Why is Donald Trump’s “big lie” so hard to discredit?
This has been a live question for more than a year, but inside it lies another: Do Republican officials and voters actually believe Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election by corrupting ballots — the same ballots that put so many Republicans in office — and if they do believe it what are their motives?
A December 2021 University of Massachusetts-Amherst survey found striking linkages between attitudes on race and immigration on one hand and disbelief in the integrity of the 2020 election on the other.
According to the poll, two-thirds of Republicans, 66 percent, agreed that “the growth of the number of immigrants to the U.S. means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity” and the same percentage of Republicans are convinced that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate with voters from poorer countries around the world.”
Divisions over racial equality were closely related to perceptions of the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack. For example, among those who agreed that White people in the United States have advantages based on the color of their skin, 87 percent believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate; among neutrals, 44 percent believed it was legitimate; and among those who disagreed, only 21 percent believed it was legitimate. Seventy percent of people who agreed that White people enjoy advantages considered the events of Jan. 6 to be an insurrection; 26 percent of neutrals described it that way; and only 10 percent who disagreed did so, while 80 percent of this last group called it a protest. And while 70 percent of those who agreed that White people enjoy advantages blamed Trump for the events of Jan. 6, only 34 percent of neutrals did, and a mere 9 percent of those who disagreed did.
According to experts I asked, Republican elected officials who either affirm Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was corrupt, or refuse to call Trump out, base their stance on a sequence of rationales.
Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, sees the origin of one rationale in demographic trends:
I believe much of the polarization and discord in national politics comes from changing demographics. Robert Jones of P.R.R.I. writes about this in “The End of White Christian America” and I think this is a source of many politico-cultural divisions and plays out in electoral politics. There is an America (“American dream”) that many whites were privileged to know growing up and it now seems to be evaporating or at least becoming subservient to other cultural ideals and norms. So that spurs anxiety and it is translated to the language and posture of politics.
McCurry went on:
I think otherwise well-meaning G.O.P. senators who flinch when it comes to common sense and serving the common good do so because they have no vocabulary or perspective which allows them to deal with the underlying changes in society. They feel the changes, they know constituents whom they otherwise like who feel the changes, but they cannot figure out how to lower the level of angst.
Some maintain that another rationale underpinning submission to the lie is that it is signals loyalty to the larger conservative cause.
Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia, pointed out in an email that acceptance of Trump’s false claims gives Republican politicians a way of bridging the gap between a powerful network of donors and elites who back free trade capitalism and the crucial bloc of white working-class voters seeking trade protectionism and continued government funding of Social Security and Medicare:
Embracing the Big Lie is an empty approach to populism for a lot of these politicians. It allows them to cast their rivals, and the system itself, as corrupt — to cash in on that widespread sentiment — and to cast themselves as exceptions to the rule. It allows them to portray themselves as allies of “the people,” but without actually changing anything in terms of the policies they advocate for, in terms of how they do business.
For those Republicans leaders, al-Gharbi continued, “who are the swamp, or could be reasonably construed as such, it is important to create an apparent distance from ‘the establishment.’ Flirting with the Big Lie is a good way of doing so.”
Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and a senior fellow at Brookings, noted in an email that “fear of electoral retribution from Trump — and from Republican voters — drives Senate G.O.P. reluctance to break with Trump.”
The former president, she continued,
has succeeded in reshaping the G.O.P. as “his” party. This electoral dynamic applies in spades to Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection — or like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell to back down from their initial criticisms. It seems as if fealty to Trump’s alternative version of the events of Jan. 6 is the litmus test for Republicans.
The underlying policy agreements between Republican incumbents and Trump reinforces these straightforward concerns over re-election, in Binder’s view:
For all of Trump’s nativist immigration, trade, and “America First” views, he was lock step with Republicans on cutting taxes and regulations and stacking the courts with young conservatives. In that light, certainly while Trump was in office, Senate Republicans held their noses on any anti-democratic behavior and stuck with Trump to secure the policies they craved.
Along similar lines, Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, observes that Republican elected officials make their calculations based on the goal of political survival:
What perhaps looks like collective derangement to many outside the party ranks is really just raw political calculation. The best strategy for regaining Congressional control is to keep Trump and his supporters inside the party tent, and the only way to do that is to go along with his myths in order to get along with him.
This approach, Cain continued, “is the path of least political resistance. Trump in 2016 demonstrated that he could win the presidency” while rejecting calls to reach out to minorities, by targeting a constituency that is “predominantly white and 80 percent conservative.” Because of its homogeneity, Cain continued, “the Republican Party is much more unified than the Democrats at the moment.”
