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The lies have it

Jennifer VenisWednesday 2 February 2022

Pro-Trump supporters storm the Capitol building in Washington, DC, US, 6 January 2021. Shutterstock.com/lev radin

A year after insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol building, disinformation’s grip on the country is only increasing. In a year in which US voters will go to the polls for mid-term elections, Global Insight explores the dangerous direction that US democracy is heading in.

In early 2021, US democracy teetered at the edge of a cliff.

Donald Trump, the 45th US President, initially refused to concede when he lost the November 2020 election and, with allies, actively tried to convince officials to overturn the results.

He told what some refer to as his ‘Big Lie’ – that the presidential election was rigged, that there was massive voter fraud, that he had really won and that Biden had lost. He took his claims to social media, mainstream media, the courts and his rallies. He would never reveal proof – and courts would throw out the cases as baseless – but he didn’t need to.

As historian Timothy Snyder writes of fascism in his 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, ‘once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant’.

In the 20th century, Snyder argues, ‘Fascists rejected reason in the name of will, denying objective truth in favor of a glorious myth articulated by leaders who claimed to give voice to the people’.

Snyder saw, in the 2016 Trump campaign, the rhyming of history: ‘Now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share’.

Evidence that the election was the most secure in US history, provided by the former President’s own administration, didn’t matter. Trump and his supporters believed he should have won, so he must have.

Then, spurred on by the incendiary Lie, his supporters marched on the Capitol building to ‘stop the steal’, with some calling for the assassination of elected officials.

The moment the mob breached the police line, violently assaulted officers and finally smashed their way into the building was witnessed globally through live broadcasts. But it was only revealed in the aftermath just how close insurrectionists came to their goals. The cost of the defence of democracy, calculated in the lives of police officers and guards lost or injured, is still being revealed.

Post-truth America

In a New York Times guest essay, Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the US, writes that after Biden’s victory was certified, ‘There followed a brief hope that the insurrection would shock the nation into addressing the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy’.

While it did push more Republicans to condemn Trump and the Big Lie, the party and right-wing media has increasingly rallied behind him, embracing disinformation and cementing polarisation.

As Carter writes, promoters of the Lie ‘have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral systems. These forces exert power and influence through relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans’.

Two-thirds of likely 2022 midterm election voters believe the country has become more divided since 2021, according to a Schoen Cooperman Research survey published in December. A bipartisan cohort – 49 per cent for both Democrats and Republicans – believe US democracy is at risk of extinction.

This poll is one of many conducted at the anniversary of the insurrection, which has itself been subject to disinformation.

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about 30 per cent of Republicans believe the insurrection was not violent at all. Another 30 per cent claim it was only somewhat violent.

ABC News and Ipsos found 52 per cent of Republicans believe Capitol rioters were trying to protect democracy.

As President Biden stated on the anniversary of the attack, ‘The former president and his supporters are trying to rewrite history. They want you to see Election Day as the day of insurrection and the riot that took place here on January 6th as the true expression of the will of the people’.

According to a National Public Radio (NPR) survey, a third of Trump voters believe the insurrection was actually a false flag operation – that is, an act where the true perpetrators are hidden and the blame placed on others – that was coordinated by ‘opponents of Donald Trump, including antifa [anti-fascists] and government agents’.

Truth and justice

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently emphasised the importance of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which is due to deliver a report exposing the attack’s intricacies shortly before the midterm elections in November.

Goodwin believes this will help more people break free of disinformation and be compelled to not only ‘prevent it from happening again but deal with what is going on in the country that made this possible to happen’.

Professor Paul Smith, a professor from practice at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC tells Global Insight that ‘accounting of those responsible for the insurrection and the attempt to overturn the Electoral Vote count on January 6 can play a big role in isolating Mr Trump and his most loyal followers from others in the Republican party who still believe in democracy. That seems to be crucial to making progress between now and 2024’.

