The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s past election lies led to Trump’s big one

Voting-rights activists protest proposed Texas voting restrictions in Austin on May 8.
Voting-rights activists protest proposed Texas voting restrictions in Austin on May 8. (Mikala Compton/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The political defenestration of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is not just the act of a party that has given up truth for Donald Trump, though it is surely that. The journey toward Wednesday’s voice vote to remove her from the House Republican leadership began decades ago in the GOP’s embrace of charges of rampant voter fraud to rationalize its efforts to impede Black and younger voters from casting ballots.

Like so much about what Trump has done, his big lie about having won the 2020 election builds on the only somewhat smaller lies Republicans routinely told in the normal course of business.

The voter-fraud lie goes back at least two decades. The attack on voting rights was codified in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. Five conservative Supreme Court justices “knifed the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” as Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted in an interview.

And many Republicans who know Trump’s claim to have won the election is a confection of nonsense also know it helps rationalize state laws that will make voting harder in 2022 and beyond. GOP state legislators are taking aim at constituencies likely to vote against them.

None of this should diminish respect for Cheney’s guts in taking on Trump — or appreciation for the small Republican minority standing with her. Cheney was right to say Tuesday that “remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar” and furthers Trump’s “crusade to undermine our democracy.”

Follow E.J. Dionne Jr.'s opinionsFollow

Many liberals are understandably uneasy about making a hero of Cheney, who disagrees with them on almost everything. But when democracy itself is under threat, all friends of democracy should stand together. On this issue, she is a hero.

Nonetheless, it’s wrong to pretend that GOP history can be divided cleanly between the pre- and post-Trump eras. Before Trump’s emergence, Republicans laid the groundwork for much of what Trump has done — on immigration, on claiming that only his supporters represent “the real America,” on playing racial politics, on denouncing Democrats as “socialists,” on provoking reaction among religious conservatives and, especially, on restricting voting access.

The situation today reflects the worst tendencies of the pre-Trump era in extreme form. Trump didn’t invent most of what is central to his appeal; he says the ugliest, once-whispered parts out loud. And responsible Republicans who see how dangerous Trumpism is find themselves hamstrung because so many of his claims are already familiar to the party’s base.

Recall, for example, the scandal during the George W. Bush administration over the firing of federal prosecutors who resisted pressure to bring voter-fraud cases.

Their resistance was not surprising since, as Henderson observed, “arguments about voter fraud have no basis in fact” and fraud claims have a long, sorry history, dating to the violent backlash against Black enfranchisement during Reconstruction.

But as the New York Times reported in 2007, the “fraud rallying cry became a clamor in the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election,” even as Republican lawmakers elsewhere voiced “similar accusations of compromised elections.” Bush’s attorney general announced that voter fraud would be high on his agenda.

The effort “backfired badly,” the Brennan Center for Justice reported. “The Justice Department was upended by scandal because it had pursued a partisan agenda on voting, under the guise of rooting out suspected ‘voter fraud,’ ” the center concluded. “Its actions during the George W. Bush administration were well outside the bounds of rules and accepted norms of neutral law enforcement.”

But the fraudulent fraud claims didn’t go away. “The voter fraud lie was always there in rhetoric Republicans used during the Obama administration to push for measures like voter ID laws, but Trump took it to the next level,” Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” told me. “Trump dramatically expanded, accelerated and weaponized the lies Republicans have always been telling about our elections and added the unprecedented element of trying to overturn the result.”

Now, Trump’s inventions are serving as the pretext for discriminatory voting laws that have already passed in a dozen states. “This is why Republicans refused to deny Trump’s lies in the first place,” Berman said.

Mainstream Republicans such as Cheney never imagined that the party’s vote-fraud obsession would to lead to a violent attack on the Capitol. Because it did, the GOP has a moral obligation to repudiate not just Trump but also the bad-faith arguments that undermine our democracy as much as he does. Alas, if they can’t even give room to Cheney, expecting them to embrace voting rights is a pipe dream.

Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Liz Cheney: The GOP is at a turning point. History is watching us.

Jeff Flake: In today’s Republican Party, there is no greater offense than honesty

Ruth Marcus: Georgia’s shameful new voting laws are a product of GOP desperation

Paul Waldman: This isn’t just voter suppression. It’s a war on local control.

Perry Bacon Jr.: America is having a Black Renaissance. We should learn from it.