Why do so many still believe the 2020 election was stolen?
Everyone who lives in objective reality understands that Donald Trump did not win the 2020 presidential election. He lost by 7 million actual votes and 74 electoral votes. His claim that the election was rigged has been debunked by numerous Republican state elections officials, and rejected by judges in both state and federal courts in more than 70 lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and its proxies. Trump’s own Justice Department as well as his former attorney general, William Barr, found no evidence of widespread fraud.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, two-thirds of GOP voters and just over one-third of all voters, now believe the 2020 election was stolen.
Why are so many Americans still impervious to reality more than a year after a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol intent on disrupting the joint session of Congress that was convened to affirm the election results?
Have they forgotten that the Jan. 6 desecration of the Capitol resulted in the death of four rioters and at least one Capitol Police officer, injuries to an estimated 140 law enforcement officers, charges against hundreds of people, and millions of dollars in damages? Or that for 187 harrowing minutes, President Trump watched the mayhem at the ‘Citadel of Democracy’ before finally telling the rioters to “go home,” and then immediately adding “We love you. You’re very special?”
Undeniably, Trump’s words continue to have a powerful influence among his supporters. Many psychologists believe “people filter ambiguous information through an ideological lens, preferring interpretations that favor their political affiliations.” When Trump tells his supporters the election was stolen, what else are they to believe?
“Trump,” Oxford University professor Adam IP Smith reminds us, “was the first presidential nominee of a major party to make allegations of systemic fraud central to his campaign.” Smith believes Trump’s willful attacks on the electoral system tapped into “the alienation felt by many Americans from their political institutions,” and “creeping sense that someone somewhere is manipulating the system to cheat the ‘real’ people of their rightful rule.”
Trump’s claim is persuasive to many because the idea was already part of their DNA. It is not that difficult to believe Biden did not win legitimately when your mind is made up and not open to persuasion, especially when you are continually bombarded with conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims by Trump, social media, and news sources designed to undermine the validity of the results.
When trusted sources tell you thousands of Trump ballots were not counted or destroyed, and everything from rigged voting machines to biased election observers and fraudulent ballots were used to assure a Biden victory, accurate facts are never heard.
When the Republican National Committee bizarrely declares that the Jan. 6 rioters were engaged in “legitimate political discourse,” and it censures two House Republicans for participating in the House committee investigation of the Capitol attack, why question the team?
By continuing to perpetuate the belief the election was stolen, both Trump and GOP politicians have been able to retain their vital base while harvesting donations for a possible 2024 presidential campaign and upcoming midterm elections. The “Stop the Steal,” narrative has also been used as justification for making voting harder and rolling back access to voting across the country.
“Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory was narrow,” as political journalist Elizabeth Drew reminds us. “[A] switch of only some 43,000 votes in three states (Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona) would have reversed the outcome.” This is why Republicans at the state level have supported laws “to make it difficult for Biden or another Democrat to replicate the 2020 electoral map.”
Also reaping lots of money from the “Stop the Steal” narrative is conservative cable television networks and talk radio shows, as well as entrepreneurs who after the election created new web sites where they solicited online donations. An “outrage industry,” Jerry M. Berry of Tufts University writes, “that promised immediate and enduring advocacy until Trump was restored as president.”
Since the 2020 election, we have painfully experienced how democracy can be undermined when there is no shared understanding of basic facts and empirical reality.
George Washington in his Farewell Address anticipated a day when political polarization might erode faith in the effectiveness of government and turn our fellow citizens against each other. When placing party loyalty before the common interest of the nation would foster a “spirit of revenge,” and enable “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men … to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Former vice president Mike Pence was right in refuting Trump’s claim that he could have overturned the election — and when he stated that “there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq, and Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties 1774-2012.
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