Fallout: How Trump’s Big Lie Is Threatening the Future of Elections

Trump supporters erected a gallows near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Analysis

The Jan. 6 hearings closed for the summer last Thursday night with a plea from Republican House Vice Chair Liz Cheney. Citing the conservative heroine British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Cheney called on the public: “Let it never be said that the dedication of those who love freedom is less than the determination of those who would destroy it.” 

Cheney may be willing to pursue former President Donald Trump to the gates of Hell in her determination to expose his threat to democracy; her party, on the other hand, appears willing to join him there. 

As the House select committee presented damning evidence of Trump’s months-long campaign to overturn the election, crescendoing in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that left 7 dead and about 150 police officers injured, right-wing groups are trying to make sure that next time, Trump, or any other wannabe dictator, will be successful.

Around the country, right-wing forces are seeking to control state elections by pursuing secretary of state offices and taking over roles typically held by nonpartisan election workers. They’re spreading voter fraud conspiracy theories, casting doubt on the integrity of the elections. They’re no longer flirting with violent rhetoric but embracing it.

On Thursday night, the committee played tape of former White House strategist Steve Bannon—who was recently convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the committee’s subpoena—in which he revealed to a room of supporters Trump’s plan and strategy ahead of Election Day.

“What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory, right?” Bannon told associates on Oct. 31, 2020. “He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner. He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”

“More of our people vote early, that count; theirs vote in mail,” Bannon said. “And so they’re going to have a natural disadvantage. And Trump’s going to take advantage of that. That’s our strategy. He’s going to declare himself a winner.”

Trump knew he lost when he spread baseless claims about a stolen election. Countless aides testified to the select committee that they repeatedly told the former president that his conspiracy theories about the election were just that—conspiracy theories—or, in the words of his attorney general Bill Barr, “complete bullshit.” Trump lost by 7 million votes, lost key battleground states, and lost dozens of lawsuits in which he or his supporters claimed voter fraud.

And yet, Trump persisted. Bannon reveled in the chaos. And the chaos opened the door for others. Last fall, California Republican Larry Elder suggested voter fraud would steal the election from him until the results of the gubernatorial race came in and showed how soundly his bid was crushed. Radical America First candidate Shekinah Hollingsworth received a few hundred votes in her bid to become a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, but that didn’t stop her alleging election fraud. In Georgia, the conspiracy theory-minded, gun-toting Christian nationalist Kandiss Taylor received 3.4 percent of the vote in that state’s GOP gubernatorial primary; she predictably claimed the election was stolen and refused to concede. Rachel Hamm in California played this same game, as did Bianca Garcia in Texas. We could go on.

With such false claims of fraud, far-right forces and right-wing media have been able to convince a broad swath of the American public that our elections are not safe. They have convinced Trump supporters that poll workers—public servants like Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who became the focus of Trump’s ire when he baselessly accused her of processing fake ballots—are to blame. 

And so they harass them and threaten them—and when they have driven good people away from those posts, they try to take their places.

A month after the failed insurrection, Bannon called for followers to “take this back village by village … precinct by precinct.” According to ProPublica, GOP leaders in 41 of 65 key counties reported an unusual increase in signups since his call to action. 

This strategy to attack and replace local election officials with Trump loyalists is one we’re seeing play out from Fulton County, Georgia, to Yavapai County, Arizona, with the full weight of the Republican Party behind it.

The Republican National Committee—which aided Trump in his plot to stay in power—has spent millions on 17 states to recruit more than 14,000 poll workers and 10,000 poll watchers already, according to the Washington Post.

Working with the RNC is Cleta Mitchell, a Trump lawyer who was on the infamous call on which Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 more votes. Mitchell is leading the so-called “election integrity” effort by the Conservative Partnership Institute, which seeks to bring together local right-wing groups with established conservative behemoths like the Heritage Foundation. The Brennan Center describes CPI as such: “The network has published mater­i­als and hosted summits across the coun­try with the aim of coordin­at­ing a nation­wide effort to staff elec­tion offices, recruit poll watch­ers and poll work­ers, and build teams of local citizens to chal­lenge voter rolls, ques­tion postal work­ers, be ‘ever-present’ in local elec­tion offices, and inund­ate elec­tion offi­cials with docu­ment requests.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CPI became home to other Trump allies who had a role in the months-long effort to overturn the election, including Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows (who sat scrolling through his phone when he heard about threats of violence on Jan. 6), Trump’s former social media director Dan Scavino (who spread voter fraud conspiracies on behalf of the tweet-happy president), and Ed Corrigan (who appeared to be busy behind the scenes encouraging Vice President Mike Pence to buck his constitutional duty and overturn the election). CPI enjoyed a $1 million boost from Trump’s Save America PAC. 

CPI and organizations like it are finding success. One in 5 local election administrators say they are likely to leave their jobs before the 2024 presidential election, according to a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice. These public servants cite politicians attacking “a system that they know is fair and honest” and the stress of the job as the top two reasons for their planned departures.

Meanwhile, other politicians are running for secretary of state to gain control of their states’ elections. Arizona’s Mark Finchem stood outside the U.S. Capitol’s east steps as the anti-government extremist Oath Keepers—of which Finchem claims to be a member—stormed the building. Three months later, he announced his bid for Arizona’s secretary of state and earned Trump’s endorsement. In Michigan, Kristina Karamano, also blessed with a Trump endorsement for her voter-fraud conspiracy theories, became the Republican nominee in the race for secretary of state. And in Georgia, Rep. Jody Hice tried to best Trump nemesis Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger out of the Republican nomination to no avail. 

Added to this stew: a large dose of violent rhetoric. Ahead of Jan. 6, violent rhetoric was widespread on pro-Trump social media and among far-right groups. Today, it no longer remains on the fringes but has been embraced by right-wing politicians. 

In Missouri, former governor Eric Greitens—whose ex-wife has accused him of domestic violence—released a campaign ad for his U.S. Senate bid. “Today, we’re going RINO hunting,” Greitens says in the ad, before bursting through a door with a SWAT team, guns raised. “Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country,” he says. 

He’s not the only one seeing red. In Oklahoma, state Senate candidate Jarrin Jackson wants to shoot “godless commies.” In February, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers voiced her desire “to build more gallows” in a video address to white nationalists.

When asked by Cheney whether he believed in the peaceful transfer of power, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded the Fifth Amendment, every American’s right against forced self-incrimination. The recorded testimony, which was shown during the sixth hearing, was shocking, and yet, Flynn is not alone. Republicans are more likely than other Americans to say political violence might be necessary, with four in 10 subscribing to that belief, according to a survey conducted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shortly after the Jan. 6 attack. Perhaps that’s why, after hearing Trump’s suggestion that Mike Pence was a traitor to the country, so many of the Trump supporters storming the Capitol were keen on hanging the former vice president

Trump, as the hearing Thursday revealed, did nothing for 187 minutes while his supporters rampaged through the Capitol, beat police officers, and hunted for Pence, Pelosi, and other members of Congress, all with the goal of preventing the peaceful transfer of power. As we move into the 2022 elections, Americans have a choice about the future of democracy in our country and whether the coup next time will succeed.