A week before the November midterms I speculated that the results could very belatedly shake the faith of Republicans convinced that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
A red wave was inbound, after all. How would MAGA diehards reconcile their conviction that the system is rigged with impending victories by Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and Herschel Walker?
Should the GOP win across the board, including MAGA candidates who were cracked up to be unelectable, the idea that Trump lost in 2020 because he was cheated rather than because voters were sick of him will become … complicated. The voting machines are capable of producing conservative wins, it turns out, which should have been evident to election truthers after House Republicans went 27-for-27 in 2020. In particular, if cranks like Lake and Masters win, the theory that a shadowy cabal is conspiring to keep populists out of office via massive fraud will be on thin ice.
To mount an effective “Stop the Steal 2.0” campaign, Trump needs multiple narrow Republican losses in key races, ideally by candidates who were expected to win. And as we’ve seen from the polling above, that’s just not a likely outcome to the midterms anymore.
Not my best work. Deepest thanks to Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg for not docking my pay after that one.
I got it wrong twice over. One error, believing that Republicans would win many more races than they did, was common across political media. The other is mine alone. There were “multiple narrow Republican losses in key races,” depending upon how one defines “narrow.” (Lake lost by six-tenths of a percentage point, which is objectively narrow.) Yet Trump hasn’t gotten new traction on the right for his “rigged election” nonsense in the aftermath.
Just the opposite.
Election denialism looks weaker now than it has at any point since November 3, 2020. Lake has been beating her drum about fraud in Arizona for months …
… but her dopey crusade to be installed as governor remains a curio in right-wing media. The topic of fraud at the polls has lost so much currency that I’m tempted to predict one or more of Trump’s opponents will confront him about it at a primary debate, insisting that he lost fair and square to Joe Biden after all.
But I should probably stop making predictions at this point.
Anyway, are Republicans losing interest in not-actually-stolen stolen elections?
The evidence that it’s happening is quantitative and qualitative. For the latter, look no further than Donald Trump himself.
His manic narcissism will never allow him to fully relinquish his “I wuz robbed” explanation for losing the presidency to an underwhelming generic (and geriatric) Democrat. He returns reliably to the subject even now, in 2023, and doubtless will continue to do so until he visits the Big Casino in the Sky. But he’s grown less chatty about it in the past two months, for understandable reasons.
At some point, his advisers appear to have pulled him aside and convinced him that stamping his feet over election fraud won’t be enough to defeat Ron DeSantis. The new guy has built a policy record designed to impress MAGA voters and expands on it every day. To overcome that, Trump needs to do more than whine that Republicans must avenge the terrible injustice of 2020 by nominating him again in 2024. He needs an agenda of his own, and he needs to convince his base that DeSantis wouldn’t serve the cause of populism as president as well as he would.
So that’s what Trump has done. Since January he’s released videos and issued statements describing what he’d deliver if given a second term, often in terms as Trumpishly hyperbolic as you’d expect. (Freedom cities! Flying cars!) And he’s begun to attack DeSantis obsessively to try to define the governor before he’s had the chance to introduce himself to Republican voters on his own terms.
Frankly, Trump sounds less like a poster on Gab lately than he does a flack at the DNC.
None of that proves that the base’s interest in the “rigged election” shtick is waning. But the fact that Team Trump has, shall we say, diversified its message suggests that they detect declining demand.
For something closer to proof, consider the quantitative evidence. This comes from CNN’s new poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Since January 6, the share of righties who believe Biden won legitimately has risen 15 points. Over the same span, the share who believe there’s “solid evidence” that his victory was tainted fell more than 20 points while the share who admit their doubts are based on “suspicion only” doubled. Not only has the number of skeptics shrunk, in other words, much of the remaining skepticism has softened.
The “glass half empty” view of that data is that it’s pitiful that right-wingers continue to say, by a nearly 2-to-1 clip, that Biden didn’t win legitimately despite two years of dogged effort to convince them of the truth. The “glass half full” view is that things have moved steadily in the right direction and might continue to do so as the primary campaign plays out. Where the numbers will land by, say, November 2024 is anyone’s guess.
