Election denial and the Big Lie: Sure, Trump made it worse — but both sides do it

MAGA faithful have taken election denial to the extreme, but both parties have nurtured the problem for decades

Published October 31, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Speaking to the House Jan. 6 committee on Sept. 29, Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, stood by her contention that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Thomas and others who doubt the legitimacy of the election results have been convinced to believe the "Big Lie," which refers to an incomprehensible distortion or misrepresentation of the truth as a form of propaganda. The most famous example is the Nazis' big lie about the Jews after World War I, which served to justify the Holocaust for sympathizers. Germany's Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels explained, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

U.S. news media have consistently made analogies to this historical strategy with former President Donald Trump's efforts to spread doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 election in hopes of overturning its results. They contend that this threatens the viability of American democracy. It does at some level, but to focus on Trump is to miss the forest for the trees. An even greater threat to democracy has long been hyper-partisanship — when people choose party loyalty and wishful thinking over empirical data and election results. Cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, play a huge role in supporting such a fallacious thought process to detrimental ends. As we pointed out in our book "United States of Distraction," Trump is a symptom of this much larger problem.

Electoral denialism did not start with Trump. In the U.S., this chicanery dates back to the early days of the republic. With this in mind, a big-picture analysis reveals that Trump was simply trying to complete what George W. Bush started in 2000 when the Supreme Court simply declared him the winner of the presidential election.

Worse, many of the very people who oppose Trump helped create the context in which his "big lie" can flourish and become legitimized. Indeed, the Lincoln Project Republicans and Liz Cheneys of the world, who almost universally defended Bush's illegitimate presidency, created a context where elections could be stolen in plain sight. More important for contextualizing Trump, U.S. citizens came to understand they lived in a country where they knew their president had been placed in power by fellow elites.

Many of the same people who oppose Trump created the context for his "big lie": Lincoln Project Republicans and Liz Cheney universally defended George W. Bush's illegitimate presidency, fueling a climate of political cynicism.

This cynicism about the electoral process worsened with birtherism: the racist fake news that claimed Barack Obama was not a real American and had in fact been born in Kenya. This type of racist accusation has been made about people of color for centuries in this country, and made Obama's candidacy vulnerable to the racist whims of voters. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton's campaign was the first to exploit this vulnerability. The Republican Party would perpetuate the lie during Obama's expectation-shattering victories in 2008 and 2012. During his entire presidency, people repeatedly searched for, attained and then refused to accept Obama's birth certificate from the state of Hawaii as legitimate. Trump was pivotal in spreading birther lies throughout Obama's presidency, and then amplified this nonsense as part of his political posturing to eventually become the dominant leader in the Republican Party. There's no doubt Lincoln is rolling in his grave.

Further, Obama's milquetoast neoliberal policies turned people against the Democratic Party, which lost nearly 1,000 seats between Congress and state legislatures nationwide over the course of his presidency. Along with Hillary Clinton's mismanaged 2016 campaign, which alienated and marginalized progressives by manipulating the primary process against Sen. Bernie Sanders, that led to Donald Trump's election. 

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In defeat, Clinton and the Democratic National Committee machine borrowed from the Republican playbook, and rationalized her loss with speculations and outright falsehoods in an effort to delegitimize the Trump presidency. Unlike the Democrats who rightly rejected the results in 2000, Clinton and her DNC supporters spent four years spreading false and baseless reasons for their defeat, blaming progressive voices such as Sanders (who campaigned more for Hillary Clinton than she had for Obama), Russian interference and social media fake news for "stealing" the election, or at least influencing the outcome. Studies have shown, however, that it was legacy media right here at home that actually had the most influence on voters in the 2016 election. This resulted in more electoral cynicism, expressed by four years of "not my president" sloganeering that certainly did not contain the racism of birtherism, but echoed the notion that Americans only need to respect an election outcome if their preferred party and candidate wins.

Indeed, the nation's pundits scratched their heads in collective awe and disbelief after 2016. How could this have happened? How could the establishment's cadre of experts not have seen a Trump victory coming? Simple: Like the QAnon fanatics and Trumpists of today, they did not want to see it. Their implicit biases wouldn't permit it. In fact, YouTube recently attempted to censor and demonetize a video collection of the Democratic denialists of 2016 by Matt Orfelea. The double standards around this topic are as obvious as they are mind-boggling. 

In the months leading up to the 2020 election, both parties primed their voters to reject the results. Trump spread rumors of election fraud while the Democratic Party and its allies in the intelligence community appeared ready to amplify warnings that Russia and Trump were working to steal the election. That proved irrelevant as Joe Biden won the presidency — although his electoral victory resulted from a 40,000-vote margin across three key states in 2020, which was half the margin Trump won by in 2016. Trump and his supporters, of course, rejected the election results as they promised to "stop the steal."

If past is prologue, each party may well continue to escalate its electoral denial to a level where election results simply won't matter at all. In 2016, Clinton officially conceded, but continued to publicly deny the election results. In 2020, Trump exploited the electoral cynicism that was decades in the making and refused to concede, inspiring his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election results. Granted, Democrats did nothing like that in 2016 — but who knows the degree to which continued hyper-partisanship will escalate electoral denialism in the future? The point remains that denial and refusing to accept the election outcomes was very much part of the Democrats' narrative from 2016, parroted by MSNBC and CNN in particular. It's not just Fox News and Trump that are the problem here. It's civic decay.

The bottom line here is that it's simply unsustainable for a country to have half its voters, not to mention its candidates and party leaders, refuse to accept election results. Such political theater erodes election integrity because it distracts from legitimate threats to free and fair elections, such as voter suppression efforts and privatized election systems and voting machines, while simultaneously normalizing hyper-partisanship and electoral denialism. When people choose party loyalty over empirical results to determine electoral outcomes, the democratic republic ceases to exist.

By Nolan Higdon

Nolan Higdon is Project Censored national judge and a lecturer at Merrill College and the Education Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. His recent publications include "The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education" and "Let's Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy" (with Mickey Huff). He is a contributor to "The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People."

MORE FROM Nolan Higdon

By Mickey Huff

Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored and president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation. Since 2009, he has co-edited the annual "Censored" book series for Seven Stories Press, now in partnership with The Censored Press. He is professor of social science, history and journalism at Diablo Valley College. His recent publications include "Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy" (with Nolan Higdon).

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Big Lie Commentary Donald Trump Election Denial Elections George W. Bush Hillary Clinton