Members Only | January 10, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Big Lie isn’t done with us yet

The J6 committee’s final report gives the Big Lie its due, rightfully so.


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You can’t understand the J6 insurrection without understanding the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump’s victory was stolen by massive invisible voter fraud. 

These conspiracy theories are so ubiquitous and so implausible that it’s tempting to tune them out. But understanding the deception is critical to understanding why ordinary citizens tried to end democracy in America. 

Democrats per se
The Big Lie convinced would-be insurgents that they were merely patriots addressing a legitimate grievance through extreme measures. 

The report shows, however, that allegations of election-altering fraud were lies – and that Trump knew they were lies from the start. 

At bottom, claims of “voter fraud” are really claims about legitimate citizenship. They define the “real electorate” as people like them. 

The report hints at premeditation. Weeks before the election, it notes, Trump and advisors Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and Tom Fitton schemed to exploit the so-called “red mirage.” It was a pretext for declaring himself to be reelected before all the votes were counted. 

(A “red mirage” refers to an illusory early lead that Republicans often enjoy on election night, because the Republican vote tends to come in earlier. This effect was exacerbated during the pandemic. Democrats eagerly mailed their ballots. They took longer to count. Meanwhile Trump poisoned his supporters against mail-in voting. Many states were barred from counting mail-in votes until polls closed. Trump primed his voters to expect fraud. He claimed falsely that mail-in voting was insecure. This was a natural move for Trump. He has trafficked in baseless voter-fraud allegations for his career.) 

“What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory, right?,” Bannon told a live audience in the dying days of the campaign. “He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner.” 

Stone baldly stated before a documentarian’s rolling camera that, “I really do suspect [the election] will still be up in the air. When that happens, the key thing to do is to claim victory. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

On election night, when Trump’s early lead dwindled, he said that the continued counting of ballots to be a “fraud on the American public.” 

“We did win this election,” he said. He ordered the count to stop. That wasn’t his call. The counts continued, but the intent was clear: Trump was declaring presumed-Democratic votes illegitimate per se

True believers
When Trump falsely claimed to have won the election, he primed his supporters to interpret his impending loss as theft. They’d won. Trump said so. He’d given them the status they so desperately coveted: Victimhood. He’d given them license to lash out. 

Witness after witness testified that Trump heard the truth about his loss from every angle, from the senior number-crunchers on his campaign to the Attorney General and White House counsel. 

Time and again, senior officials debunked outlandish election fraud claims for Trump, only to have him publicly repeat the same falsehood almost immediately. 

Barr told Trump that there was nothing suspicious about bags of ballots being dropped off in Michigan, because the state counts all its votes in a central repository. The next day Donald Trump told his supporters of a mysterious “Big Vote Dump.” Acting AG Richard Donoghue told Trump there weren’t more voters than votes in Pennsylvania, but Trump ran with the claim anyway. Raffensperger told Trump that two dead people “voted” in his state, and the next day, Trump was claiming thousands of dead people voted in Georgia. 

Try as they might, the Republicans never found the stuffed ballot boxes or tweaked voting machines they said they were looking for. 

The Justice Department found nothing, the real audits found nothing, the politically motivated scam audit in Arizona found nothing that it could twist into a credible allegation of election theft. Rudy Giuliani, a key player in the plan to overturn the election, eventually admitted in his J6 deposition that the voting machines didn’t steal the election. 

Yet the faith of true believers hasn’t faltered. They still believe because, at bottom, the claims of fraud were just window-dressing for a much deeper and uglier struggle. Republicans want to keep the vote in the hands of those they regard as legitimate. Rudy Giuliani singled out Black election workers. Republicans in Michigan tried to disenfranchise all of majority-Black Detroit. 

Not done yet
At bottom, claims of “voter fraud” are really claims about legitimate citizenship. They define the “real electorate” as people like them. 

It’s a typical authoritarian move to equate your political movement with the mystical will of The People. Once you believe that, every Democratic victory is inherently fraudulent . 

The failure of the coup did little to discredit the Big Lie. Ambitious Republican politicians are using the non-existent threat of voter fraud to enhance their power over the administration of voting. 

Florida governor Ron DeSantis created his own election police force. Defeated gubernatorial candidate and MAGA darling Kari Lake is referring to herself as the duly-elected governor of Arizona, despite having lost all her legal challenges. 

We are not done with the Big Lie. 

The Big Lie is not done with us. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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