In one sense, it’s not surprising to learn that Donald Trump’s campaign officials knew they were lying their backsides off when they hatched their now-notorious conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems. These were central to trying to overturn his 2020 loss. Of course, they knew these were inventions, right?

But the latest news about this lie — that a memo has surfaced showing Trump’s co-conspirators knew the truth about Dominion’s voting machines even as their lies intensified — is nonetheless highly significant.

That’s because it clearly illustrates how knowingly manufactured lies about our electoral system, and about the left writ large, were wielded as the foundational justification for efforts to subvert our democratic order. The manufacturing of these lies continues to function as a kind of prefabricated pretext for overturning future elections, making this a continuing danger.

Two weeks after the election, lawyers working to overturn it held a news conference where they spewed lurid lies about Dominion. These included a weird theory involving Smartmatic software and the idea that Dominion collaborated with George Soros and Venezuela to steal the election.

But as the New York Times reports, they knew it was all nonsense:

By the time the news conference occurred on Nov. 19, Mr. Trump’s campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.

The memo was included in papers filed in a former Dominion employee’s lawsuit against the Trump campaign and others. As the Times reports, the Trump campaign “sat on its findings” even as lawyers such as Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani continued publicly attacking the company.

But the memo directly rebutted their claims. Per the Times, it indicated that Dominion didn’t use Smartmatic software, had no “direct ties to Venezuela or to Mr. Soros,” and that there was “no evidence” of Dominion connections to antifa activists.

The wrong question

We constantly debate whether Trump and his supporters “actually believe” the election was stolen. But these revelations show how thoroughly this question misses the big story here, which is the central role of deliberate propagandistic invention in such efforts to overturn our democratic order.

To fully appreciate this, consider another new revelation, the one about the Trump coup memo. In it, another Trump lawyer outlined how then-Vice President Mike Pence could essentially ignore federal law and refuse to count President-elect Joe Biden’s electors.

What was the essential prior ingredient in this scheme? Lies about the election. Fake fraud claims would enable Republicans in swing states to send slates of rogue electors, whereupon Pence could say neither the real electors nor the rogue ones were valid.

Because the states hadn’t rendered a clear outcome — we just don’t know which electors reflect the true popular will! — none of their electors would count. Trump would win a majority of remaining electors.

Let’s foreground the lies

Sham audits in Arizona and elsewhere will serve a similar function. When they find fake evidence of fraud, their perpetrators will know this tactic can be used to manufacture future pretexts for undermining legitimate electors. That could set in motion schemes like sending rogue electors and getting a GOP Congress to count those and not the valid ones.

True, we don’t know how many Republicans will buy into future such schemes. One way to demonstrate good will would be to back reform of the Electoral Count Act, which would make them much harder to pull off.

The point is this: The push to subvert democracy relies on an elaborate superstructure of such prefabrications. And so, as Laura K. Field argues, we need to foreground all this lying, as its own big story, as itself posing a lingering threat to democratic stability.

It’s notable that the lying about Dominion also involved elaborate theories about Soros and antifa. As Field notes, hallucinatory depictions of the leftist threat provide the “justificatory schema” for the meta-argument about why it’s justifiable in the first place to use bad-faith procedural warfare to subvert the true will of the majority.

Right-wing media and manufactured uncertainty

Which brings us to the role of right-wing media. As the Times notes, even as Trump’s allies knew the Dominion claims were lies, they disseminated them far and wide via conservative media.

The result, reports the Times, is that “the false theories they spread quickly gained currency in the conservative media and endure nearly a year later.” There are many such examples.

Similarly, as Matt Gertz shows, the Trump coup memo author also used such outlets to broadcast his sham legal theories in the run-up to Jan. 6. This shows the role of right-wing media propaganda in laundering and disseminating the lies that prefigure the main event that comes next, the legal effort that is to serve as what Richard L. Hasen calls a “respectable bloodless coup.”

I’ve argued that uncertainty is the coin of the realm here. This creation of uncertainty — the idea that the popular vote outcome cannot be known — is critical. It lays the foundation for dense, technical arguments exploiting opaque statutes and other vulnerabilities in our system, which then can assume center stage in efforts to subvert legitimate democratic outcomes.

They already tried this. We all saw it happen. What we’re now learning is just how dark this episode truly was, and how dangerous the lingering threat remains.