This piece ran as an op/ed in June, 2021
Back last June, the danger was already visible. In a column I published here then, I put it this way: “If Joe Biden appears headed toward victory, American democracy will face a threat of potentially historic proportions.”
That threat, I said, was “the inevitable result of the combination of two salient aspects of Donald Trump’s character,” i.e. that
- “Trump would be incapable of accepting defeat,” and that
- Trump had already “shown himself apparently willing to do anything to protect himself from having to acquiesce in such a defeat.”
I then presented evidence to substantiate both those aspects of Trump’s character and behavior. That evidence included how Trump had shown
- an incapability to acknowledge failure, criticism, or rejection; and
- “an utter lack of respect – unprecedented in an American president – for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the norms of the American political system.”
(I cited how Trump had already committed “serious transgressions – unthinkable from any previous president – to advance his chances of winning the upcoming election,” including “his attempt to extort the Ukrainian government to give him help – again illegal – in his re-election effort.”)
I argued that Trump’s threats to American democracy wouldn’t necessarily end “even after election day”:
“We should not forget how, in 2016, when he thought he was going to lose, Trump endangered the peace of the nation by claiming – entirely without basis in fact – that the elections were being “rigged” against him.If Trump cannot avoid defeat,” I wrote, four and a half months before the Election, “he’d apparently be willing to sow national discord by telling his followers that the defeat was illegitimate, that they’ve been robbed.”
Not only was it visible already then that Trump was preparing to propagate the Big Lie denying the legitimacy of his defeat and Biden’s victory, but also – in the weeks following the Election — the falsehood of such claims was repeatedly and fully exposed in a series of post-Election court cases, recounts, and audits.
In spite of all that, Trump’s Big Lie — to delegitimize what was called (by Trump’s own cyber-security chief) the “most secure” in our history — has proven to be a powerful and effective weapon in what has been a continuing assault on America’s constitutional democracy.
- That Lie was the essential fuel for the insurrectionary attack on the U.S. Capital, whose intent was to overturn a legitimate Election;
- That Lie has been used by Republicans in dozens of states to justify measures whose purpose the Republicans claim to be to promote “election integrity” but whose clear real intent is to reduce the number of people voting for Democrats by erecting unnecessary barriers to voting in the way of more vulnerable – but entirely legitimate — American citizens.
- And that Lie is being used to justify Republicans in Congress obstructing everything the duly elected President of the United States proposes – even measures overwhelmingly supported by the American people.
How could a Lie become so powerful, despite being so obvious?
It was clear back in June that America would soon be tested by a “Trumpian attack …on our precious heritage as a constitutional democracy.” It would be a test both of political leaders and of America’s citizenry—a test of who would do their patriotic duty to protect their country as their founders created it.
Clearly major parts of America failed that test.
Does that failure stem from grotesque credulity in the Republican world: i.e., that people in that world somehow believe the unbelievable? I.e. did those people somehow get duped into believing what had not only been thoroughly disproven, but what also had been declared by a leader whose lies – just those told while President — were counted in the tens of thousands?
The pollsters have reported that such-and-such percentage of Republican voters “believe that the election was stolen.” (It was 75% a couple of months ago and remains a substantial majority.)
Maybe. Maybe they do indeed “believe” what they claim to believe. (Perhaps the “cult of personality – which the Republican Party is widely said to have become – entails a more or less complete surrendering of people’s ability to think independently.)
But perhaps what they tell pollsters is something other than a “belief.”
That possibility is suggested by what was lately said of the Republicans in Congress. A Republican congressman has declared that, of the 210 GOP members of the House, at most 10 of them actually believe the Lie, while the rest just pretend to believe in order to protect their standing and extend the power of their side.
Might something similar be true with the Republican rank-and-file, when they tell pollsters they “believe” the election was stolen? Is it just a way of expressing support for a leader, and a party, to whom they give their allegiance (regardless of how much lying and cheating and undermining of the foundations of American democracy that allegiance entails)?
Does it matter – in terms of how this pathology afflicting our Democracy can best be addressed — whether it is mindless credulity or unprincipled opportunism that empowers this Big Lie?