While there was considerable agreement among the scholars and strategists whom I contacted that Republican politicians consciously develop strategies to deal with what many privately recognize is a lie, there is less agreement on the thinking of Republican voters.
How could the “Big Lie” campaign convince so many Republicans that Trump won an election he so clearly lost? Some observers wonder whether these beliefs are genuine or just an example of “expressive responding,” a term social scientists use to mean respondents are using a survey item to register a feeling rather than express a real belief.
In their own analysis of poll data, Cuthbert and Theodoridis concluded that most Republicans are true believers in Trump’s lie:
Apparently, Republicans are reporting a genuine belief that Biden’s election was illegitimate. If anything, a few Republicans may, for social desirability reasons, be using the “I’m not sure” option to hide their true belief that the election was stolen.
Al-Gharbi sharply disputes this conclusion:
Most Republican voters likely don’t believe in the Big Lie. But many would nonetheless profess to believe it in polls and surveys, and would support politicians who make similar professions, because these professions serve as a sign of defiance against the prevailing elites, they serve as signs of group solidarity and commitment.
Poll respondents, he continued,
often give the factually wrong answer about empirical matters, not because they don’t know the empirically correct answer, but because they don’t want to give political fodder to their opponents with respect to their preferred policies. And when one takes down the temperature on these political stakes, again, often the differences on ‘the facts’ also disappear.
One way to test how much people actually believe something, al-Gharbi wrote, “is to look out for yawning gaps between rhetoric and behaviors.” The fact that roughly 2,500 people participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection suggests that the overwhelming majority of Republicans do not believe the election was stolen no matter what they tell pollsters, in al-Gharbi’s view:
If huge shares of the country, 68 percent of G.O.P. voters, plus fair numbers of Independents and nonvoters, literally believed that we were in a moment of existential crisis, and the election had been stolen, and the future was at stake — why is it that only a couple thousand could muster the enthusiasm to show up and protest at the Capitol? In a world where 74 million voted for Trump, and more than two-thirds of these (i.e. more than 50 million people, roughly 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S.) actually believed that the other party had illegally seized power and plan to use that power to harm people like themselves, the events of Jan. 6 would likely have played out much, much differently.
Whatever the motivation, Isabel V. Sawhill, a Brookings senior fellow, warned that Republican leaders and voters could be caught in a vicious cycle:
There may be a dynamic at work here in which an opportunistic strategy to please the Trump base has solidified that base, making it all the more difficult to take a stance in opposition to “whatever-Trump-wants.” It’s a Catch-22. To change the direction of the country requires staying in power but staying in power requires satisfying a public, a large share of whom has lost faith in our institutions, including the mainstream media and the democratic process.
Jake Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, noted in an email that the “big lie” fits into a larger Republican strategy: “In an economically unequal society, it is important for the conservative economic party to use culture war politics to win elections because they are unlikely to win based on their economic agenda.”
“There are a number of reasons why some Republican elites who were once anti-Trump became loyal to Trump,” Grumbach continued:
First is the threat of being primaried for failing to sufficiently oppose immigration or the Democratic Party, a process that ramped up first in the Gingrich era and then more so during the Tea Party era of the early 2010s. Second is that Republican elites who were once anti-Trump learned that the Republican-aligned network of interest groups and donors — Fox News, titans of extractive and low wage industry, the NRA, evangelical organizations, etc. — would mostly remain intact despite sometimes initially signaling that they would withhold campaign contributions or leave the coalition in opposition to Trump.
Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, took a different tack, arguing that Republican members of Congress, especially those in the Senate, would like nothing better than to have the “big lie” excised from the contemporary political landscape:
I disagree with the premise that many senators buy into the “big lie.” Congressional Republicans’ stance toward the events of Jan. 6 is to move on beyond them. They do not spend time rebuking activists who question the 2020 outcome, but they also do not endorse such views, either. With rare exception, congressional Republicans do not give floor speeches questioning the 2020 elections. They do not demand hearings to investigate election fraud.
Instead, Lee argued, “Many Republican voters still support and love Donald Trump, and Republican elected officials want to be able to continue to represent these voters in Washington.” The bottom line, she continued, is that
Republican elected officials want and need to hold the Republican Party together. In the U.S. two-party system, they see the Republican Party as the only realistic vehicle for contesting Democrats’ control of political offices and for opposing the Biden agenda. They see a focus on the 2020 elections as a distraction from the most important issues of the present: fighting Democrats’ “tax and spend” initiatives and winning back Republican control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, argues that
Trump lives by Machiavelli’s famous maxim that fear is a better foundation for loyalty than love. G.O.P. senators don’t fear Trump personally; they fear his followers. Republican politicians are so cowed by Trump’s supporters you can almost hear them moo.
