Nobody likes losing. But rather than accepting failure, former President Donald Trump has preferred to tell a different story, one where he never lost at all. In the version of events told in the “big lie,” Trump was the victim of a massive voter fraud scheme, one that stole the election from him and handed it over to President Joe Biden.
The “big lie” is just the latest version of the myths that reactionaries have always told themselves.
Recent polling shows it’s a story that still sticks with a supermajority of Republicans. The University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 71 percent of GOP respondents believe Biden’s win was at least “probably” illegitimate. An ABC News/Ipsos poll found the exact same result: 71 percent of Republicans “sided with Trump's false claims that he was the rightful winner.”
What to make of this seemingly desperate rejection of reality? The fact is that Trump is not nearly as original or creative as he portrays himself to be. In this case, he’s merely slapped his name and branding onto a concept that predates him. The “big lie” is just the latest version of the myths that reactionaries have always told themselves.
Even before President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, rumors spread that he was a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya. These white “birthers,” who took comfort in the idea that it was only through subterfuge that America had elected its first Black president, were originally viewed as a fringe among Republicans. Trump didn’t originate birtherism, but he became its most prominent promoter. In 2011, as Obama prepared to run for re-election and Trump mulled running against him, he began calling Obama’s election illegitimate to anyone who would listen.
“He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate — maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim. I don’t know,” Trump told Fox News, his partner in promoting the racist and entirely debunked conspiracy theory.
Before Obama released his long-form birth certificate in April 2011, a YouGov poll found that 70 percent of Republicans either thought Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. or weren’t sure. Even in 2019, 56 percent of self-identified Republicans were still certain Obama had been born in Kenya. It appears that the very people who have now latched on to Trump’s imaginary victory still believe, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that a vast cover-up deluded the public into electing a foreigner from Africa whose candidacy was invalid under the Constitution.
As the "big lie" and birtherism show, it’s easier and more comforting to rewrite history than to acknowledge the shortcomings of a failed cause or accept the loss of social and political dominance. It’s a theme we have seen from sore losers throughout history. After the Union’s victory in the Civil War, former Confederates spun the tale of the “Lost Cause,” framing the South’s secession as a noble, just crusade to protect states’ rights and their genteel way of life from the rapacious Northerners. It’s a story that generations of American schoolchildren learned in class thanks to the propagation of the Dunning School and other white nationalist narratives.
Similarly, following Germany’s surrender in World War I, rather than admit the Allies outfought the collapsed Central Powers, right-wing members of the German army convinced themselves the brave soldiers on the field must have been betrayed. This “stab-in-the-back” myth placed the blame for Germany’s defeat on its newly republican government, leftists who’d destabilized the war effort and especially on Jewish civilians who were described as traitors. That lie was a bedrock of faith for Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party made it the official version of history once it took power.
It’s not fair to say that this sort of denialism is exclusive to the right wing. Conservative politicians and media figures point to the liberal response to the aftermath of the 2016 election as the real "big lie." In their arguments, the speculation that the Trump campaign worked hand-in-hand with the Russian government to swing the election, fueled by the explosive claims in the Steele dossier, is proof that the left was engaged in a systematic effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. And it’s true that many Democrats latched on to this supposed secret plotting after Hillary Clinton’s loss as they eagerly awaited conclusive evidence of Russian kompromat from Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The difference those conservatives fail to acknowledge is that there was an underlying truth at the core of that theory. Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, by both distributing hacked emails and running a targeted social media campaign that benefited Trump. Trump’s campaign chairman did share campaign strategy and polling data with a Russian intelligence officer as the influence campaign was ongoing. And, after the release of the Mueller report in 2019 and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s final bipartisan report, the most hyperbolic claims from Democrats, including that Russian President Vladimir Putin directly blackmailed Trump, died out.
There is no truth in Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud. But, so far, no evidence or lack of evidence has convinced most Republicans that Biden’s win was legitimate. Even a swath of “audits” that Trump loyalists have conducted since the 2020 election have shown no evidence of any conspiracy to deny Trump victory. But Trump himself holds on to that lie. So, his followers echo it.
In the end, Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and the lies that came before, stick because they provide a convenient excuse to a group of people who already feel aggrieved. It’s that audience participation, the willingness to suspend disbelief in the interest of being coddled with nationalist or white supremacist or Trumpian fairy tales, that proves so dangerous. And as Jose Del Real recently wrote for The Washington Post, a willingness to believe conspiracy theories is woven into America’s social fabric.
Someday, the “big lie” may fade in prominence. But for now, it’s poised to continue to erode the foundations of our democracy in a way that the attacks on Obama couldn’t. Birtherism cast doubt on one man; Trump’s lies chip away at the entire system. Even if this specific myth is forgotten, as long as there’s an audience looking for someone to blame for their movement’s shortcomings, I’m sure another story will take its place.