The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters have seen past presidents as illegitimate. This time is different.

Members of the National Guard and D.C. police keep a small group of Trump supporters away from the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Twenty-plus years later, it’s hard to appreciate just how close the 2000 presidential election was. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, beat Republican George W. Bush nationally by about a half-million votes of 105 million cast. But the results came down to the electoral college and, specifically, to what was eventually determined to be a 537-vote margin in Florida. Gore conceded after the Supreme Court curtailed his legal efforts to count more ballots in Florida, but many Democrats continued to view Bush as an accidental, if not illegitimate, president.

Sixteen years later, that sentiment returned. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, earning the White House by virtue of eking out narrow victories in three Rust Belt states. In part thanks to the experience in 2000, people seemed more willing to accept that Trump had lucked into the presidency, but reports about Russian efforts to influence the election (the effects of which were felt only in the abstract) prompted more skepticism about Trump’s legitimacy.

Then 2020 happened. Trump lost easily, by a margin of 7 million votes nationally and by roughly the same electoral-vote margin by which he had won four years prior. Yet new polling from CBS News, mirroring polling from CNN conducted last month, shows that as many Republicans view President Biden as illegitimate as Democrats did Bush at the same point in 2001.

It isn’t a secret why this is happening. Two-thirds of Republicans told CBS News it was somewhat or very important that Republican elected officials “support claims of election fraud in 2020” — an unsubstantiated assertion that has been hyperactively promoted by Trump himself. In that CNN poll, conducted by SSRS, half of Republicans said there was “solid evidence” that Biden didn’t legitimately win enough votes to be president.

This is not true. In fact, this is not remotely true. It has been six months since the election, six months in which Trump and his allies have elevated all sorts of claims about the election that have not panned out. There remains no evidence that rampant fraud occurred, much less enough fraud to swing one state, much less the three that would have been needed to deny Trump the presidency.

When we talk about Republican skepticism about Biden’s legitimacy, it is important to note that Democrats were skeptical of Bush in 2001 and Trump in 2017. But it’s important to note, first, that Democrats were less skeptical of Trump in April 2017 than Republicans are of Biden now. It’s more important to note, though, that Democratic skepticism derived partly from the fact that Gore was denied the presidency not because he was rejected by voters but because of the vagaries of the electoral college. It’s most important to note that the claims that Biden wasn’t elected legitimately are utterly noncredible, as unfounded as assertions that Russians changed votes to swing states to Trump in 2016.

In other words, Republicans are basing their claims of illegitimacy about Biden’s presidency not on an abstract sense of how the electoral college defies the will of voters or on strong evidence that fraudulent votes were cast. They are basing their claims on falsehoods and dishonesty — and expecting their legislators to do the same.

That last point is important. While in both 2000 and 2016 there were prominent Democrats who endorsed the idea that the president was illegitimate, there was no institutional push to validate the idea or to stamp out dissent. Now, there is, from new restrictions on voting putatively centered on “fraud” to a surreal result-revisitation effort in Arizona, a state Biden flipped, to the removal of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the House Republican leadership team for insisting correctly that the election wasn’t marred by fraud.

Alarmingly, there have even been repeated reports of legislators actively fearing the response from Trump’s base should they not acquiesce to his false presentations of what happened last year.

During the weekend, Cheney appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” to discuss her ouster from leadership. Speaking to Jake Tapper, she claimed she wasn’t alone in her sentiment about the need to impeach Trump after the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, violence that followed directly from his repeated claims about the election being stolen.

“If you look at the vote to impeach, for example, there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security — afraid, in some instances, for their lives,” she said. “And that tells you something about where we are as a country, that members of Congress aren’t able to cast votes, or feel that they can’t, because of their own security.”

Cheney isn’t the first person to make that claim. At the time, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told MSNBC that he had spoken with Republican colleagues with regularity.

“A couple of them broke down in tears,” Crow said, “ … saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.”

The impeachment vote came one week after the Capitol riot, so it’s certainly understandable that there would be explicit concern about personal safety. But it’s still remarkable to consider that political leaders in the United States should be so concerned about their own safety that they refuse to confront a former president’s obviously false assertions about the election results.

For many people, their assumptions about what happened in the election are born not of an objective consideration of the available evidence but, instead, of giving their trust to people and media outlets offering false or incomplete assessments of the election. Half of Republicans think that there’s solid evidence of rampant fraud not because all of them have considered the available evidence and come to that conclusion based on a fair, rational assessment; they couldn’t have, since the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion by a mile. Instead, they are trusting the presentations of people like Trump or Sean Hannity or One America News — and reacting to the presentations of people like Cheney or writers at The Washington Post.

Yes, Hillary Clinton disparaged Trump’s victory repeatedly after 2016. She didn’t start a blog filled with garbage assertions about the election, spend every minute of her time for months promoting false claims about the election, skip Trump’s inauguration or offer approval for a violent attempt to block the counting of electoral votes. It’s a difference in scale that’s a bit like comparing jumping in the air to flying a 747 cross-country.

Trump was legitimately elected in 2016 and legitimately ousted in 2020. If you believe Trump, you come to a different, wrong conclusion, as he intends. This time, it’s different.