Trumpism, Begala wrote in an email, “is more of a cult of personality, which makes fealty to the Dear Leader even more important. How else do you explain 16 G.O.P. senators who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, all refusing to even allow it to be debated in 2022?”
Begala compares Senator Mitch McConnell’s views of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 — “America’s history is a story of ever-increasing freedom, hope and opportunity for all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 represents one of this country’s greatest steps forward in that story. Today I am pleased the Senate reaffirmed that our country must continue its progress towards becoming a society in which every person, of every background, can realize the American dream” — to McConnell’s stance now: “This is not a federal issue; it ought to be left to the states.”
Republican politicians, in Begala’s assessment,
have deluded themselves into thinking that Trump and the Big Lie can work for them. The reality is the opposite: Republican politicians work for Trump and the Big Lie. And they may be powerless to stop it if and when Trump uses it to undermine the 2024 presidential results.
It is at this point, Begala continued, “where leadership matters. Trump stokes bigotry, he sows division, he promotes racism, and when other G.O.P. politicians fail to disavow Trump’s divisiveness, they abet it. What a contrast to other Republican leaders in my lifetime.”
Like Begala, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at M.I.T., was blunt in his analysis:
There’s generally a lack of nuance in considering why Republican senators fail to abandon Trump. Whereas Reagan spoke of the 11th Commandment, Trump destroyed it, along with many of the first 10. He is mean and vindictive and speaks to a set of supporters who are willing to take their energy and animus to the polling place in the primaries — or at least, that’s the worry. They are also motivated by racial animus and by Christian millennialism.
These voters, according to Stewart,
are not a majority of the Republican Party, but they are motivated by fear, and fear is the greatest motivator. Even if a senator doesn’t share those views — and I don’t think most do — they feel they can’t alienate these folks without stoking a fight. Why stoke a fight? Few politicians enter politics looking to be a martyr. Mainstream Republican senators may be overestimating their ability to keep the extremist genie in the bottle, but they have no choice right now, if they intend to continue in office.
Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at Columbia and the University of Texas, argued in an email that Republican acceptance of Trump’s falsehoods is a reflection of the power Trump has over members of the party:
It’s the very fact that they know Trump’s claims are ludicrous — that is the point: like other bullies, he amuses himself and solidifies his authority by humiliating people and what can be more humiliating than compelling people to publicly announce their endorsements of something they know and everyone else knows to be false?
Thomas Mann, a Brookings senior fellow, made the case in an email that Trump has transformed the Republican Party so that membership now precludes having “a moral sense: honesty, empathy, respect for one’s colleagues, wisdom, institutional loyalty, a willingness to put country ahead of party on existential matters, an openness to changing conditions.”
Instead, Mann wrote:
The current, Trump-led Republican Party allows no room for such considerations. Representative Liz Cheney’s honest patriotism would be no more welcome among Senate Republicans than House Republicans. Even those current Republican senators whose earlier careers indicated a moral sense — Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Richard Burr, Roy Blunt, Lisa Murkowski, Robert Portman, Ben Sasse, Richard Shelby — have felt obliged to pull their punches in the face of the Big Lie and attempted coup.
Bart Bonikowski, a sociologist at N.Y.U., describes the danger of this political dynamic:
In capturing the party, Trump perfectly embodied its ethnonationalist and authoritarian tendencies and delivered it concrete results — even if his policy stances were not always perfectly aligned with party orthodoxy. As a result, the Republican Party and Trumpism have become fused into a single entity — one that poses serious threats to the stability of the United States.
The unwillingness of Republican leaders to challenge Trump’s relentless lies, for whatever reason — for political survival, for mobilization of whites opposed to minorities, to curry favor, to feign populist sympathies — is as or more consequential than actually believing the lie.
If Republican officials and their voters are willing to swallow an enormous and highly consequential untruth for political gain, they have taken a first step toward becoming willing allies in the corrupt manipulation of future elections.
In that sense, the “big lie” is a precursor to more dangerous threats — threats that are plausible in ways that less than a decade ago seemed inconceivable. The capitulation to and appeasement of Trump by Republican leaders is actually setting up even worse possibilities than what we’ve lived through so far.
