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The Big Lie is the GOP’s one and only truth

Liz Cheney’s downfall shows the GOP threat to democracy is getting worse.

A scene from the rally at the Capitol on January 6, before the building was stormed by protesters.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Rep. Liz Cheney (WY), the third-ranking Republican in the House, has officially been removed from her leadership post. Her crime? Voting to impeach Donald Trump and then, subsequently, continuing to rebuke his “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was somehow stolen.

In this, Cheney is hardly alone. At the national and state level, Republicans who challenged Trump’s Big Lie — ranging from Sen. Mitt Romney (UT) all the way down to a member of the Michigan State Board of Canvassers — have been either formally punished or publicly rebuked. The party may not agree on much internally nowadays, but on this point, they march in lockstep: Trump’s falsehoods about the election must not be challenged.

This is not what Joe Biden seemed to think would happen. During the campaign, he predicted that “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends” if Trump were defeated. In December, long after it was clear Trump was standing by his false claims of a stolen election, Biden told supporters that “you’re going to be surprised” by how reasonable Republicans could be — though he added that “I may eat these words” eventually.

The events of the past few months have confirmed that Biden’s public optimism was indeed misplaced. Republicans cannot tell the truth about the 2020 election, nor treat him as a fully legitimate president. Trump’s hold over the party is too powerful, his Big Lie widely believed among Republican voters and activists alike.

This state of affairs — the culmination of years of Republican attacks on both the Democratic Party and the legitimacy of the electoral system itself — is dangerous. And it raises a disturbing question: Is the Republican Party even capable of treating a Democratic president as legitimate? And if, not, are we heading for future electoral crises dwarfing even the disaster in 2020?

The Big Lie is GOP gospel

Cheney is not alone in suffering consequences for challenging Trump’s allegations.

  • Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defended the state’s counting process against Trump’s attempts to interfere with it, was stripped of his voting power on the State Election Board as part of Georgia’s new voting restrictions law.
  • In a special House election in Texas held on in early May, the Trump-critical Republican in the race — Michael Wood — got 3 percent of the vote.
  • In January, Michigan Republicans removed Aaron van Langevelde, a GOP attorney who broke with the party to certify Biden’s victory in Michigan, from his post on the state’s Board of State Canvassers.
  • At the Utah Republican Party’s convention this weekend, Sen. Mitt Romney — perhaps the GOP’s leading Trump critic — was booed and called a traitor.

At the same time, Republicans who have embraced falsehoods about the election have been elevated.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY), who appears likely to replace Cheney in the No. 3 spot, backed Trump’s anti-election efforts to the hilt. Most egregiously, she falsely asserted that there were 140,000 illegal votes in Georgia’s Fulton County alone — which would amount to more than 25 percent of all the votes in the entire Democratic-leaning county. The breakout Republican stars in the House of Representatives, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Lauren Boebert (CO), both egged on the January “Stop the Steal” rally that culminated in the attack on Capitol Hill.

There’s a similar pattern at the state level. Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, who filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in her state, won her January reelection bid for party leadership. Texas state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who flew to Pennsylvania to litigate on Trump’s behalf, was made the chair of the House Elections Committee — where he is currently pushing a series of voter suppression bills.

Remaining in the GOP’s good graces requires that elected officials either actively embrace lies about 2020 or, at very least, refuse to condemn them. As a result, 2020 conspiracy theories are exerting a dominant influence on the party, shaping both legislation and the base’s worldview.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise And House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney Hold News Conference
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY).
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Across the country, state legislators have introduced over 360 bills that restrict voting rights, per a count by the Brennan Center for Justice — the majority of which aim to restrict absentee voting in way or another. Several have already been enacted, including in key states like Georgia and Florida.

The restrictions on mail-in balloting, pushed primarily by Republicans, are not especially strategic — it’s not clear either party benefits more from expanded remote voting. But the bills serve as a way of codifying Trump’s false claims that these ballots were the key source of Democratic fraud, the reason he lost and Biden won. Trump’s lies are changing our nation’s laws.

And polling has consistently found Republican voters take Trump’s view of the election. An April poll from Reuters/Ipsos is a representative example: It found that 60 percent of Republicans agreed that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump,” with 55 percent saying the result came from “illegal voting or election rigging.”

From top to bottom, the GOP has been conquered by the Big Lie. Much as North Korean state press proclaims that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger, Republicans must now proclaim there was something fishy about Joe Biden’s victory.

The GOP elite gave us this party

This dire outcome was not inevitable: The best evidence we have suggests that the rise of the Big Lie is the direct result of strategic choices by Republican leaders.

