The report, which identifies what it calls eight “trends during the 2022 US primary elections that are likely to persist or escalate during general elections this fall,” explains that “online audiences of election-denialist content have blossomed to sustain a lucrative media circuit that traffics almost exclusively in conspiracy theories and misinformation about elections in the United States.”
These include operations like Michael Flynn’s roadshow tour promoting denialism to large crowds with a decidedly Christian-nationalist fervor, as well as the work of specifically denialist organizations such as True the Vote, who have affiliated themselves with the faar-right “constitutionalist” sheriffs movement in both promoting false claims about the 2020 election and organizing an army of “poll watchers” poised to potentially wreak havoc at polling places around the country.
The trends identified in the ISD report all reflect distinct but often overlapping tactics that have so far formed the election-denialist strategy to undermine Americans’ faith in the integrity in their foundational democratic institution, the vote. All have become manifest in a variety of ways, often as projects manufactured by the same group of Trumpist conspiracy theorists:
- Violent and heated rhetoric targeting election workers and public officials
Threats directed at election workers in local precincts around the nation have become a serious threat to democracy in the past year. The most egregious example may be in Georgia, where a flood of threats following that state’s key role in the 2020 election outcome was spurred by an outpouring of right-wing disinformation and conspiracism, resulting in a serious shortage of workers for the 2022 vote. A handful of states have subsequently passed new laws to protect those workers.
As the ISD observes, these threats have become especially common on social media, where right-wing commenters demand “capital punishment” for election workers and officials, and consistently recommending violence against them. “Harassment and threats, which can lead to substantial harms of various kinds, can happen on a multitude of scales, including via networked individuals or lone actors,” the report says.
- Calls for vigilante actions at drop-boxes and polling locations
This tactic received a trial run in western Washington state during its July primary, where election denialists organized the placement of signs at ballot boxes warning people dropping off their ballots that they were being filmed. It continues to gain steam as Christian nationalists like Matt Shea have joined in organizing “poll watchers” at balloting locations. Other actions being urged by far-right election deniers include sabotaging election infrastructure like electronic voting machines, and removing tabulator tape and other election materials from balloting sites.
“In the last month, ahead of general elections, these calls for action have increased in volume and intensity, introducing logistical elements and clearer calls-for-action into conversation,” the ISD reports. “Both partisan groups engaged in election-related activism and organized right-wing extremist groups have encouraged followers to step in where they believe law enforcement and other government agencies have failed to do so. Analysts also witnessed calls for the destruction of ballot drop-boxes.”
- Small-scale organizing and information crowdsourcing
This is as subtler tactic that indicates how right-wing extremists engage in long-term planning: It essentially entails encouraging election-denialist audiences to collect and report information to organized databases, including through a variety of mobile apps that not only schedule their “ballot watches” but enables them to log in their reporting from ballot sites. The data gleaned from these apps—often deeply flawed and biased by design—is then promoted by election-denialist influencers to further their false narratives.
“Strategic buy-in from major stakeholders in the election-denialist space and pressures for followers to contribute material produce risks of voter intimidation and the inflammation of false narratives about voting well past 2022 Election Day,” the ISD observes.
- Delays and irregular reporting cited as proof of wrongdoing
This is a common tactic of conspiracy theorists: Claiming that perfectly ordinary and explicable phenomena are in fact evidence of a nefarious conspiracy to control society (think of the recent right-wing fad claiming that food-manufacturing facilities were being targeted for destruction). In this case, election denialists have been leaping to claim that delayed counts and other ordinary features of elections somehow indicate nefarious goings-on. The ISD notes that “analysts observed these narratives permeating into larger, more-moderate Republican audiences.”
- Calls for audits, hand recounts, and decertification
MAGA activists developed this tactic in the early stages of the 2020 post-election ballot count, particularly in contested states like Arizona, where the denialists managed to force an audit that eventually confirmed Trump’s loss and Biden’s win there, 10 months later. But the agitation continues to this day, embodied by the ongoing efforts of Washington legislator Rob Chase—a conspiracy-loving protégé of Christian nationalist Matt Shea—to force a recount of the 2020 election in that state.
Ostensibly mainstream Republicans, particularly Trump, have played a key role in deploying and spreading this tactic. The ISD notes that “analysts identified allegations surrounding delays and voting irregularities as the most prevalent type of election-related narrative included in this list regarding its adoption among highly influential Republicans like former President Donald Trump, who exerted pressure during the Wisconsin primaries against a favored Republican gubernatorial candidate who would not decertify the state’s 2020 election results.”
