The Big Lie is already tainting the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Relentless efforts by former President Donald Trump and his true believers in politics and the media have convinced millions of Americans that Joe Biden is a fraudulent President who seized power in a stolen election.
This deep-seated suspicion of last November's vote, which threatens to corrode the foundation of US democracy, mirrors the message adopted by the ex-President months before he clearly lost a free and fair election to Biden.
It has immediate political implications -- the lie that the last election was a fix is already shaping the terrain in which candidates, especially Republicans, are running in midterm elections in 2022. And the widespread belief that Trump was cheated out of power is building the former President a 2024 platform to mount a GOP presidential primary bid if he wishes.
Longer term, the fact that tens of millions of Americans were seduced by Trump's lies about election fraud poses grave questions about the future of America's democratic political architecture itself. Ultimately, if a large minority of the population no longer has faith in rule by the people for the people, how long can that system survive? And if the will of millions of people is no longer expressed through voting, what other outlets are there? Already, the January 6 insurrection has shown what happens when aggrieved groups -- in this case incited by a massive lie -- take matters into their own hands.
Trump's great success in creating his own version of a new truth about the election and his still-magnetic talent for spinning myths into which his supporters can buy is revealed in a new CNN poll released Wednesday.
The survey finds that 36% of Americans don't think Biden legitimately got sufficient votes to win last November. On the one hand, that means a handy majority does believe Biden won fair and square. On the other, however, a restive one-third minority in a nation of 330 million can be a powerful and destructive force. Among Republicans, 78% believe Biden did not win the election and 54% believe that there is solid evidence to support such a view, according to the poll, even though no evidence exists and multiple courts and states and the US Congress certified a victory that Trump's Justice Department said was untainted by significant fraud. Among Republicans who say Trump should be the leader of the party, 88% believe Biden lost the election. And in a sign that many Americans think that the ex-President's efforts are causing more permanent damage, 51% say it is likely that elected officials in the US will successfully overturn the results of a future election because their party did not win.
Paradoxically, Republicans are more likely to say that democracy is under attack than Democrats. That is despite the fact that any fair reading of the last few years shows that Trump has repeatedly battered the pillars of the democratic political system. The twice-impeached ex-President abused power repeatedly, politicized the Justice Department and sided with tyrants rather than democratic leaders. When it was the will of the people that he be ejected from office, he tried to stay, came close to staging a coup and trashed the election that ended his presidency.
Such is the power of Trump -- and the conservative media propaganda machine that created an alternative reality for his followers -- that the President is able to reinvent the truth in plain sight, and get away with it. The former President effectively writes the script.
"I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy, I'm the one trying to save it. Please remember that," Trump said at a rally in Arizona in June that itself highlighted a sham audit orchestrated by Republicans of 2020 election votes in crucial Maricopa County that helped Biden win the state.
'Democracy is not a football'
Most Americans don't spend much time pondering democracy and constitutional guardrails -- a subject that has become an obsession for Beltway media and lawmakers in the Trump era. The cost of health care, the pandemic, kids trying to get back to school, expiring unemployment benefits and eviction moratoriums, and a homelessness crisis highlighted by the California recall election are more likely to concern most people. But ultimately, such problems are harder to solve if the faith of the people in their political systems fails.
And the daily erosion of democratic standards -- thanks to Trump's lies and the actions of his Republican enablers on Capitol Hill -- can reach critical mass over time. The experiences of other nations -- in Eastern Europe, for instance -- that have seen democracy tarnished is that incremental damage adds up, and it becomes obvious only at a point when it is impossible to reverse.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, fresh off his defeat of the recall effort that critics saw as the epitome of an undemocratic exercise, reflected on how political freedoms need to be protected from the likes of Trump, who had said the California election was "rigged" before the returns had even come in. The Democratic governor reached for a message that might be the building blocks of a broader attempt by his party to push back against the extremism of some Republicans.
"Democracy is not a football. You don't throw it around," Newsom said Tuesday night. "It's more like a, I don't know, antique vase. You can drop it and smash it in a million different pieces."
Trump is poised to reap the fruits of his own anti-democratic campaign. His lock on the party grassroots appears to give him a prohibitive advantage in the next presidential primary campaign if he decides to run. It's easy to imagine a presidential debate when Trump forces rivals to buy into his own false conceit that the 2020 election was stolen from him. There is no political incentive for any GOP rising star to get on the wrong side of Trump. Some, like the third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, have already made the choice between the truth and their own skyrocketing careers, which can prosper in Trump's shadow.
Republicans who have challenged the ex-President and pointed out the reality of his authoritarian impulses, however, like ex-Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona or Wyoming's Rep. Liz Cheney, whom Stefanik ousted as conference chair, find that their political prospects darken.
The next presidential election is three years away and the political winds can change. And it's possible that GOP voters will tire of Trump's antics and seek a fresh face. Perhaps Trump's increasingly extreme position on election fraud would be counterproductive in a national election -- and create more momentum against him than it currently gives him in his own party.
Some anti-Trump Republicans, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, believe it happened already.
"I don't know the answer besides come out and keep saying -- 'ladies and gentlemen, you know, Donald Trump lost, not because the election was stolen, but because he ran an election focused on firing up only the most extreme element of the Republican Party and he turned off swing voters that typically used to vote Republican,'" Kinzinger said on CNN's "New Day" on Thursday.
Democracy on trial in the midterms
But there can be little doubt that the former President's assaults on democracy are helping to keep him politically relevant, and his capacity to create a false narrative in which he won is a tangible sign of his power.
Before the next presidential election, the impact of the Big Lie is already being felt in the run-up to the congressional and gubernatorial elections next year. Many of those races will be fought under conditions set by new voting laws passed by conservative legislatures that often discriminate against minority voters and are inspired by Trump's Big Lie. If the California recall election is any guide, Trump acolytes will go into the midterms warning that any Democratic victories, especially where mail-in voting is heavily used, will be fraudulent even though Republicans are predicted to do well.
The former President has also worked hard, using the carrot of his valuable endorsement, to ensure that GOP candidates up and down the midterm ballot buy into his face-saving and untrue narrative that he won the last election.
He has, for instance, endorsed Alabama's Rep. Mo Brooks, who is running for Senate and was a speaker at the infamous January 6 rally in Washington that incited the US Capitol insurrection. Last week, the former President endorsed Michigan state Rep. Steve Carra, who is mounting a primary challenge to Rep. Fred Upton, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the mob attack on Congress earlier this year. In another of his many endorsements countrywide, Trump this week backed Kristina Karamo, a Republican running for secretary of state in the Wolverine State, praising her as "strong on Crime, including the massive Crime of Election Fraud." It was a move that underscored how, alongside the ideological gulfs between Republicans and Democrats, there is a new divide -- between political hopefuls who support democracy and those prepared to deny it.
It is a new dimension in American politics that has shocked many people who have been involved in it for years, and it is drawing grim historical analogies.
"I think about ... those democracies that were lost in the middle part, the early part of the 20th century where democracy was not adequately defended and authoritarian regimes rose," former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room" on Tuesday.
"And it wasn't because democracy was unpopular. You know, democracy was strong. But the reality is the defense of democracy was weak, and we cannot allow that to happen in this country."
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