Over the course of the past 378 days, there has been an enormous amount of time, money and energy spent trying to undercut the election’s legitimacy. There have been myriad studies, numerous hearings, dozens of lawsuits, infinite tweets and endless commentary — but zero credible evidence of any significant effort to illegally affect the vote. Not only was the election secure, but it withstood far more scrutiny than any election in U.S. (if not world) history. There is literally no rational reason to believe that the election was stolen.
Yet many people still do — and that’s because of rhetoric like that offered this week by Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.).
“If anybody tells you the 2020 election was not stolen, they are lying to you,” Cawthorn said at an event. He pledged a “forensic audit” of “all 50 states” if Republicans retake the House in 2022 — an authoritative-sounding pledge that, in practice, seems to largely involve throwing as much nonsense at the results of an election as possible to see if anything sticks. After a “forensic audit” conducted in Arizona, the results didn’t change, but Trump and his supporters had a bunch of new “questions” about the results. This is how it works, of course. In lieu of evidence, Trump and his allies simply keep “asking questions,” often ones that have been conclusively asked before.
Cawthorn is a very good example of how this works. He’s not a policy wonk, an observation that is to understatements what Michael Jordan is to professional basketball. He’s performative fury and right-wing rhetoric competing in a heated contest against several of his colleagues, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). That he’s simply one of several conspiracy-theory-espousing hard-right legislators actually gives him some cover; a decade ago his approach to the job would have been striking. Now it’s muffled. So when he regularly makes comments that would strike many Americans as inappropriate or controversial, they often escape notice.
But meanwhile, there he is, telling his supporters that only “liars” say the election wasn’t stolen. I’m saying it wasn’t, so he’s calling me a liar — which is the point. I’m from the hated Washington Post, so of course I reject the non-evidence that’s being presented as evidence. Not only is reality not useful to Cawthorn, the anti-reality of claiming that the election was stolen is. So that’s what he hypes.
Three-quarters of his party agrees with him. That’s the finding from an Economist-YouGov poll conducted not in November 2020, when the election results hadn’t been exhaustively reconsidered. It is, instead, a polling result from last week.
In fact, thanks to entirely dishonest — aggressively dishonest — claims like Cawthorn’s, this view has barely budged since the election itself. In Economist-YouGov polling, an average of just under 75 percent of Republicans have said that President Biden’s victory was illegitimate since the election was held. The lowest the number has gotten was in the first poll after the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 when only (“only”) two-thirds of Republicans said Biden’s win wasn’t legitimate.
Different people will rationalize this in different ways. That the number fell after Jan. 6 suggests that perhaps it’s simply a way of expressing opposition to Biden, itself a bit of performance that lost its luster in the wake of that violence. Or, perhaps, people will try to argue that other things made the election illegitimate, such as expanding voting access or the actions of social media companies. But when Cawthorn tells his supporters that it was stolen with no qualifiers, they clap and mm-hmm in response.
Cawthorn made a prediction: After Republicans “figure out what went wrong” with the 2020 election (spoiler: nothing significant), it would help ensure that Trump is “back in the White House” after the 2024 election. In the spectrum of right-wing views, this is actually a relatively moderate position. In that YouGov poll, more than a quarter of Republicans said it was at least somewhat likely that Trump will be reinstated as president by the end of this year. (A handful of Democrats did, too, perhaps expressing fear of usurpation more than anything.)
By the end of the year! Three in 10 Republicans think it’s pretty possible that Trump will be president again in 45 days.
In the context of bonkers claims like that, falsely believing that the election was stolen is practically middle-of-the-road.