Trump supporters think they're players — but they're still just pawns

The best grift works by convincing the mark that they're part of the con

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 12, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump at CPAC | Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs outside of Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, on June 26, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump at CPAC | Anti-vaccine rally protesters hold signs outside of Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, on June 26, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Do Donald Trump supporters actually believe the Big Lie?

We know they certainly like telling pollsters they do. The latest polling from Monmouth University shows that 63% of Republican voters continue to insist that Joe Biden only won the 2020 election because of voter fraud. But is this something they really believe, or something they simply say out of tribalist loyalties because they believe that repeating the lie is useful justification for the GOP war on voting

On Sunday night, we got strong evidence that, for the most part, Republican voters understand that the Big Lie is indeed a lie. They just repeat it because they view themselves as co-conspirators in perpetuating it.

In his speech at the second "annual" Conservative Political Action Conference of the year, Trump bragged about how he lies about polls and elections when he doesn't win them. "You know, they do that straw poll, right?" Trump asked, referring to the 2024 GOP nominee straw poll CPAC conducted of attendees. "If it's bad, I say it's fake. If it's good, I say, that's the most accurate poll perhaps ever."

The "humor" of this not-actually-a-joke is due to being a sly reference to the Big Lie — an admission on Trump's part that he didn't win in 2020 and is merely saying otherwise for political gain. And it's no surprise that Trump went there. He loves to brag about how much corruption and crime he gets away with.

What is perhaps more important is the audience's reaction to this not-a-joke. 

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Trump got a huge laugh from the CPAC crowd, despite the death and destruction the Big Lie has already caused. As the clip went viral, there was no outraged reaction from GOP voters, no anger that he lies to them in order to enlist their support for an authoritarian coup. Trump supporters aren't mad about Trump admitting he lied for one simple reason: They don't think they're the ones being lied to. They think they're in on it. They know why the Big Lie has been propped up, first to justify Trump's failed coup and now for the ongoing efforts by the GOP to steal the next election. They see themselves as co-conspirators, and thus knowingly laugh at this in-joke about the conspiracy. 

But just because the typical GOP supporter thinks he's in on the con doesn't mean he's not a dupe. On the contrary, Trump and other right-wing leaders deeply understand the adage that you can't cheat an honest man. Letting GOP voters believe they're in on the authoritarian schemes is the way that Trump and other leaders trick these folks into being their pawns. 

This was clearly illustrated by another disgusting moment at CPAC over the weekend, when Alex Berenson, an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, celebrated his success at persuading so many right-wing Americans to reject the shots that have otherwise proven successful at safely preventing COVID-19. 

"The government was hoping that they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated," Berenson said, "and it isn't happening." 

I'm just one of a handful of commentators who have been saying, for monthsas Brian Beutler of Crooked Media noted in his latest newsletter, "that the right would try to sabotage recovery from the plague under a Democratic president." In this view, every transmission, every hospitalization, and every death is a victory, because it keeps COVID-19 in the news and denies Biden his ability to say he beat it. And if they have to use their own bodies to make that happen, well, so be it. 

That may sound paranoid, but as Beutler points out, these are the same conservative leaders who "sought to destabilize the [Affordable Care Act's] marketplaces by encouraging young people to forego health insurance altogether, to accept enormous personal risks for the good of the larger goal of damaging the Obama presidency and discrediting government for the common good." Killing people, even their own people, is seen as an acceptable price to pay for partisan warfare. 

Again, what is telling is the crowd's reaction at CPAC — cheers and applause. They're thrilled at their success at undermining Biden's goals and delighted that case counts are rising in red areas in the country. This reaction shows that, for conservatives, refusing the vaccine is really more about being part of a larger war to undermine Biden's presidency, and not so much the result of sincere concerns about the vaccine's safety. 

Of course, refusing the vaccine means offering your body up to a virus that can be extremely brutal and is often deadly. But conservatives are too tickled by getting one over on Biden to pay attention to the fact that they're the ones taking the serious physical risks. Once again, the best grift works by convincing the mark that they're part of the con. 

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The martyrization of Ashli Babbitt is the grossest, most obvious version of this. Babbitt's history of online delusions suggests she may have been one of the rare right-wingers who really was duped by the Big Lie. Either way, she's dead now and it's all Trump's fault because he's the one who incited the insurrection that led to Babbitt dying. But Trump, sociopath to the core, has no remorse. Instead, he's cynically exploiting her death — a death he caused — by propping her up as a martyr to convince others to follow in her footsteps and die for the Big Lie. 

Most of the Trumpists who have started to venerate Babbitt as their own Horst Wessel know full well that they are gaslighting when they claim that she was an innocent victim shot in cold blood. Her death was taped from multiple angles, making it quite clear that she was shot because she was attempting to lead a charge to run down the clearly visible fleeing congressional members. But they repeat the lie about her innocence, again and again, because most of them view themselves as part of the propaganda effort.

But, of course, all these self-appointed mini-Goebbels are actually the patsies.

Trump clearly doesn't care how many of his own followers get arrested, shot, or injured on his behalf. As his phony exaltations of Babbitt show, he would just see their losses as his gain. And they will go down for him, time and again, mistakenly thinking they're Trump's fellow travelers, never admitting to themselves that he's using and discarding them like he does to everyone. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Ashli Babbitt Big Lie Capitol Riot Commentary Covid-19 Cpac Donald Trump Joe Biden Vaccination Rates