothing only allowed Trump—and other Republicans—to argue that there was even more need for laws that suppressed votes.
And, of course, Trump made certain that the outcome of the commission was a decreased belief in election integrity. Which was the whole point.
Kobach would go back to Kansas, where he would make differential rulings to support Republican candidates, act as the auditor of his own failed campaign, and—in another foreshadowing of 2020—launch a whole series of lawsuits claiming massive voter fraud. All of which lost in court.
But losing in court doesn’t matter. In a conspiracy economy, losing in court—like failing to find fraud in a commission—only provides more of what keeps such a system burning: enemies.
The art of harnessing mass media
Rolling into the 2020 election, Donald Trump had purposely allowed over 300,000 Americans to die because he thought it would benefit him politically. It was easy to see the day to day buffoonery, and to groan over the false claims, misleading statements, and flat-out lies. It was a bit harder to realize that Trump had deliberately halted plans for a national testing and case management system specifically because he believed deaths would fall mostly in blue states, not only decreasing their voter rolls but generating problems for Democratic officials. So he made deliberate mistakes, allowing deliberate deaths, for a very deliberate purpose.
But even in the midst of the pandemic, Trump didn’t drop his core theme. He couldn’t. After all, the contention that democracy is failing is the only leverage Republicans have to execute their preemptive strike on democracy. For a party with a whole platform consisting of staying in power no matter the cost, everything that interferes with the execution of the democratic process is a good thing.
‘This highly effective disinformation campaign … was an elite-driven, mass-media led process.’
Still, if the pandemic didn’t change the strategy, it did have an effect on the tactics. With an eye toward the effects of COVID-19 on voting, Republicans went all in on attacking voting by mail. Over a month before the election, Harvard published a detailed study showing how Republicans at all levels, along with right-wing media and conservative institutions, had worked together to build on a theme that voting by mail was inherently open to fraud.
That study noted how effective the Republican strategy had been in convincing their own voters. Half of all Republicans believed that “election fraud is a major concern associated with expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic.”
That belief was fostered by what researchers described as a “disinformation campaign” that led to widespread acceptance of a false belief. What the study showed was that contrary to the way it was being reported in much of the traditional media, disinformation wasn’t bubbling up from social media. Instead, a consistent message was being spread through highly standard channels with the center of that network being Trump’s campaign and Fox News—which were often highly coordinated in spreading the same message and working together to amplify unsupported claims.
In fact, the study showed that just by repeating Trump’s false claims, other media was actually helping the lies to spread rather than restoring faith in the system. “Our findings here suggest that Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism. These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.”
Trump saw that he only had to make the claim, and it would get covered. Fox News could hype everything he said and reinforce lies. But the people who were supposed to be shooting down those lies often spent more time helping to spread them.
A dumpster fire
Suppressing Black votes and eroding confidence in the election process are fine strategies on the large scale. Casting suspicion on mail-in ballots provided a more specific target. But to really sell the idea that the election was being stolen, Trump had to feed the system with a narrative, with details that provided the big picture with some color, some punch.
Researcher Kate Starbird has produced a series of detailed posts and information graphics showing how Trump was able to employ what she’s termed “participatory disinformation.” Just as in the Q-conspiracy where believers feel a sense of accomplishment and superiority when some guess, idea, or outright quackery of their own becomes incorporated into the overall scheme of the great cloud kraken land, Trump and his supporters were able to make voter fraud a sport where the most outrageous claims were given the attention they needed—from supposedly reliable sources—to make them key components of the voter fraud narrative.
‘1,000+ mail-in-ballots found in a dumpster.’
For example, claims that China would “flood America with fake ballots” were floated by Trump supporters, picked up by Trump, repeated endlessly in the media, and are even now driving “auditors” in Maricopa County, Arizona, to examine ballots for “bamboo fibers.” That idea didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was pushing it more than a year ago, and seven months before the election.
In September 2020, a reporter from right-wing outlet The Blaze claimed that over 1,000 mail in ballots were found in a California dumpster. Those ballots were actually extra ballots being disposed of from a 2018 election. The Blaze didn’t report it that way. Trump didn’t amplify it that way. Other right-wing sources didn’t repeat it that way. It got enormous play and repeated attention from those inside the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr.
The claim of finding thousands of discarded ballots was repeated at multiple points during the election. It became a meme that could be repeated about the backrooms of polling stations, the trash cans at counting facilities, or mysterious mailmen working routes anywhere in the country. At this point, few Trump supporters would be likely to identify the date or the state connected to either of these stories originally. They just know it happened. Somewhere. And it was important.
The report from The Blaze provided the Trump campaign with one of those thematic notes that could be repeated and adapted to any situation. Claims of discarded ballots only became more frequent after Trump’s loss. Like boxes of ballots from China, they became something that “everybody knows.” Even though it never happened.
The author of that story in The Blaze, Elijah Schaffer, was there for the Jan. 6 insurgency. He was one of those who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office.
The lie is all there is
On Friday, Republicans once again made it clear that they would not support a commission investigating events connected to Jan. 6 in spite of Democratic efforts to go above and beyond in making that commission truly bipartisan. That’s not because Republicans are disinterested. It’s because they already know the answers.
Jan. 6 didn’t happen just on that day. It’s the result of years of effort on the part of conservative institutions, Republican politicians, and right-wing media to undermine faith in democracy. Donald Trump didn’t build this train, he just hopped on.
The Big Lie isn’t something Republicans are interested in fighting, because it’s their Big Lie as much as Trump’s. They’ve nurtured it. They’ve fed it time and attention. And they’ve staked their future on the ability to execute the strategy based on that lie.
The purpose of voter suppression laws is keeping people from the polls, and convincing them that voting is unfair. Both. Win by breaking democracy on Election Day, or win by breaking democracy after Election Day. It’s still a win.
The only way Republicans can lose is if someone throws a cog into the works. Say, by investigating the evens of Jan. 6 so that those events become a one-time disaster rather than a warm-up exercise.