The most surprising thing about the made-up story of the election of 2020 being rigged isn’t that so many people believe it. Though that is head-shaking enough.
It’s that this ongoing lie is working.
Count me among those who thought, naively, that the fantastical claims by Republicans of massive fraud in the 2020 presidential election would wither with time. There’s no evidence for it, for starters. And also because I figured the year-ago Capitol riot would leave a stench of disgrace that might relegate the topic to the fringes.
But the opposite has happened.
We’re a year on from an unprecedented effort by a president to overturn an election, and since then a slew of audits and recounts, including in this state, have found no problems with that vote, let alone any systemic fraud that might have turned the result. Yet polls today show an overwhelming majority of GOP voters believe the election was stolen and Donald Trump was the rightful winner.
This conspiracy theory, for now, appears to be aiding, not hurting, the party. Look at who’s got the mojo in politics. Take, say, Joe Kent, a rookie Republican candidate for Congress down in Southwest Washington.
Kent’s raised a million-plus dollars for his campaign in the 3rd Congressional District, the most by far of any nonincumbent House challenger in the state. A recent poll found he’s leading the race there even though nearly 40% of voters say they’ve either never heard of Kent or have no opinion of him.
How can this be? It’s no coincidence that Kent has made the myth of the stolen election an animating force of his campaign.
He insists that Trump won and has called Republican Loren Culp “the actual governor” of Washington state — though Culp lost to Jay Inslee in 2020 by a huge margin of 545,000 votes.
Last fall, Kent, along with others, sued the election system, claiming, out of the blue, that 400,000 votes were fraudulently added to the totals here in 2020. (Given that Trump lost the state by more than this amount, 785,000 votes, it’s hard to see what the point of such a brazen fraud would have been, but that’s not addressed in the lawsuit.)
The lawsuit backs up none of its claims and will doubtless be tossed. But that doesn’t matter, because it symbolizes what’s winning the day in politics right now.
“It’s not about the facts or any sort of reality, it’s about group identity,” said Washington State University political science professor Cornell Clayton, when I asked him what the hell is going on.
Clayton, who has studied democracy and politics for 35 years, said extreme partisan division in the U.S. is nothing new. What’s different is that in the past the fight was often more about policy or issues – the Vietnam or Iraq wars, say, or some other thing that was actually happening. Today, social or cultural group-based identity is what trumps all.
“Now when you lose an election, it can be perceived as a threat to your entire identity and way of life,” he said.
Clayton said by embracing Trump’s stolen election canard, politicians can “signal in the most powerful way possible that they are part of the tribe.”
Consider Jerrod Sessler, a former NASCAR driver who is making some waves as a new candidate in Central Washington’s 4th Congressional District. Here’s how he summed up the state of affairs the other day:
“President Trump IS our President! Data continues to pile up. How many more days will we allow Mr. Illegitimate, and more so, his coup-leading leaders to continue ruining our lives?”
The Trump drug is potent: The guy who was democratically elected is now cast as the one who really did the coup, instead of the one we all saw give a coup a try with our own eyes.
Not every Republican shares these views, of course. For instance, last month when King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn announced that he was running for Congress, he said in an interview that Trump, indeed, had lost. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if this simple statement of fact ends up being a drag on Dunn’s campaign, at least during the primary’s intraparty fight.
Right now the stolen election story serves as a rationale for passing voting restrictions, as well as a shorthand way to rally the group for a comeback — which, even though it’s false, is what’s happening. Generic preference polls show the public is saying it wants Republicans running Congress, the first time the GOP has led in this polling measure since 2014.
At a minimum, the party is paying no political price for its leader trying to overturn an election.
That could be due to other reasons, such as the ongoing gloom of the pandemic, inflation, or the terrible job Democrats are doing at passing or even articulating their agenda. How lame are Democrats that they can’t turn an attempted coup into some sort of concrete action, such as election reforms to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Clayton said historically it has fallen to leaders within the parties to tamp down their base’s conspiracy theories. What’s different — unprecedented, he says — is that this time it’s the leader of one party who is the source of the craziest conspiracies of all.
“The mania is at the top of the Republican Party,” he said. “And nobody, other than maybe [Wyoming Republican Rep.] Liz Cheney, is stepping up to counter it, to be courageous, to talk it down.
“For anybody who studies democracy, it means the lights are all blinking red.”
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