More than a litmus test: How the Big Lie threatens to crack up Trump's coalition

Tensions rise in the GOP over how far to take the Big Lie and the politics of insurrection

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 25, 2021 1:10PM (EDT)

John Eastman, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Mike Lindell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
John Eastman, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and Mike Lindell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There is one thing Republicans are in fierce agreement on: gutting democracy by preventing people from voting — or having their votes counted — and setting the GOP up so that it "wins" elections, even though more Americans want Democrats as leaders. But underneath this agreement are rising tensions over what that push against democracy should look like.

Donald Trump and the more Trumpist wing of the GOP favor a brash approach, based on hyping lies about "stolen" elections, promulgating conspiracy theories about fake ballots and hacked voting machines, and defending the January 6th insurrectionists as martyrs for a just cause. The more institutional Republicans, on the other hand, are becoming warier of this shameless approach. 

As I detailed at Salon last week, some of the more institutionalist Republicans have been trying to rewrite the Big Lie. They long for anti-democratic propaganda that is subtler, less embarrassing, and — most importantly — gives them cover within the mainstream media for their radical authoritarian views. The most recent gambit is an attempted redefinition of "rigged election," claiming it's not in reference to the more outlandish conspiracy theories, but to the get-out-the-vote donations by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which are portrayed as somehow sinister. It's a hysteria based in racism, but it gives conservatives something factual to point to — Zuckerberg did give money to pro-democracy groups — to justify the non-stop ranting about "rigged" elections. The strategy is very much like what's going on with schools, where the teaching of of slavery and Jim Crow in history is used as a pretext for paranoid screaming about "critical race theory."

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Republican propagandists want to have their "rigged election" cake, but be able to pretend to be serious people in mainstream politics. Trump and some of his most loyal apparatchiks, however, are not having it.

RELATED: The evolution of Trump's Big Lie: Republicans retool their conspiracy theory for the mainstream 

Last week, Bill O'Reilly interviewed Trump for his misnamed "No Spin" show and tried to get Trump to parrot back the more mainstream-friendly "Zuck bucks" rewrite of the Big Lie. Trump stubbornly refused to play along.

"This is the real rigged election," O'Reilly insisted, referring to Zuckerberg's financial support of pro-democracy groups. "It wasn't voter machine fraud or dead people—"

Trump — whose jaw visibly tightened when he realized that O'Reilly was trying to sell this softer take on the Big Lie — interrupted.

"It was everything," he insisted, clearly not ready to have his over-the-top lies about a "stolen" election replaced with this limp whining about a garden variety get-out-the-vote effort. 

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the biggest "stolen election" conspiracy theorists, is also none too happy about the efforts to launder the Big Lie. On a recent episode of his "Frank" show, Lindell responded to this O'Reilly interview with Trump by yelling, "The machines were the big steal" and insisting that "O'Reilly's delusional." 

Also in the "just keep telling the unvarnished version of the Big Lie" camp is Steve Bannon, despite recently being held in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer a subpoena issued by the January 6 commission. He's been hosting Lindell on his show, where Lindell keeps telling wild stories about how homes with only two residents somehow voted 20 times. Bannon himself is pushing claims that Democrats plan to "steal" the gubernatorial election in Virginia, prepping his listeners to reject any outcome where Democrat Terry McAuliffe beats Republican Glenn Youngkin. 

But while Bannon seems unruffled by the threat of actual jail time for his seditious behavior, other Republicans have reason to worry both about the legal and electoral consequences of the raw, uncut form of the Big Lie.

RELATED: Jan. 6 organizers say they held "dozens" of planning meetings with House Republicans: report

New reports from the Washington Post and the Rolling Stone have started to expose how much conspiring there was by Trump's allies prior to the January 6 riot, making it clear that there was nothing spontaneous or accidental about Trump's speech that incited an angry crowd to storm the Capitol that day. 

John Eastman, the Federalist Society lawyer whose scheme to overturn the election was the fuel that inspired the Capitol riot, is clearly concerned that he might actually face a consequence or two for his role on the attempted coup. He is now saying it was "crazy" to think it was a "viable strategy" to demand that Vice President Mike Pence vacate the election results and turn the 2020 election over to Trump, which is exactly what the insurrectionists were trying to force Pence to do. But Eastman is, quite literally, the guy who came up with this "crazy" idea, wrote a memo for it, and worked with Trump's allies in a "war room" at a D.C. hotel for weeks, in an effort to make this "crazy" scheme happen. 

RELATED: Mike Pence's 6-point plan to steal the election: Republicans leave roadmap for future authoritarians

The reason that Eastman, O'Reilly and other more traditional Republicans are eager to rewrite the history of the Big Lie and the insurrection is not mysterious. The reporting on the coup's "war room" and Bannon being held in contempt shows that the January 6 commission may not be as toothless as they hoped it would be. There's a real possibility that the extent of the conspiracy will be revealed. There is even, however faint, a possibility of legal consequences for the participants. In addition, it's widely believed in GOP circles that the insurrection is turning off moderate voters, who would be inclined to vote for the GOP, so long as they didn't think doing so would be tantamount to supporting a literal fascist uprising. 

But Trump, Lindell, and Bannon are right to think that the GOP base doesn't want a watered-down revisionist history of the Big Lie and the insurrection. The base wants their conspiracy theories simple and overt, and they want the insurrection celebrated, not shoved down the memory hole. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post got a taste of this reality over the weekend when he attended a Virginia rally for Youngkin that he initially thought would be a little more tasteful than the stereotypical "MAGA gathering" because the "attendees were professionals" and some even "wore North Face." But when one looked past the bland exterior of the country club Republicans, it was a sea of mini-Lindells and mini-Bannons.

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"But even here in the upscale suburbs, Republican rallygoers I buttonholed overwhelmingly accepted the 'big lie' about the 2020 election and expected fraud in the gubernatorial election, too," Milbank writes, noting, "If Republicans subscribe to the 'big lie' here, then it prevails everywhere."

This is the dilemma facing Republicans going into the 2022 midterms. Many leaders desperately want to put a "moderate" face on the party, making it palatable to suburban voters who find the politics of insurrection unsettling or distasteful. But, in doing so, they run the risk of turning off their own voters, who are done with what they see as pussyfooting and are ready to embrace a more flagrantly fascistic approach. Who will win the struggle depends on both the midterm elections and how serious the January 6 commission gets about holding those behind the insurrection accountable. But right now, I wouldn't bet against Trump and his crew of unabashedly seditious conspiracy theorists. 

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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