Further evidence of a vibe shift among the populist right can be found in Variety, which polled Fox News viewers to gauge their reaction to the recent unpleasantness. Do you trust Fox as much as ever since finding out that its hosts privately doubted Trump’s election claims, Variety asked, or do you trust it less now? Twenty-one percent of Fox viewers answered that they’ve lost trust. That’s another glass half-empty/half-full result—only 21 percent?!—but it’s also a shift in the right direction, away from election denialism.
Unless, of course, the reason they’ve lost trust in the network isn’t because Fox concealed the truth from them in 2020 but because its hosts doubted the “truth” that the election was stolen in the first place.
This result is encouraging, though.
Around one-eighth of all Fox viewers have become converts to the truth upon learning that Tucker Carlson and the rest didn’t believe that the election was rigged. The Fox audience is now split precisely 50/50 on the subject. The pace of progress might be agonizingly slow, but it’s still progress.
Another new poll from Quinnipiac, in fact, found 2 in 5 Republicans believe Fox should be “held accountable” for spreading false information about the 2020 election. First they start doubting the right’s favorite “news” network, next thing you know they’ll be doubting the right’s favorite politician.
Why? What’s driving the growing skepticism of “Stop the Steal”?
Let us count the ways.
1. The “permission structure” is weakening. The Fox revelations aren’t happening in isolation. One of the members of Trump’s, ahem, “elite strike force team” of lawyers was recently forced to admit that she might have gotten one or two things wrong when she tried to overturn the 2020 election.
Jenna Ellis was censured by a disciplinary judge in Colorado Wednesday, in the latest effort to hold accountable attorneys who boosted former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election reversal gambits.
Ellis signed a stipulation stating that several comments she made about the 2020 election violated professional ethics rules barring reckless, knowing or intentional misrepresentations by attorneys, according to documents posted by Colorado’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. As part of the stipulation, Ellis agrees to pay $224.
Among the false statements highlighted in the stipulation were comments by Ellis on social media and in TV appearances claiming that the Trump campaign had evidence the election was “stolen.”
I can’t imagine how disorienting it must be for grassroots election deniers who are still loosely tethered to reality to watch their heroes concede that the election wasn’t stolen after all. If Jenna Ellis admits she was wrong and if Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were admitting behind closed doors at the time that Fox was wrong, could it be that … Trump was wrong?
The “permission structure” to believe that Biden’s victory was a product of fraud is weakening. It may weaken further if Fox, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others are found liable for defaming Dominion Voting Systems or required to admit error as part of a settlement.
And it might continue to weaken if my earlier not-quite-a-prediction comes true about Republican candidates challenging Trump on his “rigged election” theory at the debates. Chris Christie will certainly do so, although no one expects Christie to move any votes. If, on the other hand, Trump’s own running mate were to concede on national television that Biden’s win was legitimate, and that even the Trump campaign knew it, that might cause some “soft” election deniers in the audience to reassess.
Given the way Mike Pence has been going lately, I wouldn’t rule it out.
2. Defamation litigation is choking off disinformation. It’s no coincidence that Kari Lake has struggled to persuade right-wing media to bite on her fish story about having been cheated in Arizona as news swirls of Fox’s legal troubles deepening. Judgment-proof populist bloggers might be willing to carry her water in the name of telling their readers what they want to hear, but deep-pocketed outlets like Fox that are mired in 2020 defamation lawsuits understandably don’t want to get tangled up in it at this point.
Except for Tucker. He makes his own rules, it seems.
Put simply, the supply of conspiracy crankery from conservative media has dried up as Dominion’s and Smartmatic’s lawyers have driven up the cost of producing it. Without a steady supply of “rigged election” propaganda to feast on, demand among conservative media consumers might be falling off too.
3. Populists’ emotional investment in Trump is shrinking. Trump has toned down his caterwauling about 2020 lately and pivoted to policy because he and his team recognize that DeSantis has a genuine following on the American right. And that following wouldn’t need to grow much to place Trump in real peril of being overtaken.
He’s not the only game in town for populists or Republicans writ large anymore. And because he isn’t, many voters who went along with his conspiracy theories earlier out of blind loyalty suddenly have reason not to care what he thinks about 2020. In fact, if they’re committed to DeSantis and the belief that he’s more electable than Trump is, they now have reason to be skeptical of Trump’s claim that the last election was stolen rather than fumbled away by a weak Republican nominee. Motivated reasoning is a powerful thing.
