With the countdown to the midterms ticking toward its conclusion, America awaits the electoral fallout from the Big Lie: Donald Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories about widespread fraud in 2020. The nation heads into Election Day with millions of GOP voters primed to distrust its results. For a country where faith in elections forms the cornerstone of democracy, it’s a terrifying situation.
But it’s even worse than that.
Trump’s mendacity is arguably the Second Big Lie. Four years earlier, the Hillary Clinton campaign and leading Democrats refused to acknowledge the outcome of the 2016 election, by claiming Donald Trump was not a legitimate president. These actions, while certainly not as dramatic or as immediately damaging as the events leading to Jan. 6 (and today), helped bring us to our current situation.
“He lost the election and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf,” ex-President Jimmy Carter said in 2019, continuing to deny Trump’s victory three years after the election.
“He knows he’s an illegitimate president,” said Clinton, also three years later. She repeated this sentiment in 2020, telling The Atlantic the election “was not on the level,” and again when she called Trump’s win illegitimate. She piled on to this by saying, “You can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you,” clearly referring to how she saw her 2016 campaign.
Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis went even further in 2017, saying: “I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president. … I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected.”
Of course, Russia did meddle in the election via Facebook ads and cyberattacks, among other things, but as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference concluded, there was no “evidence that vote tallies were manipulated.”
The uncomfortable reality is that Trump became president because 62 million Americans elected him. Denying this helped lead us to today, where a 2016 Economist/YouGov poll found that half of Clinton voters thought a foreign power tampered with voting results, while over 50%, and at times as much as 75%, of Republicans said they think Joe Biden was fraudulently elected, according to a Washington Post analysis.
These two phenomena are inextricably linked: The 2016 election denial paved the way for Trump’s lies four years later. It’s far past time we acknowledged this.
The refusal to recognize Trump’s victory began early, when Clinton declined to give a concession speech on election night, waiting until the next morning, instead. (In contrast Trump waited until after the Capitol riot, months later, to acknowledge reality in a speech that did not ever actually mention Biden by name.) By then, her campaign was already formulating a strategy to cast doubt on Trump’s legitimacy.
Clinton was not shy in offloading responsibility for her catastrophic loss. She blamed Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and the media. She blamed racism, and she blamed Barack Obama; she blamed sexism while also blaming women. But all that was secondary to the overarching narrative: that Trump was an “illegitimate president.”
According to reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, the “strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech” by campaign manager Robby Mook and chairman John Podesta, who met to “engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up” and “went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”
And that argument never really went away.
In 2016, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff of California, the House minority leader and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called on Congress to investigate Russia’s “hacking” of the election. The next year, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., argued Michigan’s votes should be discarded, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., refused to say whether Trump was a legitimate president, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she believed Russia “altered the outcome” of the election. Meanwhile, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., tried to have it both ways, calling Trump “legally elected” while simultaneously claiming his election was “illegitimate.” Two years after that, Democrats were still using the same rhetoric, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., saying Russia “hacked our elections.”
It’s no wonder that this year, a Rasmussen survey found 47% of likely U.S. voters believed it’s likely Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election.
And those statements also must have had an effect on the 62 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2016: They were told, over and over, by senior members of the Democratic Party that their president — and therefore their vote — was, at least partly, illegitimate, that their vote may have been controlled by Russia.
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The GOP’s 2020 denialism has been met with robust and rigorous debunking. Fact-checks of the 2016 denialism were far more anemic and all too often unchallenged. How insane are Trump’s claims that “millions of ballots” were altered or that dead people “voted” in Michigan? Just as insane as the claims that the KGB recruited Trump in the 1980s or that a bank server in Trump Tower was beeping and booping secret messages to Moscow or that Vladimir Putin had a hidden blackmail tape of Trump being urinated on by prostitutes?
It was child’s play for a master demagogue like Trump to turn all of this doubt and conspiratorial thinking to his advantage.
This is not to say that Trump and Hillary Clinton are the same. Clinton did not, for example, incite a riot in the Capitol. In addition, Trump’s casting doubt on the 2020 election was dangerously magnified by the fact that he was still in power, which led to fears of what would happen if he refused to leave the presidency.
But “at least we didn’t prod a mob to storm the Capitol” is not a defense for spending years gnawing away at public trust in our elections.
Hillary Clinton and Democratic leaders were supposed to be the adults in the room, the ones who placed democracy above all else. They grievously failed — this failure is now being used to devastating effect by Republicans.
At the heart of today’s GOP conspiracy machine is a pervasive cynicism whose core message is “Everybody does it; nothing matters.” Trump and Fox News love to point out Democrats’ hypocrisy to “justify” spreading falsehood. That’s why, when leading Republican election deniers are faced with attempts to fact-check their lies, they often respond by invoking Clinton’s actions from 2016.
Until we truthfully admit our mistakes, any attempts to reassure voters about election integrity will be framed as nothing more than hypocrisy. Just as important, we need to commit ourselves to calling out dangerous conspiracy theories no matter where they come from; otherwise the crucial quest to restore faith in our elections will fail, as well.