The Big Lie That Must Die
The core legitimacy of our democracy is in the balance.
It is reassuring, especially if you live here, to see so much of the capitol city now locked down and cordoned off like a surreal version of Baghdad’s old Green Zone. It is also, of course, not reassuring at all. The reason for the occupation of the capital by US forces, after all, is that the authorities fear that the capital is not safe from domestic armed mobs and terrorism.
This is especially true on this Inauguration Day for one core reason: a big segment of the American public believes — many passionately — that this is an illegitimate transfer of power. They believe, in fact, that Biden lost the election in a landslide, and has been installed by a vast conspiracy of Democrats, the Chinese Communist party, Venezuelans, Fake News, and Big Tech via Dominion voting machines. Next Wednesday’s Inaugural, many sincerely believe, is therefore an attack on the Constitution.
This is where our spiraling tribal divide has led us: to the delegitimization of the basis for democracy itself. That’s not a brick in the wall of democratic life; it’s the foundation on which everything else is built.
There have been tense moments before in post-war electoral history. Compare it with 1960, in which a much, much closer election led to a razor-thin national margin — 49.6 for Nixon vs 49.7 percent for Kennedy — and credible tales of electoral mischief on Kennedy’s behalf in Chicago and Texas. Privately, Nixon raised some money for recounts, if necessary, but these fizzled. But publicly, Nixon conceded the race early in the morning after. More to the point, Nixon played the role that Mike Pence did last week: he was the vice-president designated to certify the results for Congress. And Nixon dutifully did so in January 1961, telling the joint session of Congress: “In our campaigns, no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”
That core civic doctrine has eroded in much of the tribalizing 21st Century. The insanely narrow victory for Bush in 2000 — and the legitimately contested aftermath — set the stage. But again, at key points, Al Gore almost conceded on election night, and after the Supreme Court Bush v Gore decision, readily did so, for the sake of the country. He went to Bush’s Inauguration.
2004 saw a nasty spat over counting Ohio’s Electoral College votes in the Congress — the first such fight in over a century — but was batted down by overwhelming majorities in both Houses. And in 2016, of course, many, many Democrats kept insisting that the election had somehow been rigged by the Russian government, in collusion with the Trump campaign, and the US media went on to beclown itself with innuendo, rumor, and conspiracy theories for a very long time.
But Hillary Clinton herself, whatever her sometimes lamentable rhetoric afterward, followed Nixon’s precedent, conceded the very next day, and dutifully attended the Inaugural of the pompadoured parvenu who had decisively lost the popular vote. Many were suspicious of Trump’s Electoral College victory; sixty-seven Democratic members of Congress boycotted the Inauguration; a legal investigation was launched into Russian interference; and some nihilist leftists rioted in the streets, smashing windows and disturbing the peace. It wasn’t pretty. Some of it was indefensible, in my view. But the notion of actually over-turning the result was never considered.
This time, we’ve lurched into the true danger zone. There is no serious evidence of voter fraud in 2020, let alone on the scale to change the result. The process of challenging possible fraud or miscounting in the courts found only trivial evidence — and, in more than two-thirds of the cases, Trump’s own lawyers often didn’t even attempt to charge “fraud” at all! Trump’s own Attorney-General said there is no credible evidence of widespread or systematic fraud. And yet, this time around, in a post-election poll in November, only 8 percent of Trump voters believed Biden had “definitely” won, while another 17 percent conceded he had “probably won”. The rest thought he’d lost.
More amazing still: around half of Trump voters, even after Biden’s win was reported by the media, believed Trump would be eventually sworn in for a second term. Many still believed that as recently as last week.
You can see the difference between 2016 and 2020 in this stat: “In 2016, 52% of Democrats said Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump was ‘legitimate and accurate,’” — pretty disconcerting for any democracy. But this year, only “26% of Republicans said they thought Trump’s loss was similarly legitimate.” In 2016, right after the election, 84 percent of adults believed the election was legitimate, with 15 percent opposed. In 2020, only 57 percent of Americans believed that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, compared with 43 percent who didn’t. Among men, it’s 51 to 49 percent. Among those earning between $50K and $100K, it’s a 50-50 split. Among white men without a college degree, a clear majority, 62 percent, believe the election was outright stolen. That’s a huge torpedo hit below the waterline for our democracy.
In this morning’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, 66 percent of Republicans believe that president Trump has behaved responsibly since the election; and 65 percent of Republicans believe there is “solid evidence” that the election was stolen. By around 2:1, Republicans say they are no longer confident in the “integrity” of the electoral system overall. The Trump fandom remains intense: in a PBS/Marist poll, 69 percent of Republicans insist that Trump deserves little or no blame for the capitol assault, with 51 percent saying zero blame. 75 percent of Republicans still approve of their leader.
Maybe the Big Lie will fade. But maybe not. Think of Trump’s original, despicable lie that Obama was not born in the U.S. Another attack on the core legitimacy of a president. It was never true, even Trump himself briefly recanted, but years later, as 538’s Kaleigh Rogers notes, “As recently as , a YouGov poll found that 34 percent of Americans think it’s “probably true” or “definitely true” that Obama was born in Kenya … among self-identified Republicans, that number was 56 percent.”
