The Big Lie and the Weaponizing of American Politics

9
Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

The big lie shaking this nation for the past seven weeks is that Donald Trump won the election by a landslide. It is a lie. President Trump and his many lawyers have not produced even a shred of evidence to support that claim before our judicial system. 

No court has found substantial fraud or miscounts in any of the 60 lawsuits Trump and his allies have brought before them. Eighty-eight state and federal judges, appointed by members of both parties, came to those decisions. Chris Krebs, who was appointed by Trump to head up Homeland Security’s Security Agency, tweeted that “59 election security experts all agree, in every case of which we are aware, these claims have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.” After  that tweet, Trump fired him.

According to a New York Times analysis, Trump’s allies did not even formally allege fraud in more than two-thirds of their cases. And yet, Trump has almost daily repeated the same lie that millions more voters cast their votes for him over former Vice President Joe Biden. 

A significant portion of our citizens do not see Trump’s declaration as a lie. Polls show that 70-80 percent of self-identified Republicans believe that he did win the election or that it was stolen from him. That group now includes at least 100 Republicans from the House of Representatives and a dozen Republican US Senators, who will challenge Biden’s lawful election on Jan. 6. Their actions are Trumps’ last attempt to strip Biden of electoral votes when Congress meets in a joint session to officially accept each state’s electoral vote tally. What has historically been a ceremonial procedure, having taken less than 30 minutes at times, may now drag on for a half day or more.

Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) challenge is not about allegations of widespread fraud, but that Pennsylvania failed to follow its own mail-in voting rules. It’s the same claim that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed. In its ruling, the state court  said that the plaintiff’s request to throw out some 2.5 million mail-in ballots was made after the votes had been tallied and their preferred presidential candidate lost the state.

Trump tweeted cheerfully Sunday evening Dec. 27, “See you in Washington, DC, on January 6th. Don’t miss it.” He will inevitably lose the vote, because there is still a plurality of congressional Trump supporters who do not wish to destroy the Republican Party or our election process to appease him. However, that ploy will force every Republican in the House and Senate to go on the record affirming or denying Biden’s win. Trump has threatened to punish the Republicans who do not support his claims when they come up for re-election.

How did we get to this place in the history of our republic? No president has ever denied that the election was lawful. No sitting president has ever refused to recognize the newly elected leader of the nation, claiming that it was impossible for them to have lost, like President Trump has claimed. There are two underlying beliefs among Trump supporters that have sustained the lie that Trump won the election. The first belief is that all politicians lie. So, what if he does lie a bit, it’s just another politician telling lies. The Democrats are exaggerating his statements because he’s doing what we want done not what they (the Democrats) want done. The second lie that Trump supporters believe is that the Democrats cannot be trusted to protect our freedoms since they are radical-leftists who want to convert America into a socialist country. 

Let’s dive into each of these beliefs and see how they square with what we know for certain. 
 
All Politicians Lie – So What?  Politicians do often lie, or more likely exaggerate what they will do or their policies can do.  Critics have attacked both former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump for not telling the truth about their signature pieces of legislation, the Affordable Care Act and Build the Wall.  Each are guilty, but in different degrees.

Obama said something to the effect of “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.” OK, so there wouldn’t be any change – right? Obama was not specific enough, at least in that quote, as to how ACA would work. Obama was “truthful” to the extent the ACA maintained the employer-based health insurance system through which a plurality of Americans is covered.  If you add those, at the time, on Medicare, Medicaid, VA, and public employee plans, the vast majority of people would, truthfully, be able to keep what they have. Those details were explained in public by Obama’s staff and were in written form for all to observe. While that quote was inaccurate, the truth was not hidden. The details were available to the public and publicized.

In comparison, Republicans argue that Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate kept his promise that he would build a wall between our country and Mexico. He said we are in an emergency situation; however the number of people crossing into the US from Mexico was down 90 percent from 2000. How do you have an emergency when the apparent threat to our security has been shrinking, not expanding? Is that a lie or just an exaggeration? 

When Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015 he promised, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” He repeated that promise at his rallies. Since his election, the southwest border wall was extended from 654 miles of primary barriers to 657 miles as of this past summer – that’s right, 3 miles

That’s because as of late June 2020, 184 miles of dilapidated primary barriers were replaced with updated fences. And an additional 29 miles of new or raised structures were built on the secondary barriers, which back up the primary walls. All-weather border patrol roads, lighting, cameras and other surveillance technology were also added. However, Mexico has not contributed a dime for this project, while American taxpayers have contributed over $4 billion on border barrier planning and construction. Was it a lie that Mexico would pay for the wall? Or was it just an optimistic promise?

