Since the 1980s, Super Tuesday has been one of the most important dates in the American presidential campaign: about one third of the delegates will be awarded to the presidential candidates in each party. There is very little suspense as to who the winners will be this year: both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been the frontrunners and have shown commanding leads in the polls, despite their low popularity.

The ongoing perception of a “stolen” election

Never before has a non-incumbent GOP candidate enjoyed such a lead at this point of the campaign, not even George W. Bush in 2000. One reason may be that Donald Trump is not really a non-incumbent. More importantly, he is seen by a majority of his base as the only legitimate president. Two thirds of Republican voters (and nearly 3 in 10 Americans) continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and that Biden was not lawfully elected. In fact, this “election denialism” is one of the major differences between those who support Trump and those who voted for his rival, Nikki Haley. According to them, “massive” fraud occurred in certain states (fake voters, rigged voting machines, etc.) with the blessing of election officials and unscrupulous judges, thus tipping the contest.

Of course, there is no evidence of fraud that could have changed the outcome, and all the lawsuits challenging the results have been lost after hearings on the merits or dismissed as moot – even by judges he hand-picked.

A perfect martyr

More than his conviction of sexual assault – in truth a rape – and his multiple indictments, Donald Trump’s most grievous fault has been his attempt at obstructing the democratic transfer of power by encouraging his supporters to violently oppose the certification of the election in 2021, and his continuous false claim that he, in fact, won in 2020.

Trump’s diehard supporters once again see him as the victim of a “witch hunt”, just as they did during the two impeachments he faced – it’s because he was taking on a “corrupt system”, they believe. Trump has used his legal troubles to raise millions of dollars, a large part of which has gone to pay his defence lawyers rather than fund his presidential campaign. Despite this, he has risen in the Republican primaries and could well become the GOP’s candidate in the November 2024 election.

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So how can we explain that tens of millions of Americans continue to adhere to this narrative of the stolen election, despite numerous studies demonstrating its utter falsehood?

Tracing the roots of political paranoia

The myth of the stolen election is a mass conspiracy belief, a type of unverified counter-narrative that questions well-established facts and relies instead on the idea that powerful and malevolent actors are operating in the shadows. What characterises the United States is not necessarily that its population is more gullible than others, but rather that a large part of its political and media class is willing to accept, exploit, and organise conspiracy thinking for its benefit.

In a landmark 1964 essay published in Harper’s Magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, historian Richard Hofstadter famously explored the American passion for conspiracy, focusing on the right’s obsession with a supposed communist conspiracy during the McCarthy era. At that time, the Christian right merged with nationalism, becoming a powerful force opposing the supposedly godless communist bloc. In the 1970s, the political narrative of a universal struggle between Good and Evil became an essential theme in presidential speeches, particularly those by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

The “enemy within” and the “culture war”

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, this binary narrative was adapted to the “culture war”, pitting religious fundamentalists against progressives on moral and societal issues such as abortion and sexuality. It is a narrative of decline that identifies any political opposition as an “enemy” jeopardising the moral foundations of the nation.

This narrative was fuelled by a sense of powerlessness and humiliation that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks. Then came the 2008 financial crisis and two decades of the “war on terror” without anything like a tangible victory. As the country’s demographic makeup evolved, racial resentment grew and conspiracy thinking with it, as embodied by the narrative of the “Great Replacement”. The Covid crisis heightened the distrust of government. The “Deep State” was born, perceived as literally demonic.

The politicisation of religion reached its peak with Donald Trump, who used religious language more than any other president. Unlike his predecessors, he explicitly associated American identity with Christianity. He emphasised themes of Christian nationalism, highly popular among the white evangelicals he courted. It is within this religious group that adherence to the myth of the “stolen” election is the strongest.

Donald Trump: a “saviour” who’s both godless and lawless

The irony of Trump courting evangelicals is that Trump himself is far from religious. His xenophobic slurs against immigrants, contempt for veterans, calls for violence against political opponents, mockery of a disabled journalist, and a glaring lack of religious culture are fundamentally incompatible with Christian ethics. In speeches and interviews, he frequently highlights extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys and conspiracists such as QAnon believers.

