Essay: Truth and Democracy and The Big Lie

“The Big Lie,” also known as “Stop the Steal,” is a big deal for American democracy. Former President Trump continues to propagate the fiction that the national election of 2020, which saw Joseph Biden elected President, was fault-filled and error-prone and the victim of outright voter fraud on a scale previously unseen, with results that have produced a falsely elected President Biden and removing from this same office the should-be second-term President Donald Trump.

According to Trump, he has won re-election by a landslide in a tremendous victory.

Despite five dozen court challenges—including one addressing the Supreme Court only to be curtly dismissed as without basis—the findings are that no creditable widespread fraud was discovered, and despite many top state election officials from both political parties declaring the election process sound, and despite Trump’s Election Cybersecurity (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs’s debunking election fraud conspiracy theories, and despite Trump’s Attorney General William Barr reporting the efforts of his Justice Department were such that “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” The Big Lie lives.

There are plenty of explanations for the persistence of The Big Lie. For one thing, Trump has been proclaiming election fraud for years, including during the run up of the 2016 Presidential election that he won—and after! Of course, Trump had lost the popular vote by 3 million, but that could only mean the election had somehow been rigged with millions of extra votes added for Hilary Clinton. (How such sophisticated voter fraud would fail to add the far fewer votes needed by Hilary Clinton for her to win three extremely closely contested states that would have put her, not Trump, over the top of needed Electoral College votes, should in and of itself make one wonder about Trump’s claims!)

Trump’s campaign of lies throughout his term—and, of course, before and after—has been well documented. The Washington Post’s count numbers the total of Trump’s false or misleading claims over his four years in office at 30,573. Trump emphasized election fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election, and during the 2020 election, and he continues to tell this tale of election fraud.

The Big Lie has been aided and abetted by conservative news media and by many members of the Republican Party. Trump is no longer in office, but many dozens in the House and the Senate continue to disseminate The Big Lie, and a number of those Republication Party members who do not have been censured or otherwise castigated by a surprisingly large number of Republication Party State Committees.

As long as The Big Lie remains unchallenged, the very life of our nation remains at high risk.

How Close We Came to Losing Our Country

For those who find the January 6 Capitol Insurrection disturbing, it is easy enough to self-comfort by thinking this was the result of a bunch of bad-behaving outliers who got out of control because law enforcement hadn’t been sufficiently prepared or positioned to handle the misled mob.

The more disturbing take on the events of January 6 is that America’s democracy came dangerously close to ending.

Here’s the nightmare scenario: Trump incites the crowd (even well in advance of the rally that morning, since Trump’s election lies had been touted by him and many of his supporters for months and years, the record shows) asd this large crowd marches on the Capitol at the same time that the two houses of Congress are undertaking the constitutionally mandated Electoral College Vote affirmation. The Electoral College Vote affirmation is interrupted by the insurrectionists.

What then happened, fortunately (if you ignore the dead and injured and the shameful picture America showed the whole world that day), was that the Capitol was cleared after some hours and the Congress’s business of the day was resumed and completed.

But look at how close the large group of insurrectionists came within contact with members of Congress, including Vice President Michael ‘Hang Him’ Pence, who was later shown to have been about a hundred feet from some of the insurrectionists. It also was shown that many members of the House remained in the House Chambers while insurrectionists were literally knocking on that chamber’s doors.  Had Pence gotten taken by the insurrectionists, the resumption of the affirmation of Electoral College votes may have been indefinitely postponed. If violence to Pence or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Pence and Pelosi were, respectively, second and third in the line of succession) or other members of Congress had occurred, the vote affirmation could have been indefinitely postponed and Trump—who was still the Chief Executive, after all—could have intervened and claimed the affirmation process compromised or otherwise moot, and then proclaimed his Presidency ongoing until some time or another when the process could be resumed, and quite possibly using new Electoral slates in favor of Trump.

