Jonathan P. Baird: Making truth irrelevant

For the Monitor
Published: 1/17/2022 6:01:14 AM
Modified: 1/17/2022 6:00:10 AM

The Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is an undeniable part of Donald Trump’s legacy. I think it is appropriate that if our former president is known for anything, it’s dishonesty. No president in my lifetime has ever had less regard for the truth.

To Trump, it did not matter that over 60 courts categorically rejected his Big Lie allegations. Nor did it matter that he could never produce any evidence of voter fraud or even come up with a coherent story.

On election night, Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, said, “Just say we won.” That became the Trump strategy. Based on nothing, he just said he won. The idea was that if the lie was repeated enough, repetition would get people to believe it and to some extent, that has worked. Millions have bought in.

According to CNN, 36% of Americans do not believe Biden won, including 78% of Republicans. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Big Lie has been effective in snookering people. Those numbers are impressive.

Most analysis that I have seen about the Big Lie, however, misses its racial dimension. Trump and his allies spent weeks after the election saying massive voter fraud and irregularities occurred in big cities and counties with large populations of Black and Latino voters. They singled out Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Maricopa County.

Trump ally Newt Gingrich said, “They stole the election in Philadelphia. They stole the election in Milwaukee. They stole the election in Atlanta.”

Congressman Mo Brooks, a Trump ally from Alabama, said, “If you only count the legal voters, then Trump is the winner.”

It does not take much of a leap to see where that is going. White Trump voters are the legal voters. Those other voters, the Black and Latino Biden voters, should not count. One side is seeing itself as the real Americans entitled to decide the election and the other side falls into some lesser, non-counting category. This voter panorama is fundamentally about white supremacy and the entirely speculative accusation that Black people and Latinos were stealing the election.

To those with a sense of history, this has a familiar ring.

Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University has said, “It’s as vile now as it was during Reconstruction, when Democrats believed that Republicans were illegitimate and that Black voters had no right to be voting, and they did all of these terrorist activities to block African Americans from voting. It’s a very narrow, slippery slope, from saying ‘illegal votes’ to ‘illegal voters’ so this attack on Black voters is real.”

It needs to be said that the Big Lie is fundamentally about racism.

At the same time, it is also about smashing the truth. Election officials around the country and Trump’s own Attorney General William Barr verified that the election was “the most secure in American history.”

The Trump campaign knew its own allegations were false. According to the New York Times, back on Nov. 19, an internal memo from the Trump campaign had determined that claims about rigged voting machines were untrue but that did not stop the voter fraud allegations which got wilder and wilder. Pretty soon there was Italygate, and Hugo Chavez and George Soros in place of any rational argument.

So how could it be that truth became irrelevant and that so many willingly believed nonsense? The best explanation I have seen comes from Jason Stanley, an expert on fascism. Stanley says that fascist movements like Trump’s want to make truth irrelevant. The argument is that if the other side, the Democrats, are an enemy, truth doesn’t matter. Only winning matters.

Fascism is a way of seizing power that relies on propaganda and violence. It utterly rejects core liberal democratic values. The Big Lie of voter fraud becomes a justification for more restrictive voting laws, voter suppression and election subversion.

The Big Lie has billionaire funders from the American financial elite. Hiding behind the Orwellian cover of election integrity, dark money organizations, funded by undisclosed donors, have promoted the myth that voter fraud is epidemic in America. Republicans have made a cynical calculation that as a minority party unable to win voter majorities, their mission is to focus on disqualifying ostensibly illegitimate voters.

Jane Mayer of the New Yorker has shown how conservative organizations like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council have refocused obsessively on voter fraud when the evidence of that occurrence is entirely lacking. They fund absurdities like the Arizona audit which contribute to the destruction of faith in the actual integrity of elections.

People seem to forget the dissolution of Trump’s voter fraud commission in 2018. Trump was upset he lost the popular vote in 2016 and he created a sham commission to make it seem like there was a problem.

The Big Lie is also a grift used to motivate the Republican base. Trump, his circle and Republicans generally sell merchandise and fundraise off it. You can buy a Sidney Powell “Release the Kraken: Defending the Republic” drink tumbler, a Lin Wood “Fight Back” unisex fleece hoodie or a Mike Flynn “Fight Like a Flynn” women’s racerback tank top.

One question that jumps out is why so many people buy the Big Lie. I think it should be clear that the Trump appeal is entirely emotional, not intellectual. People are not connecting to MAGA because they have read well-reasoned position papers on public policy. The appeal is rooted in irrationalism and the racism I mentioned is part of that.

Trump has no plans to solve future problems. MAGA is about nostalgia for a past that never happened. It is also about resentment and punishing those you see as enemies. Most mainstream commentary about the Big Lie misses the truly dangerous dimensions of the MAGA movement.

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm wrote, “When fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak or such yearning for submission.”

The Big Lie offers a window into a racist and fascist worldview. Too many Americans remain uncomprehending of the danger represented by the present incarnation of the Republican Party.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)




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