Just days after the November 2020 election, an unnamed senior Republican official asked a Washington Post reporter a rhetorical question about the “downside for humoring” then-President Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud. “It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20,” the official said at the time.
Over a year after an attempted insurrection fueled by those false claims and an explicit admission from the former President that he did seek to overturn the outcome, the dangers of the Big Lie remain manifest. But a set of political leaders and commentators continue to attack the legitimacy of American elections, turning the Big Lie into a persistent alternate reality. Indeed, the danger of this narrative has been taken into account by federal judges handling the prosecution of Jan. 6 defendants. As Politico recently reported, “judges have cited Trump’s continuing false claims to suggest some Jan. 6 defendants are too dangerous to release pending trial. So long as leaders continue to promote those claims, they’ve argued, extremists open to violent action may heed them as a rallying cry to attack the government.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory warning that “[s]ome domestic violent extremists have continued to advocate for violence in response to false or misleading narratives about unsubstantiated election fraud,” and that the “months preceding the upcoming 2022 midterm elections could provide additional opportunities for these extremists and other individuals to call for violence directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers.” The compounding threats against election officials have prompted multiple states to enact new laws to protect them, even as candidates that are politically aligned with former President Donald Trump seek to secure key posts administering the vote in battleground states. An analysis by the Washington Post found that “163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections.”
False assertions about the legitimacy of the election are so commonly shared by political leaders that a lawyer for Oath Keepers militia founder and leader Stewart Rhodes – who is being held on charges including seditious conspiracy for his role in the January 6 insurrection – argued that Rhodes’ views on the legitimacy of the election should not be held against him. “There’s plenty of public leaders that are still saying that on a regular basis,” James Bright, the attorney for Rhodes, said in a hearing on his client’s pretrial detention.
On that point, Rhodes’ lawyer is correct. A contingent of the Republican party’s leaders appear to be all in on the Big Lie, which can now be understood to include a number of related positions on the integrity of American elections. According to research by the nonprofit investigative research firm Advance Democracy, over the course of 2021, as many as 132 Republican members of Congress publicly made claims undermining the outcome of the 2020 election or promoting the idea that American elections are plagued by widespread fraud. These claims, Advance Democracy found, typically fall into five categories:
- Claims that election fraud occurred and/or that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Examples include statements by Representatives Mo Brooks, R-AL; Lauren Boebert, R-CO; and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA.
- Suggestions that distrust concerning the 2020 election results was justified and/or that there were substantial issues which undermined the integrity of the 2020 election. Examples include statements by Representatives Jody Hice, R-GA, and Jim Banks, R-IN.
- An affirmative emphasis on the importance of election integrity and/or the fight against supposed voter fraud, made in a context that implied underlying voting fraud. Examples include statements by Representatives Debbie Lesko, R-AZ; Mike Garcia, R-CA; and Ron Estes, R-KS.
- Misleading claims about the effects of voter reform legislation on the supposed potential for Democrats to engage in voter fraud, and/or suggesting voter reform legislation would erode the integrity of elections. Examples include statements from Representatives Morgan Griffith, R-VA; John Rose, R-TN; and Rob Wittman, R-VA.
- Suggestions that Democrats are trying to overturn, steal or rig elections. Examples include statements by Representatives Steve Scalise, R-LO; Jim Jordan, R-OH; and Pat Fallon, R-TX; as well as Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX.
“The House and Senate ethics committees – and voters themselves – should take action to hold members accountable for spreading baseless conspiracy theories that led to violent action,” Daniel J. Jones, a former FBI analyst and former Senate investigator who is now president of Advance Democracy, said. “As a country, we need our local, state, and federal elected officials to stand-up and speak the truth – regardless of what populist media figures or some of their constituents might want to hear.”
In addition to statements by Republican elected leaders, Republican candidates for the Senate, the House, and dozens of gubernatorial and other state offices have embraced false election claims. And, just months before the midterm elections, the Republican party is increasingly enabling such views. In its censure of the two Republicans serving on the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th insurrection, the Republican National Committee referred to the work of the House Select Committee as “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This characterization would appear to confirm the party has decided it is in its best interest to continue to allow the spread of the Big Lie that motivated the crowd that day – namely, that vast election fraud took place in 2020 and the protest against it that resulted in the storming of the Capitol was perfectly “legitimate.”
These views appear to be shared by the majority of the party’s rank and file. A number of polls released around the time of the one year anniversary of the insurrection confirm how widespread and ingrained false beliefs about the outcome of the election – as well as the events of January 6th – have become.
Poll and Field Dates
||UMass Amherst Poll
(Dec. 1-20, 2021)
||NPR/Ipsos poll (Dec. 17-20, 2021)
||CBS News/YouGov (Dec. 27-30, 2021)
||Quinnipiac (Jan. 7-10, 2022)
There is evidence to suggest that these views are genuinely held. Political scientists offer various explanations as to why the Big Lie is so firmly embraced by Republicans. A key one is that support for it is tied to identitarian concerns. “Divisions over racial equality were closely related to perceptions of the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack,” wrote four University of Massachusetts at Amherst political scientists last month, citing the polling data referenced above. The connection in these attitudes runs deep:
For example, among those who agreed that White people in the United States have advantages based on the color of their skin, 87 percent believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate; among neutrals, 44 percent believed it was legitimate; and among those who disagreed, only 21 percent believed it was legitimate. Seventy percent of people who agreed that White people enjoy advantages considered the events of Jan. 6 to be an insurrection; 26 percent of neutrals described it that way; and only 10 percent who disagreed did so, while 80 percent of this last group called it a protest. And while 70 percent of those who agreed that White people enjoy advantages blamed Trump for the events of Jan. 6, only 34 percent of neutrals did, and a mere 9 percent of those who disagreed did.
It follows that former President Trump is using his rallies to ratchet up racial grievances, even as other Republican leaders join his effort to cast white people – and white men, in particular – as victims. Any responsible entity tasked with helping to inform the public in this scenario – driven as it is by such a deep and dangerous cleavage – is faced with a profoundly difficult task. With just seven months to go before another election cycle, there is little time for election officials, news organizations, and social media platforms to prepare. But no matter the outcome in this cycle, the Big Lie has taken root, and will be a factor for years to come.