How the Big Lie poison continues to spread — and why it's getting worse

Reason and truth will never defeat the Big Lie — its supporters are waging a religious war against democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 16, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Person in a stop the steal cowboy hat at the Protect Our Elections Rally at the Arizona Federal Theater in Phoenix, AZ July 24, 2021.  (Cassidy Araiza for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Person in a stop the steal cowboy hat at the Protect Our Elections Rally at the Arizona Federal Theater in Phoenix, AZ July 24, 2021. (Cassidy Araiza for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election — which is now supported by most of the Republican Party — continues to spread across America. This infection of the mind, heart, brain, and spirit now inflicts tens of millions of Americans.

The Big Lie is animated by one absurd but intractable assumption: America is not a "real" democracy unless the Republicans win. All other electoral and political outcomes are fraudulent, illegal or otherwise illegitimate. When Republicans "win," even if through blatant illegality and fraud, democracy is "working." When the Republican lose, they claim that democracy is critically damaged or broken and must be "protected" according to their suggestions and rules.

As with other fascist and authoritarian movements, democracy is not understood as an ideal and norm to be nurtured, maintained and protected. It is just a means to an end, a convenient tool for amassing as much power as possible with as few restrictions as possible. Effectively, democracy is a pathway to the destruction of democracy from within.

The Big Lie and the assault on American democracy is also racialized. The votes of Black people and other nonwhite groups are a priori to be suspect, inferior and illegitimate compared to the votes of white people — more specifically, the votes of white "Christian" conservatives and other "real Americans."

However Joe Biden and other pro-democracy leaders seek to massage the situation, there is no distinction between "MAGA Republicans" and any other kind. In its embrace of the Big Lie and its general contempt for democracy, civil rights, truth and empirical reality and any shared norms of human decency, the Republican Party has fully surrendered to racial authoritarianism.

In a recent series of posts on Twitter, David Atkins, a writer for Washington Monthly, offered the following observations on the Republican-fascists and their vision of America:

They see social and demographic changes as itself cheating them out of their birthright, such that any insurrection and fascism is a justified response. They have no birthright, none beyond the same citizenship as the rest of us, and the basic rights we all have as humans.

Nothing has been taken from them, because none of it ever belonged to them in the first place. Insofar as equity feels like oppression to them — too bad. Their prior advantages existed & exist not by right but by theft. The fact that they have lost the culture is their problem.

The fact that most people live in cities is their problem. The fact that almost everyone under 45 hates them is their problem. The fact that the pews are emptying is their problem. The fact that not even corporate America or pro sports likes them anymore? Their problem. 

What "Make America Great Again" means is "give us our hegemony back and hurt all the people we fear and see as a threat." Too bad. We all exist in this big country together. With equal rights, social protections and equity. They are owed nothing more than the rest of us.

They see their fascist insurrection as a necessary counterreformation to re-establish their genetic, chromosomal and God-given birthright. They have no genetic, chromosomal or God-given birthright to rule. They never have. The very notion deserves maximum scorn.

Where are we now with the spreading poison of the Big Lie? CNN reports that 19 of the 35 U.S. Senate seats being contested this year feature Republican nominees who "have challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election — rejecting, raising doubts about or taking steps to overturn President Joe Biden's victory." That list "includes five incumbent senators and 11 other candidates who have at least a reasonable chance of winning in November":

The success of election deniers in Republican Senate primaries around the country — from the southern border to the northern border; in swing states, conservative states and liberal states; among established officeholders and first-time candidates — is yet more evidence of the broad support among party voters for former President Donald Trump's lie that the election was stolen.

The 19 Republican Senate nominees on this list of election deniers and doubters join at least 11 Republican nominees for state secretary of state and at least 22 Republican nominees for governor….

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the winners of this year's state-level Republican primaries "fit a pattern: Across the battleground states that decided the 2020 vote, candidates who deny the legitimacy of that election have claimed nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over elections":

Had those candidates held power in 2020, they would have had the electoral clout to try something that the current officeholders refused: overturning the vote and denying Biden the presidency. ...