And please remember that people were meeting with then-President Trump in the Oval Office just days before the January 6 Insurrection and that the possibility of declaring martial law had been raised. Trump could have used the attack on the Capitol and on its members as justification for declaring martial law, and if enough Republican lawmakers—and remember that the majority of House Republicans and a large part of Senate Republicans had been associating themselves with The Big Lie—contributed enough confusion about the validity of martial law and/or a substitute Electoral College slate and/or the affirmation process, the state of uncertainty about who was President would exist, and Trump could argue that until the confusion was resolved (such as through the Supreme Court), he was obliged to remain in office.

This scenario is as likely as not the scenario President Trump had in mind. Thank god for incompetence and for the way the day of January 6 played out.

Here’s one take on what had happened, from The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman, on January 16, 2021, titled “America’s Second-Worst Scenario: So far, cumulative acts of civic virtue have saved the republic. But the constitutional order is still in danger” [https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/01/how-close-did-us-come-successful-coup/617709/]:

Here is the nub of our predicament. Donald Trump attempted democracide, and he had help. The victim survived but suffered grievous wounds. American democracy now faces a long convalescence in an environment of ongoing attacks. Trump has not exhausted his malignant powers, and co-conspirators remain at large.

I do not mean to be taken figuratively. The president of the United States lost an election and really did try with all his might to keep the winner from replacing him. He did his level best to overthrow our system of government, and tens of millions of Americans marched behind him. But a coup d’état in America had seemed so unlikely a thing, and it was so buffoonishly attempted, that the political establishment had trouble taking it seriously. That was a big mistake.

Danger Continues in the Form of The Big Lie’s Persistence

Indeed, Trump’s “co-conspirators remain at large.” Despite Lindsey Graham’s “Count me out” statement following the resumption of the Electoral Vote count, or Mitch McConnell’s late-arriving clarity on Trump’s dangerous behavior and some other similar—albeit, typically weaker—instances of regret by some other Congressional Republicans, even in the midst of the Electoral College Vote affirmation that followed on the heels of the clearing of the Capitol, there were speeches and motions by Senator Hawley and Senator Cruz and others still presenting Electoral Vote objections that were consistent with The Big Lie. What I find very troubling was that no senator clearly remonstrated these promulgators continuing the falsehood regarding the election. Even just a day or so after the Capitol Insurrection, some of those Republicans who had seemed to have found religion (i.e., voiced criticism of Trump’s misrepresentations) back-slid; perhaps the most jarring instance of this was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s obsequent visit to Mar-a-Lago a short time later.

And today, well-over a hundred Republican congressmen and dozens of Republican senators remain affixed to The Big Lie despite the clear knowledge that the basis for this view is disproved.

So, what should we expect should be the consequence of the ongoing support for a dangerous falsehood among so many members of Congress? Some people suggest that the only solution is the ballot box, and while the irony is rich, I argue that demonstrable lies by Constitutional office holders, lies that threaten the very existence of the country, must be challenged and challenged overtly. The Democrats in Congress, so far, have missed a valuable opportunity to address this problem by calling out the many Republicans who continue to cling to false views about the 2020 election. The potential political advantage for the Democrats in doing so pales compared to the necessity of doing so for ensuring America’s continuance as a democracy.

The stakes for the country can’t be higher and the nature of The Big Lie can’t be clearer.

Congress should, at a minimum, move to a resolution clarifying the facts about the 2020 and the refutation of The Big Lie, and insist on the public vote of congressmen and senators yay or nay.  The debate on the facts would be interesting, especially considering the existing and prevalent facts of the 2020 election, including those facts determined by the many dozens of court cases on record.  In this time of such crucially dangerous deception of The Big Lie, the public record on where of individual congressmen stand in relation to support or rejection of The Big Lie should be made clear and undeniable.

As for those members of Congress who might continue with The Big Lie, what should then be done? At a minimum, declaration or support of these demonstrable falsehoods should be noted in the public record and Congressional censure of those thus on the record should be seriously considered. The point of such actions is less to diminish political power for any particularly declared congressman and more to bring the demonstrable falsehood of The Big Lie to the attention of the body politic.

Another complaint regarding The Big Lie’s persistence is the failure of the press to carry this centrally important story effectively—with some media outlets doing well, but too many falling short—and the above proscribed action in Congress would likely promote clearer coverage of the ongoing threat of Trump and his supports’ dissembling about the 2020 election. The continuing promulgation of Trump’s election falsehood should mean continuing coverage of the falsehood as such. This news story is essential for the health of American democracy to disseminate widely and frequently and effectively.

