The “Big Lie” was on the Ballot in the 2022 Midterms
In light of former President Donald Trump’s false claim that he lost the 2020 presidential election due to widespread voter fraud, election denialism became a rallying cry for Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections. Research from the Brookings Institution found that 345 Republican candidates embraced Trump’s assertion that the 2020 election was stolen and that American elections are deeply flawed. These candidates’ willingness to perpetuate a claim that has repeatedly been proven as false reflects the pervasiveness of conspiracies in contemporary politics, as well as Trump’s continued influence over the Republican Party. Even for those who don’t believe the “Big Lie,” the fact that Trump made election denialism a condition for his endorsement in Republican primaries led many candidates to parrot his fraudulent claims.
The negative implications of this conspiracy cannot be understated. According to polling from Monmouth University, about one-third (32%) of the American public continues to believe that voter fraud determined the 2020 election, with nearly 3-in-4 Republicans (73%) clinging to the idea that President Biden won through fraud.
In addition to undermining public trust, for many advocates of the “Big Lie,” efforts to preserve ‘election integrity’ are simply a cover for voter suppression. Working under the guise of “poll watchers,” members of the QAnon-linked group Clean Elections USA actively engaged in voter intimidation in Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina. Members of the group, including two men in tactical gear who were brandishing guns, were issued a restraining order after harassing voters near a ballot drop-box in Maricopa County, Arizona.
The New Jim Crow Era
For their part, Republican officials have attacked voting rights through dozens of bills that limit ballot accessibility. These laws restrict early and mail-in voting, impose new photo ID requirements, limit same-day registration, and make it more difficult for individuals without traditional addresses to prove residency and register to vote. Senate Bill 202 in Georgia has made it more difficult to vote by shortening the time for requesting an absentee ballot, limiting drop boxes to one per 100,000 voters, and making it illegal to give food or water to voters standing in line. Provisions such as these disproportionately impact voters of color, and this disparity is further compounded when one includes the continued disenfranchisement of felons. In 11 states, people with felony convictions can be permanently disenfranchised, and even in the states that allow prisoners to vote, a lack of accountability means their rights are routinely violated. Mirroring the racist origin of most felony disenfranchisement laws, mass incarceration in the U.S. means that 2.3% of the voting-age population is disenfranchised.
These efforts to suppress the vote have been described as a “new Jim Crow” and are eerily reminiscent of the laws that institutionalized Black Americans’ status as second-class citizens following the end of Reconstruction. From 1877 until the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, poll taxes, literacy tests, and onerous registration procedures were used to suppress African-Americans’ right to vote. Today, election denialism and the remedies put forth by its proponents are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to dismantle voting rights. Coupled with partisan gerrymandering, this attack on voting rights is a clear effort to increase the likelihood of Republican victories and was instrumental in allowing Republicans to gain control of the House in the midterms.
Fortunately, the results of the 2022 midterms were primarily a repudiation of election deniers, who failed to flip seats in 95% of the statewide races they were competing in. Out of 94 races for statewide office, only 5 non-incumbent election deniers won. More broadly, predictions of a “red wave” failed to materialize, as Republicans underperformed in senatorial and gubernatorial elections in swing states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania.
The Threat Remains
While the election fraud conspiracy failed to catapult many of its advocates into office, supporters of American democracy must not celebrate prematurely. Incumbent election deniers won several races in Republican-leaning states, including five governors’ seats and races for secretary of state in Indiana and Wyoming.
“Our democracy withstood an important test, and that’s because of the voters,” Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, said in a statement. “But we need to remember that the election denier movement isn’t going anywhere as we look to 2024. This is a continuing threat.”
Lydgate’s warning is especially salient given the volatility of the American political climate. The U.S. has seen a spike in political violence over the last five years, and many observers attribute the increase in part to the conspiratorial rhetoric espoused by former President Trump and his surrogates. Not only do these false allegations further erode trust in American institutions, they also empower the more violent sentiments propagated by domestic extremist groups.
Domestic Extremism is on the Rise
The January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol Building highlighted the willingness of far-right extremist groups to enact violence in one of the country’s most hallowed institutions. However, members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and many other groups that participated in the riots did not act alone. Former President Trump’s rhetoric and actions in the year leading up to January 6 lent legitimacy to far-right groups. In an infamous moment during a September 2020 debate, when asked if he would condemn white supremacy, Trump instead instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” and said that “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.” Such a tacit endorsement of a known extremist group was shocking, and yet it perfectly encapsulated Trump’s stance on violent extremism.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that Republicans’ culpability for political violence began on January 6. In reality, conservative commentators and Republican officials alike have been normalizing violent sentiments for years. What began with Rush Limbaugh playing the racist parody song “Barack the Magic Negro” in 2007 has morphed into Tucker Carlson promoting the “Great Replacement Theory,” a xenophobic conspiracy purporting that liberal immigration policies, specifically those impacting nonwhite immigrants, are part of a plot to undermine or “replace” the political power and culture of white Americans. Carlson’s regular promotion of the conspiracy on Fox News has elicited praise from white supremacists online, and directly inspired the domestic terrorist who murdered 10 Black patrons at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in May of this year.
More recently, Nancy Pelosi, who has long been vilified by the right, narrowly avoided an attack when an intruder broke into her San Francisco home on October 28th and proceeded to beat her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer. This attack reflects a growing trend of increased threats against members of Congress. According to Capitol Police records, there were more than 9,600 recorded threats against members of Congress last year, a jump of nearly tenfold from 2016.
Hate crimes are also on the rise. After hitting a low of 5,479 in 2014, they started growing by a few hundred annually, but the trend line rose sharply during the Trump administration. From 2016 to 2017, hate crimes rose by over a thousand cases, and they rose by nearly the same amount again in 2020. In that year, 8,263 hate crimes were recorded by the FBI, the highest number since 9/11. Once again, Trump and the right-wing media are culpable. Look no further than their description of the coronavirus as the “China” or “Wuhan” virus, a racist characterization that fueled a string of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
Moreover, counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 registered a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes compared to counties that Trump did not visit. After being asked about the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The same applies to American politics: there are very fine people on both sides, but Donald Trump, his election-denying surrogates, and the domestic extremists they’ve empowered certainly aren’t.
With Trump announcing his intent to run for president in 2024, Republican voters must decide whether they allow a man who has fabricated conspiracies, fomented insurrection, and fueled an alarming rise in hate crimes to once again serve as the standard bearer of their party. Although the 2022 midterms afforded a temporary victory for American democracy, the dual threat of election denial and domestic extremism remains as relevant as ever.