This is not a divide about who should be president, or whether to wear a mask, or if climate change exists, or whether to support Brett Kavanaugh. This is a divide on the very legitimacy of the entire democratic system. Under these circumstances, the horrifying violence last week should not have been a shock. When a democracy has become illegitimate in the eyes of a big plurality of the voters, and therefore the wrong man is due to take office next week, and the entire Establishment is widely seen as behind this coup, the only recourse is violence. This is entirely rational, given the premise. If you sincerely believe that the election result was a landslide for Trump, and yet Biden is still on track to take office, why on earth would you not use violence?
This is why Trump should be impeached and convicted in the Senate. Not because he directly incited a riot against members of Congress and his own vice-president — and chose not to intervene while it continued. It’s that Trump has repeatedly, insistently and emphatically attacked the legitimacy of the entire democracy he is in charge of. This is not just a Big Lie, as others have noted. It’s the Biggest Lie Imaginable. It’s arsenic to a functioning democracy, and Trump has long injected it directly into the veins of the American system.
According to Trump, every election he has ever been in has been rigged. The GOP primary elections, which he won in a landslide, were suspect first of all. “I think my side was rigged,” he said in August of 2016. “If I didn’t win by massive landslides — I mean, think of what we won in New York and Indiana, California — 78 percent — that’s with other people in the race.” He declared the Democratic primaries rigged against Bernie as well. The 2016 general election, of course, was fixed: “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said that summer. By October he was more certain: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places — SAD.”
After his victory, he still claimed the election was fraudulent: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he tweeted on November 27, 2016. He added: “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California — so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias — big problem!” It was and remains a fixation. A brief glance at his character and record and there is no conceivable scenario in which he would not have claimed the election was rigged this year, even if he had won it. He spent much of last year predicting it, again and again.
These words — whipping up the crowd on January 6 — are the impeachable offense: “We beat them four years ago. We surprised them. We took them by surprise and this year, they rigged an election. They rigged it like they’ve never rigged an election before … We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore and that’s what this is all about. To use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will stop the steal.”
Forgive me for reprinting his words, but we have become inured to them, and this is the president of the United States: “This was not a close election. I say sometimes jokingly, but there’s no joke about it, I’ve been in two elections. I won them both and the second one, I won much bigger than the first. Almost 75 million people voted for our campaign, the most of any incumbent president by far in the history of our country, 12 million more people than four years ago. I was told by the real pollsters [that] … if I went from 63 million, which we had four years ago to 66 million, there was no chance of losing. Well, we didn’t go to 66. We went to 75 million and they say we lost. We didn’t lose.”
Trump is leveraging the authority of his office — the highest in the land — to destroy the legitimacy of our entire system, and of the next president: “By the way, does anybody believe that Joe had 80 million votes? Does anybody believe that? He had 80 million computer votes. It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that.” Did he want an inquiry? Nah. He was quite clear what his immediate purpose was: “All Vice-President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to re-certify, and we become president.”
And in the wake of subsequent violence and mayhem and murder, in the early hours of January 7, 121 Republican House members and six Republican Senators still voted to oppose the electoral votes from Arizona, and 138 Republican House members and seven Republican Senators did the same for the electoral votes of Pennsylvania. Only ten Republican House members voted to impeach the president for his words and inaction on January 6. Some of those who voted to let Trump off the hook have anonymously explained to the press they were afraid for their lives if they didn’t.
We don’t know what will happen next week. The FBI is reporting serious online chatter and plans for armed demonstrations in Washington and across the country. The January 6 insurrection was better planned and better armed than we first believed. The mob was not a bunch of yahoos, but often middle-class, well-educated professionals, integrated with trained former military and cops. An FBI report leaked to the Washington Post cites “amplified perceptions of fraud surrounding the outcome of the General Election” as a core motivator of “domestic violence extremists.” They predict the violence will continue and increase through 2021.
We could have, in other words, the beginning of an ongoing, armed insurgency, denying the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of the United States, backed by a hefty chunk of one of the two major parties.
Like other words I’ve written these past few years, I look at that sentence and cannot quite believe it. But how is it not true? All we don’t know is the extent of it, whether it will grow and intensify, or fizzle and die away. We can guess or hope, but we still don’t know what’s out there, or what’s coming. Some hotheads on the far right have been goading each other to “cross the Rubicon”. But once the core legitimacy of the entire system has been revoked by the most powerful person in it, we already have.
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New On The Dishcast: Michael Hirschorn
Michael (@hirschorn) is the Emmy-winning CEO of Ish Entertainment, which makes political documentaries, and the founder of The People PAC, which promotes democratic values. He’s also an old friend from Harvard, former house-mate, and one of the smartest people I know. We talk about race, class, the resistance, the Democrats, “deep canvassing,” the woke and the promise of the unwoke left. It gets pretty real at times.
To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Michael, head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also includes reader commentary over my latest episode with Shadi Hamid on the death throes of liberal democracy.
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