Why can’t Republicans quit the provably false claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election? It’s a bold-faced fabrication, easy to leave behind, and yet they refuse to let it go. I understand why the ex-president clings to it—everything about him demands that he be seen as a powerful awesome winner for all time. But what about people like Rep. Steve Scalise, who refused to concede the election results were valid just last weekend on ABC’s This Week, or Justice Clarence Thomas, who devoted a lone unhinged dissent to that possibility in a Pennsylvania elections case on Monday? CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is meeting—in person, in Florida—this week, and it is devoting seven different panels to stolen elections, with titles like “Other Culprits: Why Judges and Media Refused to Look at the Evidence” or “The Left Pulled Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It” or “Protecting Elections Part VI: Failed States (PA, GA, NV, Oh My!)”
Why is the lie so sticky for so many? MSNBC’s Marc Ambinder reminds us of one big reason to persist in the fiction: The lie serves the party’s ultimate goal of suppressing the votes of likely Democrats. It’s clear that while even Trump’s own agencies determined that this election was “the most secure in history,” the record voter turnout in the midst of a pandemic means that the sustainability of the GOP as a political party now lies in constricting the franchise, including placing needless limits on mail-in voting. The laser focus of state-level Republican efforts right now is thus to limit voting rights. Ari Berman reported this week on a new analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, showing that in the two months that constitute 2021 so far, 253 bills to restrict voting access have been introduced in 43 states, with Georgia serving as ground zero for experiments in restricting voting by mail, Sunday voting, and tweaking the Georgia runoff rules. Despite the fact that three recounts turned up no evidence of fraud in Georgia, the big lie with its reliance on false claims of rampant voter fraud remains the best way to ensure that the kind of people who vote for Democrats will be ever more challenged in their efforts to vote going forward. As Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, explained earlier this week, “Many of these bills are reactionary to a three-month disinformation campaign that could have been prevented.”
But it doesn’t stop at justifying vote suppression. The big lie does more than just work to preserve the hope of minority rule in future election cycles. And it does more than just tether the GOP to Donald Trump, which is clearly the path most of them have already chosen. The big lie also serves to cast doubt about the legitimacy of the Biden presidency, and the incredibly popular initiatives that are quickly being rolled out. So in addition to objecting to much-needed COVID-19 relief and other desperately needed measures, Republicans pressing the big lie serve to try to convince voters that the man who is currently governing in the public interest is a usurper who is only in office because of stolen votes. The “crime,” in this telling, is ongoing. The best way to persuade voters that they don’t want economic and lifesaving health care relief most of them really need is to cast doubt on the person who is offering it to them. As long as Biden’s efforts to correct for Trump’s negligence and mishandling of the various crises succeed, “stop the steal” will continue to be the deflection and distraction of choice.
And finally, the big lie is useful to Republicans who no longer wish to govern at all. So long as they can say, as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Clarence Thomas and Steve Scalise all claim to be doing, that while they themselves have no idea whether the election was stolen, the voters are worried and that’s all that matters, the big lie itself serves to repeat and amplify itself in ways that become truth in the minds of voters. If everyone keeps saying that everyone else keeps saying the election was probably stolen, it eventually leaves the meritless lawsuits, the multiple recounts, and the findings of experts in the dust. No matter that there are people facing multiple exigent crises at once, people who could be helped by legislators passing legislation. Why govern when you can foment and nourish a rolling crisis of faith in democracy instead?
One of the paradoxical lessons of the 2020 elections was that even in the face of foreign interference, postal slowdowns, deliberate misinformation, and the possibility of an election meltdown of epic proportions, millions of Americans chose not simply to vote but to believe that voting—even if it meant long lines in a pandemic—was a rational act. Even as they doubted that the election could be administered fairly, record numbers of people voted as though it would. The big lie is the mirror image of that same problem. Voters are being trained to doubt voting until it appears an irrational act. Millions of Americans are being told, day in and day out, by cynical liars who have no proof and no substantiation, that voting is pointless and that—as we now hear repeated on a loop—the will of 74 (they say 75) million people was somehow thwarted by allowing Biden to become president. Those voters didn’t just lose, we are hearing, somehow, their own valid votes were also canceled. This is the logic of the 174 Republicans who attempted to set aside the results of the Electoral College on Jan. 6. It’s also, I’m afraid, the logic of those who stormed the Capitol, many of whom, we have now discovered, didn’t bother to vote before they attempted an insurrection. Elections, they are saying, no longer matter.
The big lie, then, is not just nomenclature of those hellbent on restricting who can vote in the midterms and 2024. And it’s not just the language of the nihilism and denialism of those who want Joe Biden to fail and must feed the idea of his illegitimacy in order to do that. The big lie isn’t just aimed at election reform or undermining Democrats. It’s also aimed at elections themselves. It suggests, as do all seven of those CPAC panels, not just that people of color and poor people and young people in Detroit and Philadelphia cannot cast valid ballots, but also that elections themselves are “rigged” and “fixed” and that the courts and the media and state elections officials are all in on the tyranny. The endpoint, therefore, won’t simply lie in making it more difficult to vote, and more challenging to govern. The endgame lies in convincing voters that democracy itself is pointless. The big lie isn’t just an attempt to advantage Donald Trump in 2024 or Republican rule in the midterms. It’s an attempt to seed and nurture the forces of tyranny and autocracy, in precisely the fashion most big lies are intended.