The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History tells us forged pro-Trump ‘election documents’ should sound alarm bells

Those seeking to thwart democracy have long used forged documents

Former president Donald Trump departs after speaking at a rally at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on Jan. 15 in Florence, Ariz. At the rally, Trump continued to make false claims about the 2020 election. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Jan. 10, just days after the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, Politico reporter Nicholas Wu broke the news that in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election — while President Donald Trump and his allies were falsely alleging that widespread voter fraud had occurred — some Trump supporters in Michigan and Arizona filed forged election documents with the National Archives that incorrectly certified the Trump-Pence ticket as the winner of those states. Some Trump supporters in three other states have since been accused of doing the same.

While this unfolding forgery scandal is shocking, it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, forged documents have a long history in anti-democracy movements around the world. Called “patriotic forgeries,” this duplicitous effort to pass off falsified documents in the name of love of country has long been used to undermine democratic systems.

The term “patriotic forgeries” comes from one of the most infamous episodes in French history: the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing military secrets to Germany. He was innocent, but French military officer Hubert-Joseph Henry and like-minded conservative activists (“anti-Dreyfusards”) believed Dreyfus was fundamentally a traitor because he was Jewish. And so, Henry forged official documents to support treason charges against him.

Henry’s forgery was immediately obvious to French military authorities, but high-ranking officials suppressed the evidence to make an example of Dreyfus. He represented France’s liberal democratic culture, which included expanding secularism, diversity and civil rights, and they hated him for it. The documents became central to his conviction, which anti-Dreyfusards then rallied around to prove that democracy and civil rights were inherently corrupt.

The forged documents were revealed in 1898 and Henry was arrested. Rather than face the humiliation of a trial, he took his own life.

By the time the forgeries came to light, anti-Dreyfusards had built a cult around despising Dreyfus. As a result, they saw Henry as a martyr, not a villain. After news of Henry’s suicide broke, the French author and critic Charles Maurras eulogized the colonel, opining: “Your unhappy forgery will be counted among your best acts of war.” Maurras was an anti-Dreyfusard and virulent antisemite. Like Henry, Maurras believed Dreyfus’s Jewishness made him inherently traitorous. And so, Maurras wasn’t bothered by Henry’s forgery. He defended it in the French press, declaring it a “faux patriotique” — or patriotic forgery.

Dreyfusards and their sympathizers ridiculed such ideas. English poet George Barlow, for instance, derided it as the novel theory of “forgery committed for the love of one’s country!” But the most prominent Dreyfusards, including Émile Zola, Marcel Proust and Georges Clemenceau, largely ignored Maurras and used the forgery revelation to push for a review of Dreyfus’s conviction.

But the faux patriotique persisted and became a rallying cry for France’s anti-democracy crusaders. In the days immediately following Maurras’s declaration of patriotic forgery, anti-Dreyfusards published similar articles in newspapers throughout France. Antisemitic attacks multiplied in the following weeks, and conservative activists organized mass meetings and threatened war if Dreyfus’s conviction was overturned because of Henry’s forgeries.

The mere matter of falsified documents, announced two years after they’d been used to re-convict Dreyfus, did little to change anti-democracy conservatives’ opinions — in fact, it hardened their commitment to the cause. One conservative, antisemitic newspaper, La Libre Parole, raised more than 130,000 francs from more than 15,000 people for Henry’s wife to use to file a libel suit against a journalist who accused him of treason. Maurras went on to found the antisemitic, anti-democracy, protofascist Action Française movement, which waged violent attacks on democracy throughout Europe well into the 1930s.

But using patriotic forgery to attack democracy wasn’t unique to France. The most obvious example is “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a noxious antisemitic tract purporting to be a centuries-old secret blueprint for global Jewish domination.

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were adherents to theProtocols,” which they knew was forged, probably by Russian intelligence agents around 1903. Yet, the forgery was beside the fact, as it always is with a faux patriotique.

Like Maurras, Hitler and Goebbels were undaunted. According to Goebbels’s biographer, Peter Longerich, the Nazi propaganda minister “accepted the ‘inner’ authenticity of the protocols” because the tract supported the Nazis’ hypernational patriotism. Hitler claimed that “Jews invented the mass seduction of liberal democracy,” and the Nazis used the “Protocols” as a basis to attack both throughout the 1920s.

The “Protocols” became a cornerstone of 20th century anti-democratic rhetoric and continues to circulate widely in anti-democratic circles. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, nearly 80 percent of U.S. respondents who agreed with the “Protocols” also agreed with QAnon, a “patriotic” conspiracy theory organized around undermining American democracy.

As yet, no one has defended the pro-Trump forged elector certificates as patriotic. And that is a good thing. But the mere act of forging electoral certificates highlights the danger American democracy continues to face. Patriotic or otherwise, forgeries represent an advance of anti-democratic activism in the Republican Party.

Fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories are not generally subject to legal action, but forgeries are. Anyone willing to take that step is banking on the collapse of American legal institutions and processes.

If the faux Henry episode teaches us anything, it’s that we cannot allow the elector-certificate forgeries to fade into oblivion. It’s vital that the perpetrators be brought to justice, but it’s equally vital that Americans recognize how dangerous these patriotic forgeries truly are.