The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Birtherism paved the way for the ‘big lie.’ The latter is proving more pervasive and stubborn.

At a rally on Oct. 9 in Des Moines, former president Donald Trump continued to unleash a litany of false and unproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

From the beginning, the GOP’s embrace of the “big lie” that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election has been compared to birtherism. Both conspiracy theories were pushed by Trump and were, at their root, about calling into question the legitimacy of a Democratic president using specious and nonexistent evidence. And both were embraced by large swaths of the GOP despite that.

If anything, though, the GOP’s belief in the “big lie” has proved more pervasive and stubborn than the conspiracy theory that laid the groundwork for it a decade ago.

The (sliver of) good news on the American democracy front is that a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows a slight decline in the belief that President Biden’s 2020 win was illegitimate. While 70 percent of Republicans said that in a Post-ABC News poll conducted after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, that number is 58 percent in the Post-U-Md. poll.

The bad news is that other polls — including ones released the same week — don’t yet show such a drop. A University of Massachusetts poll showed that 71 percent of Republicans believe Biden was not rightfully elected, while another ABC News poll had an identical 71 percent saying Trump was the rightful winner of the election.

You can ask the question any number of different ways, but the results are almost always the same: The theory usually finds favor with at least 70 percent of Republicans. And it has been thus for 14 months.

Between November 2020 and November 2021, Monmouth University’s pollsters asked five times whether Biden won the election only because of voter fraud. Each time, precisely 32 percent overall said that was the case. The numbers among Republicans were 70 percent in November 2020, 72 percent in January 2021 and 73 percent in November 2021.

Was the election illegitimate? Seventy percent of Republicans said it was in December 2020, according to Quinnipiac University. Then, 78 percent said so in a September CNN poll. Then came the 71 percent in the U-Mass. poll this weekend.

Was the election “stolen”? In late November 2020, 79 percent of Republicans said it was. The number was a comparatively low 61 percent in May 2021. But by August it was 66 percent in another poll, and then by November was 68 percent in yet another.

While early polling on birtherism was more infrequent, you could get very different results depending upon how you asked the question — from as few as 13 percent of Americans believing in it to upward of 3 in 10 and a significant majority of Republicans (similar to today with the “stolen election”).

And two events did seem to at least momentarily diminish GOP belief in it: President Barack Obama releasing his long-form birth certificate in 2011, and Trump at least momentarily disowning the conspiracy theory (after rekindling it) as a presidential candidate in 2016.

Shortly after Obama released his birth certificate in April 2011, Gallup polling showed the number of Republicans who believed he was born in another country dropping from 43 percent to 23 percent.

The numbers rebounded when Trump ran for president in 2016 and rekindled the bogus questions. When he ultimately said he believed Obama was born in the United States, the number of Republicans who disagreed again dropped — from 51 percent to 33 percent.

While those numbers later recovered yet again — a December 2017 poll showed a slight majority of Republicans (51 percent) believed Obama was “probably” born in Kenya — they did at least momentarily respond to actual developments and evidence. And the disparate numbers suggested the belief was fungible and less pervasive.

Such has not been the case with the “Big Lie.” And that’s despite arguably even more compelling debunkings of it — not just by judges but by conservatives and Republicans who spent months investigating the claims.

The trio of polls in recent days coincided with early results of an election review — spearheaded by Texas Republicans and conveniently released on New Year’s Eve — that showed few issues. The Texas review followed similar reviews by conservatives and Republicans that turned up next to nothing in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and, most recently, Wisconsin. In the latter three cases, in particular, people sympathetic to claims of voter fraud directly rebuked Trump’s claims.

Belief in the “big lie” persists even though the claims of fraud and irregularities have failed overwhelmingly in courts and have been denounced by Trump’s own attorney general, among others who had plenty of reason to legitimize them.

Ten years ago, it was shocking that so many Republicans could believe something so baseless. A decade later, something even more conspiratorial, more dangerous for the future of our democracy, and more roundly debunked has become even more of an overwhelming article of faith in the party — with no sign of abating.

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