The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans and others offer tips on how to rebut millions of ‘election deniers’

Demonstrators rally outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 21 at a “March for Trump” protest against the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Demonstrators rally outside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 21 at a “March for Trump” protest against the results of the 2020 presidential election. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
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It’s been bad enough dealing with climate change deniers. Now we also have to deal with tens of millions of election deniers.

Prodded by President Trump’s false tweets, with tacit or open encouragement from most of the Republican leadership, at least half of the GOP electorate has embraced the outlandish theory that the Democrats stole the presidential election for Joe Biden, polls show.

This rejection of reality shows signs of putting down roots in our region. Of the five Republican congressmen in Virginia and Maryland, four have so far refused to recognize Biden as president-elect. They are Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, and Reps. H. Morgan Griffith, Rob Wittman and Ben Cline of Virginia.

Some losing GOP candidates in our area are following Trump’s example by refusing to concede and crying foul in their own races, without offering substantial evidence to support their claims. Manga Anantatmula, who lost her bid for Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s seat in Northern Virginia by a margin of more than 2 to 1, said Connolly (D) is “a swamp and stole the election by fraud.”

The prominent exception is Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has long kept his distance from Trump. He calls the president’s efforts to overturn the election “outrageous.”

Va., Md. Republicans follow Trump playbook, questioning his defeat and refusing to concede.

It’s no exaggeration to say Trump’s attacks risk crumbling the pillars of representative democracy. The republic cannot function without trust in elections. Trump’s refusal to concede is blocking a smooth transition of power amid a pandemic and recession.

So a critical question going forward is: What can be done to correct this? How do we counter the notion that Biden is anything other than the legitimate president-elect?

To answer that, I talked to a number of politicians and experts, and reached out in particular to some local Republicans and conservatives who accept Biden’s victory. Before discussing their responses, though, let’s dispense with a couple of counterarguments made by Trump supporters.

First, it’s beyond doubt that Biden won fairly. His margins of victory were in the thousands or tens of thousands in decisive swing states. Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security called the election “the most secure in American history.” Sixteen U.S. attorneys assigned by Attorney General William P. Barr to monitor malfeasance found no evidence of substantial anomalies. Republican officials in swing states Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona have said Biden won. Courts have rejected nearly all of Trump’s legal challenges.

Second, although many Democrats questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency for various reasons, they did not go nearly as far as Trump is doing now.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016, called Trump “an illegitimate president” last year because of offenses including Russian interference. But unlike Trump, she conceded a day after the election and never made wild claims such as corrupted counting machines switched or deleted millions of votes. President Barack Obama cooperated fully in the transition, and Trump thanked him for doing so in his inaugural address.

Most Republicans greet Trump’s push to overturn the election with a customary response: Silence.

Republicans and independent analysts said a key to restoring faith in the election is to bombard doubters with objective evidence — but without insulting them.

“You use facts as a sort of blunt-force trauma for people who deny math,” said Rep. Denver Riggleman (Va.), the only GOP congressman in the region who has accepted Biden’s win. (He lost the GOP primary and so was not reelected.)

“It could be millions and millions of people who believe this election was stolen, based on ideas or conspiracy theories that are not rooted in any type of facts,” Riggleman said. “The people who are doing this need to be identified and dragged into the sunlight.”

Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist and former Hogan communications director, was appalled by some of the ­far-fetched notions floated by Trump and his team.

“Conspiracy theories from the tinfoil-hat brigade absolutely need to be refuted, every one, all the time,” Mayer said.

But Mayer also asked for “a little bit of compassion” for Republicans who are grieving over Trump’s defeat.

“We should definitely keep saying what’s true, but how you deliver the truth is just as important,” Mayer said. “If you deliver your truth on the end of a proverbial spiked hammer, it’s only going to inflame the situation. . . . Stop calling everyone who disagrees with you an idiot.”

Richard Vatz, a conservative professor of political rhetoric at Towson University, said Democrats and others should keep asking one question regarding claims of fraud: “Where’s the evidence?” At the same time, he urged them to keep the rhetoric cool in a ­“lower-our-voices approach.”

Anger builds in Black community over Trump’s claims of voter fraud in big cities.

A separate but important mission is educating the public to distinguish between responsible journalism and disinformation. A promising initiative is a two-year-old company, NewsGuard, that provides detailed ratings of the trustworthiness of more than 6,000 news websites. It has fingered more than 130 sites spreading false information about the election. It has special reports on online election myths and Facebook pages that are “superspreaders” of election misinformation.

“One thing at the heart of this [election] mess is obviously the challenge of what may be declining media literacy overall,” said Executive Editor James Warren, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune

Republicans who have declined to acknowledge Biden’s victory are quickly approaching a choice that will determine how severe and long-lasting the problem of election denial will become.

Until now, many in the GOP have hinted that there may have been significant irregularities in the election but stopped short of fully endorsing Trump’s claims of massive fraud. They accuse Democrats and the news media of jumping the gun in labeling Biden the winner, even though such declarations have been routine in the past in elections with similar results.

That’s been the coy approach of the four Republican congressmen in our area who haven’t yet admitted that Biden won. Their moment of truth will arrive when Trump’s legal challenges are exhausted and recounts completed.

Will they admit that Biden was legitimately elected president, or go along with what surely will be Trump’s everlasting claim that he was robbed? (He still says falsely that he won the popular vote in 2016.)

Riggleman said his GOP colleagues’ choice would depend on whether they can summon the courage to risk alienating Trump and the activist Republican base.

“The problem we’re having is one word: fear,” Riggleman said. “All we have now is fear, fear that you’re not going to get reelected, that you’re going to anger some people.”

Connolly, the Virginia Democrat, said the decision will depend on “cynical calculations,” such as whether the congressmen think denying the election result will yield “an extra couple of points” in the next election or “some extra donations.”

Sadly, even if the elected officials admit the truth, a sizable part of the GOP base will probably cling to the myth of widespread fraud.

“As long as there are millions of Americans who prefer the nonsense to the reality, I don’t know that there’s much you can do,” St. Mary’s College political scientist Todd Eberly said.

Said Bill Bolling, a former ­two-term Republican lieutenant governor of Virginia, who now teaches politics at George Mason University and elsewhere: “The emotions are so high that you’re not going to change anybody’s mind. I think you just have to move on.”