- Efforts to undermine trust in elections infrastructure
This was another tactic that was put to use in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, again in state where the final count was closely contested, embodied by the post-election conspiracy theory that the use of black sharpies had invalidated thousands of votes in places like Arizona. Other conspiracy theories—spread widely not just on extremist sites and social media but by large-scale right-wing media like Fox News—claimed that insecure voting machines, particularly those owned by Dominion, had tilted the election against Trump. This resulted incidents like the one in Barry County, Michigan, when “constitutionalist” Sheriff Dar Leaf confiscated a Dominion machine and handed it off to political operatives who broke its seal while examining it.
As the ISD notes, these conspiracy theories to have wide circulation among election deniers. Variations on this theme included false claims that infrastructure companies are compromised by the Chinese government, and that GOP-aligned poll challengers have faced discrimination.
- Voter suppression narratives and tactics
While democratic advocates have expanded efforts to improve voter access for decades, election denialists work assiduously to undermine them. As the ISD observes, election denialist influencers “have sown doubt around efforts to expand voting access, including early and mail-in voting.” A prime recent example of this is Shea’s efforts to organize poll monitors at Washington state ballot drop boxes, claiming that the state’s longtime all-mail voting system was corrupt and needed to be replaced. The poll monitors, he said,
“Influencers have disparaged automated systems that send mail-in ballots to registered and eligible voters, absentee ballot request systems, and other means of giving more voters opportunities to vote,” the ISD reports. “Some influential voices have encouraged voters to cast ballots in-person and as late in the day as possible, claiming that doing so makes it harder for votes to be manipulated.”
- Local to national and back again
“National right-wing, far-right, and election-denying figures and media outlets repeatedly amplified claims made by state-level actors regarding alleged election fraud during primary elections, elevating these claims into national discourse,” the ISD explains. Figures like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell—one of the main financiers of election-denialist efforts—have regularly deployed largely concocted or inaccurate claims from small, often county-level elections to suggest they represent a national problem. Similarly, “constitutional sheriffs” often hype factually inaccurate claims about reports from their members.
“Higher-level influencers and politicians have consistently inserted themselves into local elections, particularly in close-contest races or in areas with particularly active supporters,” the ISD explains. “Local claims also often spread via amplification from pundits in other smaller communities, creating a national network effect in fringe and mainstream online spaces. The relationship is understood as symbiotic: Just as national voices can shape local narratives, what happens locally can also influence national conversations.”
The impact of the election denialists, as the Washington Post’s recent reportage demonstrated, will not be insubstantial, despite the conspiracists’ fringe status in many districts. The paper’s survey found 299 Republican candidates—53% of the 569 analyzed—on this fall’s ballot in races for the House and Senate, as well as key statewide offices, who embrace election denialism.
Not only are they running in nearly every state, a majority of them are expected to win, particularly in safe Republican districts (173 in all), while another 52 are running in competitive races.
As The Post explains:
The implications will be lasting: If Republicans take control of the House, as many political forecasters predict, election deniers would hold enormous sway over the choice of the nation’s next speaker, who in turn could preside over the House in a future contested presidential election. The winners of all the races examined by The Post — those for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, Senate and House — will hold some measure of power overseeing American elections.
“Election denialism is a form of corruption,” NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat told The Post. “The party has now institutionalized this form of lying, this form of rejection of results. So it’s institutionalized illegal activity. These politicians are essentially conspiring to make party dogma the idea that it’s possible to reject certified results.”
The spread of this denialism is a sign of democratic rot, warned University of Minnesota politics professor Larry Jacobs.
“It is a disease that is spreading through our political process, and its implications are very profound,” Jacobs said. “This is no longer about Donald Trump. This is about the entire electoral system and what constitutes legitimate elections. All of that is now up in the air.”
This is precisely the kind of crisis of democracy that has always been an essential preface to the rise of fascism, historically speaking. It’s important to keep in mind Robert Paxton’s warning in The Anatomy of Fascism, as I explained before the 2020 election:
Fascism can appear wherever democracy is sufficiently implanted to have aroused disillusion. That suggests its spatial and temporal limits: no authentic fascism before the emergence of a massively enfranchised and politically active citizenry. In order to give birth to fascism, a society must have known political liberty -- for better or for worse.
… In other words, it's clear that the "crisis of democracy" necessary to create a genuinely fascist dynamic is a real potential that lies around many corners on our current path. The key, then, is to finding the path that does not take us there.
The first step in that path, clearly, will entail finding ways to overcome the strategies being deployed like rhetorical cannon fire by the authoritarian Trumpist right, and winning at the ballot box.
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