Whether they could have succeeded in practice is a matter of vigorous debate among scholars, who cite the potential for court challenges and other means of upholding the results.

But the experts agree on one thing: A close presidential contest that comes down to the outcome in states where officials are willing to try to thwart the popular will could throw the country into chaos. It would potentially delay the result, undermine confidence in the democratic system and sow the seeds of civil strife on a scale even greater than what the nation saw on Jan. 6, 2021….

The predilection among Republican primary voters toward candidates who deny the result of the last election extends well beyond Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona — three states that together accounted for 47 electoral votes in 2020, more than enough to flip the last election to Donald Trump.

In the 41 states that have held nominating contests this year, more than half the GOP winners so far — about 250 candidates in 469 contests — have embraced Trump's false claims about his defeat two years ago, according to a Post analysis of every race for federal and statewide office with power over elections.

Furthermore, the proportion of "election-denying nominees" in the Post's analysis is even higher in critical battleground states that decided the 2020 election, such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

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In a new essay for the Nation, Chris Lehmann issues a real-time warning about the critical danger to American democracy this year, observing that FiveThirtyEight reports that "118 full-on election deniers" are likely to win election to Congress this fall:

The site also reports that two gubernatorial candidates poised to win are election deniers, while four more are doubters; a handful of other hardcore deniers in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona can't be ruled out of the running, either. Seven deniers are on the ballot in state attorney general and secretary of state races as well — elections that FiveThirtyEight doesn't handicap. Some states — such as traditional swing bastions Florida and Pennsylvania — have their governors appoint secretaries of state, which brings the potential denier count up to 11 in this cycle.

It's safe to say that no significant swath of major candidates for office have denied the legitimacy of the American electoral system since the height of militant Confederate sentiment in the antebellum South. And it's not just the breadth of election-denying dogma on the right that's so worrisome; it's the down-ballot reach of the denialist field. This critical mass of election deniers bears testimony to the success of former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon's "precinct by precinct" strategy to consolidate grassroots power within the GOP — and to lay the groundwork to sow dissent over the outcome of a Republican-averse 2024 presidential result.

Republicans and their allies are engaged in a full-spectrum assault on American democracy that fundamentally undermines the principle of one person, one vote. This includes threats of violence, voter intimidation and harassment, efforts to take over or compromise local elections boards, legal action and legislation meant to suppress likely Democratic votes, especially among Black and brown people. 

Sometimes this is entirely explicit. Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania — a Christian nationalist and fervent Trump supporter — literally prayed for the end of democracy during a Zoom call with other right-wing Christians just a week before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson reports:

"God I ask you that you help us roll in these dark times, that we fear not the darkness, that we will seize our Esther and Gideon moments," [Mastriano] said, invoking a pair of Old Testament heroes who made themselves instruments of God's vengeance. "We're surrounded by wickedness and fear, and dithering, and inaction," he added, "But that's not our problem. Our problem is following Your lead." Looking ahead to Jan 6, the man said: "I pray that… we'll seize the power that we had given to us by the Constitution, and as well by You, providentially. I pray for the leaders also in the federal government, God, on the Sixth of January that they will rise up with boldness." ...

As he spoke, Mastriano held up letters to Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy that he said Trump personally asked him to write to the Republican leaders "outlining the fraud in Pennsylvania." He implored that Congress "disregard" the certified election results for the state, "in Jesus' name, amen."

The prayer meeting — one of a series of nearly two dozen "Global Prayer for Election Integrity" calls organized between election day and Jan. 6 — was organized by Jim Garlow, a prominent figure in the far-right New Apostolic Restoration movement. Garlow believes that U.S. government should operate according to biblical principles, because, "He knows best how government is to function."

The Philadelphia Inquirer further reports that Mastriano "has promoted plans to suppress the vote in future elections," including a ban on "no excuse" voting by mail and drop boxes, as well as a plan to require all voters to re-register, likely a violation of federal law.

If elected governor, Mastriano boasted about how he plans to interfere with election outcomes if he doesn't get the results he wants. Mastriano said he would get to "appoint the secretary of state, who's delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs, and everything." He added: "I could decertify every machine in the state with the, you know, with the stroke of a pen."

