For the next few years, he’d occasionally return to the subject, waving his hands about fraud whenever he wanted to complain about immigrants, California, Californian immigrants or whatever. But it was last April when his fraud claims took a new, more concrete form: Democrats were using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to expand the use of mail-in ballots — a tool that made casting illegal ballots trivial, or so Trump asserted.
One could (and many did) watch the plan solidify over the next few months. Mail ballots were rife with fraud, Trump claimed over and over, and therefore an election predicated on mail ballots would necessarily be suspect. By April it had become clear that Trump’s opponent in his reelection bid would be Joe Biden, who led Trump by a healthy margin in the polls. So Trump dutifully planted seeds of doubt about what seemed like a probable Biden win.
As the election neared, he repeatedly refused to say that he would accept the outcome if he lost, instead saying that he would only accept the outcome of a free and fair election — something that he assured his followers was impossible, given the circumstances. Then he performatively demanded that no votes should be counted after the night of the election itself, recognizing that mail ballots that heavily favored Biden would only be counted in the hours or days after polls closed.
It was this poisonous snowball of nonsense meant to set the stage for his declaring that Biden hadn’t actually won. And it worked very well.
In the weeks after his loss, Trump repeatedly claimed that the election had been tainted by fraud, without offering any credible evidence. As surely as he’d built up nonsensical claims of imminent wrongdoing before the Nov. 3 election, he assiduously latched on to any claim of fraud that emerged after the election was over, however obviously ridiculous or quickly debunked. Day after day of dishonesty about his loss, of which his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6 was only the last.
About an hour after he finished speaking, his supporters — in D.C. at his behest and motivated by Trump to try to interrupt the finalization of the election results occurring in the Capitol — had overrun the seat of legislative power in the United States.
Jan. 6 was the culmination, not the origin. Data from Factba.se shows how much of 2020 was spent with Trump laying the groundwork for the claims that became his obsession during his final weeks in office.
He was not alone in this effort. When Trump started talking about fraud or questioning mail-in ballots, so did his allies at Fox News and on the Fox Business Network. When Trump began bashing absentee voting in April, the Fox networks began talking about it more, too. The same thing happened in late May and in August — and after the election, discussion of fraud and mail ballots ballooned on the often Trump-friendly networks.
Part of this was coverage of false claims being made by the president of the United States. Before the election, in fact, half as many 15-second segments aired on the Fox networks mentioning fraud or mail ballots as aired on CNN and MSNBC. After the election, the number was equivalent.
The central difference, of course, was the focus of the coverage. The show which aired the most segments mentioning fraud after the election by a wide margin was Lou Dobbs’s program on Fox Business — a show which quickly became notorious for credulously amplifying Trump’s fraud claims.
All of this, combined with explicit efforts from other Republicans to treat Trump’s claims as legitimate, built the sense among Republicans that some sort of fraud had occurred. Even today, three-quarters of Republicans falsely believe that there was widespread fraud in the election, according to polling from Quinnipiac University.
What happened on Jan. 6 was an extreme response to that belief. But it’s a belief which was fostered for months before that day.