Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote has now topped 2.5 million, the New York Times reported on Thursday. That 1.9 percent margin over President-elect Donald Trump is larger than that of nine previous presidents.
This doesn’t mean anything for the election results, obviously, as the presidency is decided by the Electoral College, which was clearly won by Donald Trump.
Trump has made it matter for this reason, though: He is publicly contesting that he lost the popular vote, a challenge that could have far-reaching consequences in terms of mandates, popular legitimacy, and a potential future assault on voting rights.
On Thursday, CNN aired a segment that demonstrates how the incoming president’s direct repetition of blatant falsehoods is likely having an effect on the electorate that is potent for current and future propaganda purposes. Analyzing the life cycle of this particular lie helps demonstrate the elaborate feedback loop through which conservative media and the Trump campaign invented elaborate myths of voter fraud, which then were apparently regurgitated after this election as supposed proof of voter fraud in 2016 by previously fringe media outlets, which were then apparently cited by the President-elect, whose words have encouraged his voters to believe the popular vote was stolen.
In the CNN segment, a Trump supporter argues that 3 million people voted illegally. “Voting is a privilege in this country and you need to be legal not like California where three million illegals voted,” a Trump supporter told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.
When Camerota challenged the voter, she cited the “media” for her claims and argued that “California allows” illegal voting.
The apparent origin of the 3 million figure and that false claim that Trump would have won the popular vote had it not been for illegal voters—cited by both the Trump supporter and the candidate himself—is the conspiracy theory web site Infowars. Trump, by the way, called Infowars founder Alex Jones to thank him for his support after the election and has appeared on his show.
As Slate’s Daniel Politi noted when Trump made his illegal voter claim on Sunday, Politifact thoroughly debunked that Infowars article which was based entirely on a pair of tweets by a former Republican official. The former official offered zero evidence for his claim that he had analyzed “180 million voter registrations” and that the “[n]umber of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million.” Only about 127 million people voted in this election, well short of the number purportedly “analyzed.”
Still, Trump’s claim—apparently based on this false report—was enough to have it repeated by Kansas Secretary of State and potential Trump Homeland Security secretary Kris Kobach. “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point,” Kobach said on Wednesday, further spreading the lie. Kobach cited a 2014 report claiming that a large percentage of votes were coming from illegal citizens.
“If we apply that number to the current presidential election … you’d have 3.2 million aliens voted in the presidential election, and that far exceeds the current popular vote margin between President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton,” Kobach, who could soon have a cabinet-level position, argued.
That didn’t stop the Trump campaign from citing the study on the trail to argue that there was rampant voter fraud. At October’s third presidential debate, Trump aide Boris Epshteyn argued to me that the discredited study demonstrated potential fraud. At the time, Trump’s repeated claims that the vote would be rigged against him had convinced 73 percent of Republicans that the election could be stolen, according to one Politico/Morning Consult poll.
So, here’s the approximate anatomy of a Trump lie: His campaign, citing a bad report, falsely claims that a large percentage of illegal immigrants voted in 2008 and 2012. After the election when it’s clear that Trump has lost the popular vote by a decent margin despite winning the Electoral College, a former Republican official appears to use that bad data to claim on Twitter that the popular vote results were off. A Trump-backed conspiracy site picks up the tweets to say, with zero evidence, that 3 million illegal immigrants voted in the election. Trump and his supporters repeat the claim, the basis of which originated from the Trump campaign in the first place.
For good measure, the Trump supporter on CNN repeated another piece of misinformation to back up her contention that mass numbers of illegal immigrants voted.
“I think there was a good amount because the president told people they could vote,” she said.
This claim was based on an out-of-context quote from President Barack Obama that was interpreted in right-wing media circles to have shown him encouraging illegal immigrants to vote when in actuality he did no such thing.
The source of that mangled quote: Fox Business News.