“I wuz robbed” was always a belief driven more by tribalism than logic. Now that the primary is here and the tribe of Trump is splintering into mini-tribes with new leaders, that belief predictably has begun to weaken.
4. Other issues are coming to the fore. It’s not just leadership preferences that will soon divide the tribe of Trump, it’s issue preferences. Two days ago I marveled at the degree to which the party has already begun to split over support for Ukraine. If DeSantis clashes with figures like Pence and Nikki Haley on the war, igniting a hot debate on the right between doves and hawks, Trump would sound positively insane if he barged into it and asked, “Wait, what about the rigged election of 2020?”
More insane than usual, I mean.
Again, I think he realizes this. He hasn’t spent the last two months running around demanding that DeSantis say whether he thinks Joe Biden is the legitimate president. He’s spent it running around calling DeSantis a new Paul Ryan who’d surely end Social Security and Medicare if he could.
The interesting question is whether Trump’s engagement on contentious issues might alienate some former fans so deeply that they begin to doubt his “stolen election” narrative too. If you’re a two-time Trump voter who nonetheless believes American entitlements are unsustainable without reform, will his “wheelchair over the cliff” demagoguery of DeSantis annoy you so much that you turn on him completely?
So completely that you begin to think, perhaps, that “the steal” was just another load of BS from one of the great BS artists in American history?
If nothing else, sharp disagreements over policy matters like Ukraine might make some Republican voters feel more comfortable disagreeing with the cult leader. As the bonds of devotion fray, the sense of blasphemy around the idea that Biden won legitimately seems destined to weaken too.
5. November “proved” that 2020 wasn’t rigged. My biggest mistake in my newsletter before the midterm was not foreseeing how Republicans underperforming, not overperforming, might weaken the base’s faith in the “Stop the Steal” fairy tale.
If the party had overperformed and a huge red wave had arrived, Trump’s claims of chicanery in 2020 arguably would have looked more credible. How likely is it, he might have said, that we did great in congressional elections for two cycles in a row but somehow I barely lost a bunch of swing states to Joe Biden?
His defeat would have looked like more of an outlier, and outliers are always viewed suspiciously.
When instead the GOP underperformed on Election Day, it cut the other way. Suddenly it wasn’t as hard to believe that Trump came up short in 2020; Lake, Masters, Walker, Doug Mastriano, and numerous other swing-state candidates came up short too. Apart from Lake, none of them even bothered to question whether their defeats were fair or not. Not after party chieftains like Mitch McConnell spent much of the campaign publicly wringing their hands over “candidate quality,” worried that kooky populism would tip the balance to Democrats in tight races.
In the end, the balance did tip to Democrats in tight races. There was no need for Republicans to reach for a convoluted storyline about fraud to explain it. McConnell and others already had. Which doubtless left many GOP voters to quietly wonder: If kooks couldn’t close the sale in 2022, is it possible that the kook-in-chief also failed to close it in 2020?
If you squint, you can imagine a scenario in which Trump wins the nomination narrowly but alienates so many members of his party in the process that the “rigged election” nonsense becomes a truly heavy, maybe insurmountable liability for him in the general election. Swing voters already look at him cockeyed for it. By November 2024, Republicans might be lukewarm at best on the subject.
Which, for any other politician, wouldn’t be a problem. They’d just stop talking about it and pretend that they’d never started. But, Trump being Trump, his manic narcissism will leave him no choice.
Then again, the fact that he’s likely to face the man who “cheated” him in 2020 in the next general election might restore any tribalist sentiment around the topic that ends up fading during the primary against DeSantis.
One can also imagine a scenario in which Trump slips behind DeSantis in primary polling, concludes that his “Paul Ryan 2.0” attacks on the governor aren’t working, and resorts in desperation to trying to make the race a referendum on whether the 2020 election was stolen. Populist litmus tests have served him well in consolidating support on the right; his Hail Mary play against DeSantis might be to try to maneuver the governor into suggesting that Biden won fair and square, knowing that Republican voters have been conditioned to abhor siding with Democrats against Trump on any subject as a type of treason.
In all likelihood, I’ll be writing naively optimistic meditations for years to come on how this at last might be the moment when right-wing populists finally abandon election denialism en masse. Certainly, it won’t happen until Trump’s political career is over. So … 2029, then?