What is Really Going On?

Of course, The Big Lie continues to be disseminated. And, of course, One America News, Fox, and countless other media outlets participate in The Big Lie’s persistence and to good effect. One shocking problem is the large percentages of Americans who continue to believe The Big Lie. CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza reported on this on February 4—about a month after the Capitol Insurrection, in a piece titled, “Three-quarters of Republicans believe a lie about the 2020 election.” [https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/04/politics/2020-election-donald-trump-voter-fraud/index.html ]

Donald Trump spent the three months between the November election and the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president insisting—via public pronouncement and tweet—that the 2020 race had been stolen from him.

Despite the fact that he never provided ANY evidence to back up that claim—and the fact that courts across the country roundly rejected lawsuits on the matter as specious (at best)—Trump quite clearly convinced lots and lots of Republicans of his false view.

How many? Try 76% of self-identified Republicans in a new national Quinnipiac University poll. That’s the number of Republicans who said they believe there was “widespread fraud in the 2020 election.”

Yes, you read that right. Three in every four Republicans in the poll agreed with the idea that there was “widespread” wrongdoing in last November’s election.

And it’s not just Republicans. More than one in three political independents said the same in the Quinnipiac poll. Heck, 4% of Democrats agreed! (Overall, 36% said there was widespread fraud in the election while 59% said there was not.)

Trump is not acting alone in keeping The Big Lie going, of course. But why are Republicans keeping Trump’s Big Lie alive is a question Heather Digby Parton, in Salon, on February 22, 2021, asks [https://www.salon.com/2021/02/22/why-republicans-are-keeping-trumps-big-lie-alive/], and she provides the answer in the article’s deck: “The Big Lie about the stolen election has opened the door for a wave of voter suppression not seen in decades,” before going into detail:

So far this year at least 165 bills that would restrict voting access are being considered in state legislatures nationwide reports the Brennan Center for Justice. And the excuse Republicans are using is that they must do this to “restore trust” in the voting system—trust that was destroyed by the outrageous lies of Donald Trump and his henchmen. What a neat trick. Apparently, the only way they can restore trust is to “fix” problems that don’t exist but which also happen to suppress Democratic votes.

Except that this fight against voter rights has accelerated further. According to a The New York Times article on March 4, 2021, “All told, state lawmakers have introduced more than 250 bills in 43 states that would tighten voting rules, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.” Republicans continue to use the fabricated “voter fraud” argument as the central element of these hundreds of state-driven proposed voter restrictions. The Big Lie is all about Republicans holding on to power in light of their electoral disadvantage.

What I wish was going on is for the Democrats to realize that what will be good for their party is what is actually even better for the country, and that is The Big Lie must be defeated. The Democrats have the ability to effectively address the matter in Congress and with Joe Biden in the White House, the proverbial bully pulpit is also available. The Big Lie must be placed in the center of the next election cycle and candidates who support The Big Lie should be vigorously attacked on the position with the argument that the belief that the election system is systemically fraudulent is based on demonstrable lies and therefore, any such candidate must be rejected by voters as dishonest (at the best) and dangerous to the country and Constitution and unworthy to hold office. Such attacks tie in effectively with the continuing assault on voter rights and the various efforts—pretty much exclusively emanating from Republicans—and are another indicator of the candidate’s unsuitability for democratic office.

I’m not a big fan of the Democratic Party, by the way, although in contrast to today’s mainstream Republican cult, the Democrats shine. The Democrats have a fundamental moral and value argument to make: We reject lies.

I’ll tell you the truth, which is that I’m not optimistic that the Democrats will press the point of The Big Lie, nor successfully claim the moral high ground. Despite their record of taking moral positions, the tendency of the Democratic Party is to put everything in terms of fairness (as George Lakoff argues) and not values, and fairness is a loaded perspective for the Democrats, especially with their swooning crush on Identity politics.

But for now, I’ll settle for having the country declare the value of truth and decline, with extreme prejudice, The Big Lie.

 

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