The founders anticipated — and feared — Trump's 'big lie'

The founders anticipated — and feared — Trump's 'big lie'
© getty: Former President Trump

Arizona Republicans’ comically slapdash audit of Maricopa County’s 2020 election results is the latest attempt to reinforce the “big lie” that the election was stolen through massive voter fraud. Incredibly, recent polls show 56 percent of Republicans believe it. 

Trump and his congressional enablers have succeeded in promoting the lie, even though it was rejected by more than 50 courts including the Supreme Court (three times), state election officials in every state, and all federal election officials and agencies, including Trump’s own Attorney General, William BarrBill BarrTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham Woodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China Barr-Durham investigation again fails to produce a main event MORE.

The persistence of the big lie despite this is disgraceful. But the greatest disgrace is not that Trump and congressional Republicans propagated the lie; it’s that a majority of Republican voters adopted it.

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And the Founding founders saw it coming.

The framers of the Constitution worried that a “mob” of uninformed voters would elect a "tyrant" who would steer the country astray and command dangerous amounts of power with dangerous results. That’s why they gave state legislatures — not the public — the authority to choose electors that would vote for the president. Later, state legislatures gave control back to the public by choosing electors who would cast their vote for whomever won the state’s popular vote. 

Hence, the founders' nightmare came true. In 2016, voters elected a candidate who deceived the electorate with a fountain of lies, eventually including the big one. Trump planted its first seeds on May 11, 2017, when he claimed he would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral college if it hadn’t been for voter fraud. On Nov. 4, 2020, he claimed the presidency was stolen from him by massive voter fraud.

At first, the “big lie” attracted a fringe of believers among Trump’s more extremist base, but he sought — and eventually found — wider validation. In time, Trump and Republican strategists had a misinformed and growing mob to work with, and the lie culminated in the insurrection at the Capitol, where a mob attempted to stop the certification of the election.

Even half a year later, eight Republican Senators and 139 Republican Representatives continue to validate the lie, and many of them soft-pedal the insurrection, because they need the mob to keep their seats.

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How did Trump and his Republican accomplices convince so many that the election was stolen? How can so many believe something that is so blatantly and undeniably false? Psychological studies provide some clues.

The footage of the storming of the Capitol showed a crowd of angry, violent social outliers, 532 of whom have been charged with crimes. Researchers have found that people with this profile typically feel alienated from mainstream society, suffer from low self-esteem and try to resolve both problems by identifying and joining with a group, no matter what it preaches. That makes them easy prey.

Studies show anger often has no specific identifiable source and can be undirected, so it manifests in rage, which drives protest. But undirected anger needs an object, which can be selected and targeted by groups that seek to validate and channel it.  In this case, Trump and his Republican allies directed it toward Congress and Vice President Pence, alleging they were allowing the election to be stolen.

Trump’s big lie is perhaps the most debunked claim of our time and, therefore, needs tenacious defense to be maintained. Behavioral scientists point out that makes such false claims harder to abandon. Defenders shun contrary facts and cling to conspiracy theories such as QAnon, or that voting machines are manipulated, or that Antifa staged the Capitol insurrection.

Unencumbered by truth, keen to prey on the disaffected and uninformed, Republican leaders have manipulated and exploited the mob to harvest their votes and their donations. Their manipulations proved wildly successful, just as the founders feared.

Not only do 56 percent of Republicans say they believe the election was stolen, they have bought into the false hope of overturning the result and have donated hundreds of millions to that end: In the eight weeks following Trump’s loss — as he continued to propound the big lie and promised to overturn the election — $255.4 million was raised for Republican candidates. Voters contributed another $207.5 million to a fund disguised as an effort to overturn the election, but nearly all the money went to Republican campaign groups, to pay Trump’s campaign debts, or to his Save America PAC, which can be used for personal expenses.

It’s shocking, but also so familiar that it fails to surprise anymore.

It’s hard to accept that a lie so big, blatant, pernicious and damaging can prevail over intelligence, truth and conscience. But as the founders anticipated, Trump and his Republican allies have tapped into the power of the mob that the founders feared could subvert democracy.

Neil Baron advised the Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989 and was vice chairman and general counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998. He also served on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.