The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the falsehoods survive

A sign next to a gas station proclaims that “God Knows Trump Won” in Worthington, Pa., on Dec. 30. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Former president Donald Trump’s reaction to President Biden’s excoriation on Thursday morning of Trump’s role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol was precisely as you might expect. Or, I should say, each of the three separate reactions Trump offered was precisely as you might expect: rambling, furious, accusatory, dishonest.

For the purposes of this article, a look at how the pro-Trump galaxy of pundits and hangers-on enable his dishonest claims about the election, we’ll focus on the third of those three statements. It, more than the other two, centers on the falsehoods that spurred the riot at the Capitol in the first place: Trump’s ongoing and debunked insistences that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

The statement begins with a set of cherry-picked statistics about which president had won election with which states. Trump’s banged this drum often enough before that there’s no reason to reiterate them. Suffice it to say that, in a pattern with fewer than a few dozen precedents, there are still a lot of never-happened-befores that could still happen. Just because no president had previously won while losing Florida, Ohio and Iowa doesn’t mean that such a thing was impossible or that somehow Biden cheated. (Also, John F. Kennedy lost those states, but who’s counting.)

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What I’d like to focus on, though, is this claim from Trump, a new addition to his tired litany of falsities: “Where did all those votes show up from in Georgia, where it was just revealed they sold ballots for $10 a piece,” the statement reads.

A remarkable allegation, centered on the idea that something new had been “revealed.” And, if you are immersed in the pro-Trump — or anti-anti-Trump — media world, you’ve probably already come across the claim.

On Tuesday evening, the site Just the News, founded by former Hill writer John Solomon, reported that the state of Georgia had “launched an investigation into an allegation of systematic ballot harvesting during the state’s 2020 general election.” (If Solomon’s name seems familiar, it’s probably because he played a central role in elevating debunked claims about Hunter Biden’s business activity in Ukraine.) Just the News spoke with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who confirmed the report. Raffensperger’s office had received a tip from a watchdog organization, True the Vote, about ballots being gathered and submitted on behalf of voters, a process called “ballot harvesting” that is illegal in Georgia. Should this prove to be true, it would be a win for True the Vote, which last year ran a fundraising campaign on providing just this sort of evidence. (A lawsuit filed against True the Vote by a donor frustrated at the organization’s failure to prove fraud was dismissed in April.)

The existence of the investigation got some traction on the right. The National Pulse (which, by way of explaining its politics, identified Stephen K. Bannon as its 2021 “Patriot of the Year”) picked up the Just the News story, prompting a spate of enthusiastic “now-we-got-’em” style replies on social media. The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, who’s made a career out of battling established media outlets to Trump’s benefit, shared an interview Raffensperger gave to a show produced by the right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Trump’s assertion about people being paid $10 is mentioned in that interview.

I likely do not need to tell you why this claim got the attention it did from the people it did, but it’s nonetheless worth fleshing out.

Trump’s statement in response to Biden’s speech included an inadvertently pertinent reference to the “web of lies” he endured during the Russia investigation. This, you will recall, was a situation in which Trump benefited from efforts by various allies, often including Hemingway, to shift the goal posts to bolster his false assertions. Then, his allies cobbled together an alternate narrative to explain how the investigation emerged and hyped every small correction or adjustment to the official story as evidence that the whole thing was a house of cards.

After all, the play has long been not to prove Trump right, but to prove the left and the media wrong. So now, in a moment that Trump is focused on his false insistences about the 2020 election being stolen, his team gins up an effort to elevate anything even moderately dubious about how the election was conducted to similarly cut the official story and, in the eyes of his enthusiastic base, to bolster Trump’s nonsense.

It’s really important to understand the shifting of the goal posts that’s happening here, just as they shifted in the Russia probe toward the more defensible narrative that his allies cobbled together. For nearly two years, Trump has been claiming that thousands or millions of illegal votes would be or had been cast, to Biden’s benefit and his detriment. Many Republicans, understanding that this claim is increasingly indefensible, moved the goal posts to suggest that changes to voting rules were the mechanism for fraud. Often, this was done with a wink, letting elected officials shout about “rampant fraud!!” to the furious base while quietly whispering to donors, “ . . . in the sense of dubious legislative efforts.”

Here we have the same shift. People unfamiliar with how elections work will see these outlets and individuals hyping this claim about harvesting and take away the intended message: Trump was right all along! But then you go just a smidgen deeper and see the reality. Solomon admitting that True the Vote “does not allege the ballots delivered by couriers were fraudulent.” Raffensperger, in the Sinclair interview, made that point explicitly.

“Those are still lawful ballots,” he said, “but they’ve just been handled fraudulently with, obviously, the ballot harvesting.”

In other words, this in no way undercuts the integrity of the vote count in Georgia even if, should it be proved, it might damage confidence in the process. Meanwhile, Hemingway does not appear to have shared the news that state investigators found only four examples of votes cast by dead people in Georgia in 2020 — a robust dismantling of a central point Trump made about fraud but one that neither aids Trump nor indicts the media.

Collecting ballots on behalf of other people is limited under Georgia law, and anyone who might have done so possibly faces criminal prosecution. But there’s no evidence now that such an effort in any way affected the outcome in Georgia beyond potentially getting more legal ballots returned. This is not proof of a conspiracy to steal the election from Trump unless you believe that making it easier for Trump opponents to vote is stealing an election.

Some Republicans do.

This is how Trump gets away with it. There’s a massive ecosystem of his supporters looking to prove the elites — the left, the media — wrong and a cadre of opportunists eager to meet that demand. So this nascent investigation rapidly jumps from “some people might have violated state law when collecting ballots” to “see, Georgia was stolen from Trump and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is that the ecosystem chugs forward even without Trump at its center. His wan comment about people getting $10 per vote (itself a misleading claim, as barely needs to be mentioned) came after the story was already churning. By now, the balance between pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump has shifted heavily to the latter, with the audience understanding what to applaud even without Trump leading the cheers.

Update

This article originally used Sam Tilden as the example of a candidate who triumphed electorally (sort of) despite losing Iowa, Ohio and Florida. Then The Post's Glenn Kessler pointed out a better example: Kennedy.

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