The link between conspiracy theories and white Christian nationalism is well documented, most recently regarding topics such as vaccines or climate change. Evangelicals “rationalise” the election lie by comparing Trump to Cyrus, a historical Persian king who, in the Old Testament (Isaiah), did not worship the god of Israel but is portrayed as an instrument used by God to deliver the Jewish people.

How the Capitol attack comforted evangelists’ views

These beliefs stem from a “premillennialist” interpretation of the Book of Revelation, adopted by a majority of evangelicals (63%) who believe that humanity is currently experiencing the “End Times”.

This worldview was embodied by the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. It gave Republican leaders a unique opportunity to condemn Donald Trump in an impeachment trial that could have ended his political ambitions. Despite the stakes, neither the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, nor the influential Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, voted for impeachment. Yet both acknowledged that Trump was “morally responsible” for the violence.

As the Republican Party did during Trump’s first impeachment trial and with every one of his innumerable lies, including during the Covid crisis, it once again showed itself willing to sacrifice democracy itself on the altar of political ambition.

The result is that the election lie has become the norm and now a loyalty test within the party. A vast majority of new congressional members in 2022 have in turn cast doubt on the 2020 results. When Kevin McCarthy proved to be insufficiently loyal to Trump, he was replaced as Speaker of the House by Mike Johnson, a Christian nationalist and staunch election denier.

A widespread lie financed by powerful groups

This lie is not the democratic and populist expression of grassroots anti-elitism. It is fuelled by national organisations that are funded by some of the country’s wealthiest conservatives. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has identified several of these groups, including the Election Integrity Project California, FreedomWorks, or the Honest Elections Project, whose names belie their intentions.

Among these groups, the Federalist Society, which promoted the appointment of the most conservative members to the Supreme Court, has led the attack against the Voting Rights Act (a 1965 law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting).

The role of the Heritage Foundation is also notable.

One of the most powerful and influential conservative organisations, it has used the spectre of electoral fraud as a pretext for removing voters from voting lists. One of its founders, Paul Weyrich, declared in 1980:

“I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Add to this an overt strategy of media disinformation used by Trump and his allies, summarised by Steve Bannon, the former leader of Breitbart News and former advisor to Donald Trump: “Flood the zone with shit”. The point is simply to overwhelm the press and the public with so much false information and disinformation that distinguishing truth from lies becomes too challenging, if not impossible.

All of this is, of course, amplified by acute political polarisation rooted in social identity. This is manifested geographically, where partisan preferences are correlated with population density – urban versus rural, to simplify. Republicans who believe in the myth of a stolen election cannot believe that Joe Biden could have been elected by a majority because no one around them voted Democrat, after all.

This physical polarisation is reinforced by media polarisation that creates a true informational bubble. Thus, a majority of Republicans trust only Fox News and far-right television channels like One American News, whose primetime hosts have endorsed lies even they themselves don’t believe about electoral fraud. These were then amplified by social networks.

Will history repeat itself next November?

Questioning electoral results is a constant theme for Donald Trump. In 2012, he called Barack Obama’s re-election a “total sham and a travesty”, adding that “we are not a democracy” and that it would be necessary to “march on Washington” and stop what he claimed was a “travesty”. In 2016, he contested, with no evidence whatsoever, the results of the Iowa caucus and the popular vote won by Hillary Clinton, attributing it to “millions of illegal votes”.

The difference between 2020 and today is that Donald Trump is no longer a political curiosity. His voice is now heard and believed by millions of citizens. Thus, almost a quarter of US citizens (23%) say that they would be willing to use violence to “save the country.” Regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election, there is cause for concern. Donald Trump has refused to commit to accepting the 2024 election results if it is not in his favour. And his followers are once again ready to follow his words of refusal, turning them into action.The Conversation

Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, Assistant lecturer, CY Cergy Paris Université

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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