There are dozens of politicians from both parties who have made exaggerated and false promises – enough to write a very long book. However, they all were limited to specific policies, programs, and projects. It’s the second type of lie that opens the door to questioning the legitimacy of how a democracy should be governed. The cornerstone of that lie is promoting an exaggerated fear and the government’s inability to provide safety from it. 
 
Big lies promote an existential fear and a belief that our democracy will die unless they win.  Trump has played the fear card as adroitly as Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. Both divided the nation between citizens who are enemies and those who are patriots. Enemies are labeled as communists or socialists, with liberals now being called far-left radicals who want to destroy this country. The two Georgian Republican Senators who have embraced Trump’s claims are facing two strong Democratic challengers. The Republican Senators have been running ads attacking the Democrats using these red-baiting labels.

Historians and popular commentators paint McCarthy as one of the most feared and hated politicians in America. However, Yale history professor Beverly Gage points out that at the peak of his influence, McCarthy boasted a 50 percent approval rating. Gage reminds us that for McCarthy, “as with Trump, not everything he said was false, but the constant slippage between truth and lies served to destabilize the national conversation and upend political norms.” 

A handful of Republican senators rebuked McCarthy in 1950 in a declaration that McCarthy’s promotion of “fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear” had turned the Senate into “a forum of hate and character assassination.” The rest of the Republicans silently tolerated him, particularly after they swept to victories in both congressional offices and retook the White House in 1952.

This is a similar behavior we are witnessing today as the Republicans did far better in the congressional races than either they or the Democrats had expected in this year — despite Trump’s losing the presidential race. Knowing that the core pro-Trump Republican base can determine who will win their party primaries, almost all Republican members of congress have gone mute on Trump’s blatantly false statements. Consider the one he tweeted in all caps on Christmas Eve, “VOTER FRAUD IS NOT A CONSPIRACY THEORY.” Voter fraud is not a conspiracy theory, but Trump claiming that he won by over 7 million votes, is based on his own conspiracy theory.

Republicans finally censured McCarthy in 1954 when they recognized that he posed a real threat to democratic institutions. He had begun accusing just about anyone of being a communist who did not agree with him, including Republicans. Unlike Sen. McCarthy, who was a mere subcommittee chair holding meetings, Trump is President of the United States. He is the leader of the Republican party and holds rallies with tens of thousands of attendees. 

Republican Senators did not recognize and deplore McCarthy-like behavior when Trump fired or attacked his critics, including Republican governors and senators, who did not support his evidence-free accusations of election fraud. With very few exceptions, Republican congressional leadership not only refused to censure his action, but many continued to support his fantasy that he won the election.  Or, at least, they argued that he should have won if the system had worked properly. 

Through his daily tweets Trump has commandeered the national theater of politics. His supporters speak off the same script he uses when he exits the stage. As when McCarthy was censured, Trump will say that a corrupt and self-interested Washington establishment violated the constitution by not stopping Biden from stealing the election.

There is an element of truth in recognizing that there is no perfectly fair election. But to argue that all elections are corrupt and stolen because they are unfair is to promulgate a lie, as much a lie as Putin’s claim that his nation’s elections are “democratic.”  As Hannah Arendt wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism, people become subject to tyranny when they can no longer distinguish “between fact and fiction,” and when the differences between true and false no longer exist. 

This essay originally appeared in The Medium.

Previous articleThe Mutating COVID: What it Means for You
Next articleMad-Enraged to Mad-Deranged: Sanity and the American President
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

9 COMMENTS

  1. You and Peter have long been my favorite Seattle politicians and would appreciate you discussing a few things closer to home. How about the job of a city council member – How about the homeless crisis – How about the state’s lack of planning to deliver the shots . The Trump Bus (like Hillary’s)has finally left or is soon to – let’s talk about political remedies.

  2. Joel Connelly aside, I’d offer one thought about “All Politicians Lie – So What?”:

    Bernie Sanders, like Trump, supported the big lie of a “rigged” society (which is an aspect of the “All Politicians Lie” meme.)

    The progressive Left in Bernie Sanders also encouraged skepticism, even deep cynicism, about our political system by claiming that the Democratic primaries had been rigged against at him.

    Sanders supported & furthered Trump’s world view (such that the latter has one) that The Elites were conspiring to suppress the just rights of The Real People.

    There’s a line between constructive criticism of our system, warts and all, and undermining its legitimacy. Sanders crossed that line and advanced his own big lie that he didn’t become Dem candidate because the system was “rigged”. His use of the very same term — “rigged” — as did Trump has been very destructive to faith in our institutions.

    Am I claiming that Sander and Trump are the same? Hardly.

    But the rhetoric of a “rigged” world was common to both men and they both reinforced that cynicism about politics.

Leave a Reply to joel connelly Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.