Speaking to the January 6th Committee on September 29, 2022, Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, stood by her contention that the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election was stolen. Thomas and others who doubt the legitimacy of the election results have been convinced to believe “the big lie.” The big lie refers to an incomprehensible distortion or misrepresentation of the truth as a form of propaganda. It is often attributed to the Nazis’ big lie about the Jews after World War I, which served to justify the holocaust for sympathizers. Germany’s Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels explained, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
U.S. news media have consistently made analogies to this historical big lie strategy with former President Donald Trump’s efforts to spread doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 election in hopes of overturning its results. They contend that this threatens the viability of American democracy. It does at some level, but to focus on Trump is to miss the forest for the trees. An even greater threat to democracy has long been hyper-partisanship– when people choose party loyalty and wishful thinking over empirical data and election results. Cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, play a huge role in supporting such a fallacious thought process to detrimental ends. As we pointed out in our book, United States of Distraction, Trump is a symptom of this much larger problem.
Electoral denialism did not start with Trump. In the U.S., this chicanery dates back to the early days of the republic. With this in mind, a big picture analysis reveals that Trump is simply trying to achieve the equivalent of what George W. Bush did in 2000 when the Supreme Court simply declared him President of the U.S.
Worse, many of the very people who oppose Trump helped create the context in which his “big lie” can flourish and become legitimized. Indeed, the Lincoln Project Republicans and Liz Cheney’s of the world who defended Bush’s illegitimate presidency created a context where elections could be stolen in plain sight. More importantly for contextualizing Trump, U.S. citizens could live in a country where they knew their sitting president was placed in power by fellow elites.
This cynicism about the electoral process worsened with birtherism: the racist fake news story that claimed that President Barack Obama was not a real American and was in fact Kenyan. This type of racist accusation has been made about people of color for centuries in this country, and made Obama’s candidacy vulnerable to the racist whims of voters. During the 2008 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the first to exploit this vulnerability. The Republican Party would perpetuate the lie during Barack Obama’s expectation shattering victories in 2008 and 2012. During his entire presidency, people repeatedly searched for, attained, and then refused to accept Obama’s birth certificate in the U.S. state of Hawaii as legitimate. Trump was pivotal in spreading birtherism lies throughout Obama’s presidency. He would amplify this nonsense as part of his political posturing to eventually become a leader in the Republican Party. There’s no doubt Lincoln is rolling in his grave.
Further, Obama’s milquetoast neoliberal governance turned people against the Democratic Party, which lost nearly a thousand seats between Congress (70) and state legislatures (910) nationwide during his presidency. That, along with Hillary Clinton’s mismanaged 2016 campaign that alienated and marginalized progressives by rigging the primary process against their popular candidate Bernie Sanders, saw Trump win the presidency. Like a petulant child, Clinton broke with tradition and refused to admit defeat until long after results were certain.
It is undeniable that in defeat, Clinton and the DNC machine borrowed from the Republican playbook, and rationalized with speculations and outright falsehoods to cover for her loss in order to delegitimize the Trump presidency. Unlike the Democrats who rightly rejected the results in 2000, Clinton and her DNC supporters spent four years spreading false and baseless reasons for their defeat, blaming progressive voicessuch as Bernie Sanders (who campaigned more for Hillary than Hillary did for Obama), and Susan Sarandon, and the Russians, and social media fake news for “stealing” and tipping the election. However, studies showed that it was legacy media right here at home that actually had the most influence on voters in the 2016 election. This resulted in more electoral cynicism, expressed by four years of “not my president” sloganeering that did not contain the racism of birtherism, but did echo the notion that Americans only need to respect an election outcome if their preferred party and candidate wins.
Indeed, the nation’s pundits scratched their heads in collective awe and disbelief in 2016. How could this have happened? How could the establishment’s cadre of experts not have seen a Trump victory coming? Simple. Like Q Anon fanatics and the Trumpists of today, they did not want to see it. Their implicit biases wouldn’t permit it. In fact, YouTube recently attempted to censor and demonetize a video collection of the Democratic denialists of 2016 by Matt Orfelea. The double standards around the topic are as obvious as they are mind-boggling.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, both parties primed voters to reject the results. Trump spread rumors of election fraud while the Democratic Party and allies in the intelligence community appeared ready to amplify election denial warnings in the months up to the 2020 election that Russia and Trump were working to steal the election. That proved irrelevant as Joe Biden won the presidency by 40k votes in three key states in 2020, which is half the margin that Trump won by in 2016. Nonetheless, Trump and his supporters rejected the election results as they promised to “stop the steal.”
If past is prologue, each party may well continue to escalate their electoral denial to a level where election results will simply not matter at all. In 2016, Clinton officially conceded, but publicly denied the election results. In 2020, Trump exploited the electoral cynicism that was decades in the making and refused to officially concede. This inspired his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and reject the election results. Granted, Democrats didn’t do the same in 2016, but who knows the degree to which continued hyper-partisanship will escalate electoral denialism in the future? Nonetheless, the point remains that denial and lack of acceptance of election outcomes was very much part of the Democrats’ narrative from 2016, parroted by MSNBC and CNN in particular. It’s not just Fox News and Trump that are the problem here. It’s civic decay.
Bottom line: it is simply unsustainable for a country to have half of the voters, not to mention the candidates or party leaders, refuse to accept election results. Such political theatre erodes election integrity because it distracts from legitimate threats to free and fair elections, such as voter suppression efforts and privatized election systems and voting machines, while simultaneously normalizing hyper-partisanship and electoral denialism. When people choose party loyalty over empirical results to determine electoral outcomes, the democratic republic ceases to exist.
Nolan Higdon is Project Censored national judge and a lecturer at Merrill College and the Education Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. His recent publications include “The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education” and “The Podcaster’s Dilemma: Decolonizing Podcasters in the Era of Surveillance Capitalism” (with Nicholas L. Baham III) and ”Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy” (with Mickey Huff).
Mickey Huff is the third director of Project Censored, founded in 1976, and the president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation. Since 2009, he has coedited the annual volume of the Censored book series for Seven Stories Press in New York, now in partnership with The Censored Press, the Project’s new publishing imprint. Huff is professor of social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College where he co-chairs the History Area and is chair of the Journalism Department. His recent publications include Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy” (with Nolan Higdon).