NBC News recently reported on a large study of the Jan. 6 attackers by Harvard researchers, which found that the most common motivations for joining in the insurrection were "focused on former President Donald Trump and his lies about the election":

The report adds to evidence from thousands of court documents in the more than 840 cases brought forward so far that many of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol and committed violent acts were motivated by their support for Trump and their belief in lies about the 2020 election.

A plurality of rioters cited either their support for Trump (20.6%) or Trump's false belief that the election had been stolen (also 20.6%) as their primary motivation for their actions that led to charges on Jan. 6.

The third most frequently listed reason defendants gave to law enforcement for entering the Capitol was their belief that they were participating in "revolution, civil war, or secession."

About the same number of defendants in the study claimed they were at the Capitol to "peacefully protest" (7%) as those who claimed they were there because of a "general interest in violence" (6.2%).

The Big Lie is central to the Republican-fascists' plan to end American democracy. Its supporters have developed a consistent set of talking points designed to legitimate their plan and its ultimate goal as somehow "patriotic" and in service to "democracy" rather than the exact opposite. The facts, of course, are that there was no significant "election fraud" in 2020 or any other recent election. The illegal and anti-democratic behavior was entirely by Republicans — most notably the Jan. 6 attack and the nationwide plot to nullify Joe Biden's legitimate victory.

The Republican slogan "election integrity" is thinly veiled code for voter nullification and voter suppression. When Republicans claim they want "free, fair and transparent" elections, they are attempting to create a problem that does not exist so they can impose their favored "solution" — in practice, rigging elections to ensure that they always win.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post recently offered this overview of how the Big Lie propaganda model works in practice:

Of all the lies that Donald Trump loyalists have told this cycle, perhaps the most disgusting one is this: Their designs on our election system are motivated by nothing more than pure, angelic concerns about "election integrity." ...

These Republicans aren't just urging rule-breaking at the polls. They're also justifying it by claiming in advance that Democrats are the real cheaters, per CNN, thus prefabricating a phony rationale for their own chicanery.

This self-justifying ruse — Democrats will inevitably cheat, so pretty much anything goes to set things right — is absolutely foundational to right-wing efforts to corrupt democracy across the board, including laying the groundwork to steal future elections. ...

 [O]ne of the ways Trump-backing, MAGA-minded conspiracy theorists are intervening in the election process across the country, sometimes encouraging poll workers or volunteer observers to violate election rules in hopes of finding evidence that Democrats might be doing the same. ...

The 2020 results were confirmed by dozens of court cases and numerous audits. But no matter: The myth of a fraud-riddled 2020 will forever continue justifying whatever means Republicans decide are necessary at any given point.

Republicans are just trying to restore the integrity of our elections, you see.

For the most part, the mainstream news media and the pundit class have failed to make sense of the Age of Trump and the escalating threat from the Republican-fascist movement. As an institution, the media remains wedded to obsolescent norms and ways of understanding politics and society, especially to horserace coverage, opinion polls and a dangerous commitment to "fairness" and "balance." 

Reporting on the Big Lie and other assaults on democracy is largely driven by an assumption that if enough people turn out to vote, the better angels and good sense of the American people will cancel out the danger. Or by the blatantly ludicrous assertion that more and better information will eventually persuade the Republican fascists to return to "reality" and to the realm of "normal" politics.

That has repeatedly been proven false. The Big Lie must be understood as the manifestation of an authoritarian, dystopian vision of society — and also as the means of forcing it into being. The Republican fascists see themselves as waging a political and religious struggle to remake American society in their own image. 

In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, reporter Luke Mogelson, who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, said that Trump's supporters understood their fight as "nothing less than a battle between light and dark, the godly and the godless.... [T]hat's how many of the participants in the insurrection viewed their actions, not as a political act but as something taking place in a more timeless, kind of cosmic, spiritual framework."

There is no way to defeat the Republican-fascist movement without understanding that framework and then discarding obsolete habits and disproven assumptions. Republicans believe themselves to be waging a divine struggle to defeat American multiracial democracy, which they perceive as godless, destructive and evil. There is no way to reason with that kind of thinking.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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