As Joe Biden takes office as the nation’s 46th president, one number should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about the health of democracy. That number is 32: the percentage of Americans who told an ABC/Washington Post poll that Biden “did not legitimately win” the November election. The doubters include 7 of 10 Republicans and 6 of 10 self-identified conservatives.
They feel that way because they have been told, repeatedly and relentlessly, a Big Lie by Trump and his enablers. It’s a lie that charged — without any evidence of any kind — that Democrats had stolen the election. The falsehood was reinforced by 147 wrongheaded Republican lawmakers, who challenged the election results on the same day a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a loyal Trump ally for four years, finally gagged on the president’s prevarications. “The mob was fed lies,” he said on the Senate floor. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
It’s time to end the Big Lie now. It’s time to break the spell that has enthralled Republicans for four years. It’s time for sane, sensible, reality-based conservatives to follow McConnell’s lead — to repudiate Trump’s undemocratic and un-American tantrums and start rebuilding trust in our political institutions.
There’s nothing conservative about Trump. He’s a radical with no regard for the noble virtues of tradition and temperance that true conservatives hold dear.
“When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies and the ruin that comes with them,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, wrote in The Atlantic. “The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”
It won’t be easy to dispel the “fantasies” Sasse describes. Trump, the Lord of the Lies, has been trashing the truth since he entered political life by questioning Barack Obama’s qualifications to be president. Since taking office, he has waged a scorched-earth assault on any person or profession who might contradict his warped view of the world. He embraced the corrupt concept of “alternative facts” advanced by strategist Kellyanne Conway, as well as the addled adage promoted by his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani: “Truth is not truth.” The Washington Post reports that he’s made more than 30,000 “false or misleading” statements during his tenure.
His adamant refusal to accept the conclusion of his own experts — that the election was fair and fraud-free — is just the latest episode in a long pattern of denialism. When intelligence agencies documented Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he rejected their findings. When economists warned that his tax cuts would explode the deficits — which they did — he dismissed their predictions. When climate scientists detailed the threat of global warning, he ignored them. Worst of all, when his own medical experts raised alarms about the coronavirus, he blindly kept insisting that “it will disappear.”
The U.S. death toll is now breaching 400,000 and still climbing steadily.
Trump did not invent disinformation. After all, Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam and Richard Nixon about Watergate. But as Barack Obama put it, the problem of disinformation is “going to outlast Trump. Trump is a symptom of it and an accelerant to it. But he did not create it.”
It’s going to outlast Trump because people want to believe his lies; they want to believe he was deprived of victory by some dark conspiracy of socialists and swamp monsters. Moreover, Trump’s partners in what has been called the “outrage industry” — social media sites, talk radio, friendly platforms like Fox News — are still in business and ready to profit from what are often groundless grievances.
Still, there are flickering reasons for optimism. After Twitter and Facebook banned Trump, online misinformation about election fraud dropped 73%, according to the research firm Zignal Labs. Trump won 46.9% of the vote, but his favorable rating was down to an average of 38% as he left office, which means about 1 in 5 Trump voters have turned against him since the election.
Republicans who break with Trump and embrace reality will not shake loose his most devout defenders. But they can possibly split off enough marginal moderates to help Biden form a governing coalition in the center of American politics.
It’s still a long shot, but any hope of creating that consensus has to start with burying the Big Lie.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com. His column is distributed by Andrews McNeel Syndication.