Matt Kaiser, Vice-Chair of the IBA Criminal Law Committee and a partner at KaiserDillon in Washington, DC, agrees. ‘The more aggressive the Department of Justice is with looking at domestic terrorists, the better off our democracy will be. You just really ought to prosecute people criminally who try to overthrow the government.’

However, he says, ‘the level of partisan divide is so strong that there are some people who are just always going to believe that the Capitol was overrun by Antifa or by FBI informants or Black Lives Matter activists or they’re just immune to the truth’.

It’s an open question how much you can have a democracy when people can’t agree on basic facts

Matt Kaiser
Vice-Chair, IBA Criminal Law Committee

‘It’s an open question how much you can have a democracy when people can’t agree on basic facts’, Kaiser adds.

‘I don’t know that lack of truth necessarily brings fascism’, he says, ‘but I guess we’ll find out. I suspect when you have fascism, you always have a preceding death of truth, but I don’t know that that’s the inevitable consequence. And I sure hope it’s not’.

If it is, alarm bells should be ringing, because support for the Lie is growing.

Schoen Cooperman Research found that the number of voters who believe Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election grew from 28 per cent to 35 per cent between April and December 2021. The 64 per cent who believe he legitimately won declined to 54 per cent. Three per cent more voters (11 per cent total) are now unsure. Critically, 47 per cent believe real cases of fraud changed the outcome of the election.

The Lie has helped to convince some that fraud will affect future elections. Only 63 per cent of voters are confident the 2022 midterms will be counted fairly and accurately.

Uncivil war

Most egregiously, 29 per cent of voters will not trust the results of the 2024 presidential election if their preferred candidate does not win.

Other polls suggest Americans increasingly support political violence. Nine per cent of Americans believe ‘Use of force is justified to restore Donald J Trump to the presidency’, according to a University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Threats survey carried out in August 2021.

‘That’s an alarmingly high number’, Kaiser says.

The Washington Post reports that only 62 per cent of Americans believe political violence is never justified, down from 90 per cent in the 1990s.

29 per cent of voters will not trust the results of the 2024 presidential election if their preferred candidate does not win ​​​​​​​

This growing minority has led some to ask if the US is headed for a second civil war. Some experts foresee a potential civil conflict akin to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with episodic terrorist attacks.

The likelihood of conflict may be increased by state legislatures’ attempts to use Trump’s Lie to take away voters’ power.

‘Our chief national danger’, US President Benjamin Harrison warned Congress in 1861, is ‘the overthrow of majority control by the suppression or perversion of popular suffrage’, following which ‘the public peace might be seriously and widely endangered’.

Alongside ongoing legislative attacks on voting rights, the States United Democracy Center reports that at least 216 bills in 41 states have been introduced by Republicans to give state legislatures more power over election officials.

Professor Smith highlights reports of state and local election administration positions being taken over by people perceived to be Trump loyalists.

These manoeuvres strip away barriers that stopped Trump succeeding in 2021, making it more difficult for voters’ voices to count.

For Professor Smith, the remedy is congressional action on reforms, such as to the Electoral Count Act 1887. ‘There is good reason to hope that, even now, there can be bipartisan progress on a bill that would make it harder to overturn the next presidential election after the fact’, he says.

But democracy is slow, and those willing to forgo its norms are outpacing its defenders. That US democracy could still fall may seem unthinkable, but that’s no guarantee.

‘Trump does a remarkably effective job of normalising unthinkable things’, Kaiser says, pointing to the insurrection’s violation of democratic norms just to keep one person in power as an example.

‘The other thing that’s remarkable’, Kaiser adds, ‘is the change in the Republican Party. During Watergate, when Nixon resigned, the reason he did is because he lost Republican support, because the Republicans recognised this would be horrible for their party, but really important for our country. And they put the country over their party’.

US Representative Liz Cheney, the most high-profile Republican pushing for accountability, recently told CBS that the Republican party faces such a choice again: ‘We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both’.

Jennifer Venis is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at jennifer@jennifervenis.co.uk

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