The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lie that lingers: 3 in 10 Americans falsely believe the election was riddled with fraud

National Guard members and D.C. police face demonstrators at the Capital on Jan. 6. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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There are millions of Americans who will refuse to believe this sentence: There is no credible evidence of any significant fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Different people will take issue with different words. Some will reject the idea that the evidence that’s been presented by President Trump and his allies in conservative media and on Capitol Hill isn’t credible. But it isn’t; amateur affidavits aren’t credible evidence any more than tortured numerical analysis is. Others will debate the word “substantive,” willfully claiming that the existence of any fraud — which exists at a small scale, as it generally does — somehow suggests a level of fraud that calls into question President-elect Joe Biden’s victory margins of more than 10,000 votes in several states.

Those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of Biden’s win will have different motivations for doing so. Some will dismiss my arguments as illegitimate simply because they come from the hated mainstream media. For a large part of the population, Trump’s obvious bias somehow lends him more credibility than The Washington Post’s imputed bias. Others will reject my arguments because Trump’s allies have generated a mountain of nonsense meant to serve as a counterweight to reality, as though a million drawings of unicorns combined with a fervent desire to believe that unicorns exist can offset the complete lack of demonstrated evidence of the creatures. One of the marvels of the Trump era, in fact, is how often “desire to believe” has replaced “reason to believe” as a motivator for a belief system.

The question that lingers like smoke over the election is what happens next in a scenario in which a large chunk of the country views the election as tainted.

A Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend found that about a third of the country adheres to the idea that Biden’s win was not legitimate. Two-thirds of Republicans hold that view, which isn’t really surprising, but it becomes more stark when made a bit less generalized: Among rural Americans and White Americans without a college degree, about as many think Biden’s win wasn’t legitimate as think it was.

It’s obvious that much of that belief stems from the claims made by Trump and others that rampant fraud occurred. About 3 in 10 Americans see Biden’s win as illegitimate; about as many believe there is solid evidence that fraud occurred.

Allow me a brief intermission here to complain about how frustrating that is. Not only is there no evidence of any substantive fraud having occurred last year, but it also was obvious for months that Trump would lie about whether fraud occurred. He telegraphed over and over that he planned to cast mail-in ballots as fraudulent, and, over and over, The Post and others pointed out that there was no evidence to support the claim. Then the election happened and he lost, and one could track in real-time how his claims evolved and were debunked — and how each claim was added to the pile of unicorn drawings as evidence that something occurred.

Part of this stemmed from the tacit encouragement of people who knew better. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spent weeks demurring to address Trump’s claims about fraud, only speaking out against what Trump was alleging once that dishonesty prompted thousands of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists to storm the Capitol in a misguided effort to block what they saw as an illegitimate transfer of power.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said Tuesday. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government, which they did not like. But we pressed on, we stood together and said an angry mob would not get veto power over the rule of law in our nation.”

All true, but it is hard to extricate those who failed to challenge Trump’s lies from those who actively fostered them. McConnell refused to acknowledge Biden’s win until after electoral college voters cast their ballots, as though there was any question that Biden had won. He, like so many of his colleagues, preferred an easy shrug to the trickier shaking of the head. Instead of saying on Nov. 4 that the fraud claims were ridiculous, he does so now, like a cashier who rails against all the shoplifting his friends are doing only after the store owner catches them in the act.

McConnell does at least admit the reality that the fraud claims were false. He also echoes most Americans in arguing that Trump bears blame for what happened at the Capitol — something with which only a fraction of Republicans agree. More than half of McConnell’s party thinks Trump bears no responsibility for what occurred.

But it remains easier for Republicans to attack the media than to acknowledge how Trump’s rhetoric and their complicity damaged confidence in the election results. As I was writing this, I got a fundraising email from the Republican Party.

“The media needs to be held accountable,” it began. “They are working overtime to drive the Nation further apart by lying about Conservatives. They want America to be divided so much that they stoop so low as to spread false narratives.”

By contrast, what Republican officials sought was just enough dishonesty to be able to do what they wanted. They wanted people to believe Trump’s lies about fraud enough to view the media skeptically and to support new measures aimed at restricting the vote, which often has the happy-for-them side effect of limiting Democratic votes. They were content with the lies about fraud as long as Republican voters didn’t see them as disagreeing with the president, with whom so many Republicans align over their party. Once those lies led to a direct threat on the lives of members of Congress, the line was crossed.

There’s a simple way to counteract the idea that the election was stolen by fraud: for those who propagated that dishonest claim to admit they made it up. Instead, Trump reportedly continues to tell people that, actually, he won the 2020 presidential election.

That Trump is more worried about seeming like a loser than he is about national unity seems to suggest he’s unlikely to admit his dishonesty anytime soon.