A new paper by Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzes data from a panel survey, which looks at roughly the same group of people over time, running between 2007 and 2020. The survey asked people to rate the fairness of the US electoral system on a scale of 1 to 5, and tracked the changes over time.

Dan Hopkins

What they found was a striking consistency: “Support for the American system is both high and reasonably stable when assessed via this measure,” Hopkins writes. Though there are some fluctuations, with partisans evaluating the system as somewhat less fair when the other party is in power, generally they’re small.

Hopkins’s last survey wave was in October 2020 — which means the results don’t reflect the false allegations lobbed in the aftermath of Biden’s victory. “The stability documented here was very likely shattered by Trump’s post-election actions,” Hopkins concludes.

Other data confirm this supposition. A report from the Voter Study Group analyzed Pew surveys, conducted after every presidential election since 2004, on whether voters thought their vote was counted fairly. You see the same general stability documented in Hopkins’s paper, with a majority of voters in both parties saying they were “very confident” their vote was counted accurately in every year — except 2020:

2004’s lower Democratic numbers likely reflect a combination of lingering resentment about the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision and conspiracy theories propagated by a handful of prominent Democrats that Diebold voting machines might be rigged in Bush’s favor.
Voter Study Group

Taken together, these two results suggest that there’s nothing “natural” about voters believing elections were rigged against them. In fact, even when their party loses, both Republicans and Democrats have historically believed that the process was generally fair and the outcome basically legitimate.

The obvious explanation, as Hopkins notes, is when it comes to the 2020 election, the Republican elites were leading the voters — not the other way around.

“Recent shifts in public opinion were thus not a primary engine of the Trump presidency’s antidemocratic efforts or their violent conclusion,” he writes. “Such stability suggests understanding the precipitating causes of those efforts requires attention to other actors including activists and elites.”

The implication of this research is that we are stuck in a dangerous pattern.

Trump’s pronouncements, endorsed and spread by a number of prominent Republicans, radicalize the base — undermining faith in democracy itself. Republicans inclined to challenge this view realize they’re out of step with the party and mostly stay quiet; those who do speak up publicly, like Cheney or Raffensperger, get marginalized or stripped of their power. This weakens the constituency to challenge any future lies from Trump and other like-minded Republicans.

It’s a one-way ratchet, where a faction of the GOP elite led by Trump pushes the party further and further down an anti-democratic road. And there’s no obvious way to stop it.

Get ready for another possible crisis like 2020

This is not the first time that Republicans have declared a Democratic president somehow illegitimate. They impeached Bill Clinton on flimsy grounds, after previously accusing him of crimes ranging up to murder; there was a widespread campaign to label Barack Obama an unlawful foreign-born president (led by Trump, but tolerated by GOP elites). These campaigns were effective: A 2019 poll found that 56 percent of Republicans still believed that Obama was born in Kenya.

Nor is this the first time Republican elites have ginned up suspicion of voter fraud for political purposes. After Republicans won a series of statehouse elections in 2010, they spent the next few years falsely claiming that voter fraud was a serious threat in order to pass voter ID laws that were nakedly designed to suppress the vote among Democratic-leaning minority groups. Research has found that, even prior to Trump, this convinced Republicans that voter fraud was a real problem when it’s exceptionally rare.

These earlier campaigns laid the intellectual groundwork for 2020. Republicans were already primed to believe elected Democrats were somehow illegitimate and to believe in widespread fraud in the American electoral system. Trump’s innovation — claiming that an entire presidential election result was fraudulent — was pushing on an open door.

A protestor holds a placard saying Stop the steal during the...
A demonstration in Nevada on February 1.
Ty O’Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The modern Democratic Party has never attempted anything similar. As much as Democrats disagreed with the 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling, there was never any attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court and have Al Gore declared president. As much as the Democratic base despised Trump’s 2016 victory, both the Hopkins and Voter Study Group studies show that they basically accepted it as the result of a legitimate process.

It’s easy to imagine this sparking another crisis in the near term, especially given that Trump is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 GOP primary. “We should start to very much worry about what Jan. 6, 2025, looks like,” election law scholar Edward Foley told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent.

But the problem goes even deeper than just the next cycle. Since at least the 1990s, the GOP has worked consistently to undermine the legitimacy of its political opponents. In the Trump era, that has fused with their efforts to sow panic about voter fraud into a generalized sense that if Democrats win, it’s because they broke the rules.

So is the Republican Party capable of ever recognizing a Democratic president as legitimate again? It’s a question that no one can really answer — and one that suggests our democracy’s existential crisis is very far from resolved.

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