In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion, Liberty University’s student-run weekly, our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I’d noticed that our evangelical school’s police department didn’t publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. She called to upbraid me: Apparently, I had endangered our newspaper’s relationship with the LUPD. Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley — for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn’t happen again, because she’d keep a better eye on me.
This wasn’t exactly a rude awakening. I’d spent the previous three years watching the university administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr. (who took a very micromanaging interest), meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories. Still, I stuck around. I thought that if I wrote with discretion and kept my head down, I could one day win enough trust from the university to protect the integrity of our journalism. I even dreamed we could eventually persuade the administration to let the Champion go independent from its supervision. I was naive.
Instead, when my team took over that fall of 2017, we encountered an “oversight” system — read: a censorship regime — that
- required us to send every story to Falwell’s assistant for review.
- Any administrator or professor who appeared in an article had editing authority over any part of the article;
- they added and deleted whatever they wanted.
- Falwell called our newsroom on multiple occasions to direct our coverage personally, as he had a year earlier when, weeks before the 2016 election, he read a draft of my column defending mainstream news outlets and ordered me to say whom I planned to vote for. I refused on ethical grounds, so Falwell told me to insert “The author refused to reveal which candidate he is supporting for president” at the bottom of the column. I complied. (Huff and the police department declined to comment on the contents of this essay. Falwell and the university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Eventually I quit, and the School of Communication decided not to replace me, turning the paper into a faculty-run, student-written organ and seizing complete control of its content. Student journalists must now sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids them from talking publicly about “editorial or managerial direction, oversight decisions or information designated as privileged or confidential.” The form also states that the students understand they are “privileged” to receive “thoughts, opinions, and other statements” from university administrators.
What my team and I experienced at the Champion was not an isolated overreaction to embarrassing revelations. It was one example of an infrastructure of thought-control that Falwell and his lieutenants have introduced into every aspect of Liberty University life. Faculty, staff and students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus have learned that it’s a sin to challenge the sacrosanct status of the school or its leaders, who mete out punishments for dissenting opinions (from stripping people of their positions to banning them from the school). This “culture of fear,” as it was described by several of the dozen Liberty denizens who talked to me for this story — most of them anonymously, to protect their jobs or their standing — worsened during my four years on campus because of the 2016 presidential election.
By 2016, Liberty’s efforts to limit free expression were already well-established. (“The big victory was finding a way to tame the faculty,” Falwell told the New York Times last year for a story about privileging Liberty’s financial growth over its academics.) But the school’s methods became even more aggressive after Falwell endorsed Donald Trump early that year, according to multiple current and former faculty members. “The closer you get to the president’s office,” says former history professor Brian Melton, discussing a chilling effect on campus, “the worse it becomes.” Falwell’s staff now operates masterfully to squash challenges to his views and his rise in national political influence.
The dissent that did exist — from off-message campus speakers, insufficiently sycophantic board members, student activists and our newspaper staff — was ruthlessly neutralized. Liberty, founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.
Falwell, 57, possesses a certain Orwellian gift for painting Liberty as a bastion of tolerance where alternate viewpoints are not just permitted but encouraged. In March, he attended the signing of Trump’s executive order on college free speech and later claimed on “PBS NewsHour” that Liberty was inclusive of all ideas because it had invited Jimmy Carter to deliver its 2018 commencement address and Bernie Sanders to speak in 2015 at the assembly that students are required to attend twice a week. After Falwell learned last month that I was writing this essay, he posted a column on Liberty’s site disputing “sensational stories . . . that we do not allow opposing views.” He wrote, “If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be a strong and critical response to this article by a few former students and a handful of national media determined to paint Liberty in a completely different light on these issues.”
His Twitter account is a much better reflection of his approach to dissent. Falwell’s profile announces that “Haters will be blocked,” and several students who have disagreed or argued with him on Twitter have met this fate. Falwell outright lied on the platform to Sojourners Web editor Sandi Villarreal — who is now my colleague — when he said he’d removed a Champion op-ed criticizing Trump’s “locker room talk” defense because there was simply not enough room on the page. (The piece was already laid out on the page when he pulled it.) In fact, much of Falwell’s message control has to do with safeguarding Trump.
Mark DeMoss was something like Liberty royalty. His late father, Arthur S. DeMoss, gave $20 million to build DeMoss Hall, the school’s main academic building. Mark was also an alumnus, a former chief of staff to university founder Jerry Falwell Sr. and eventually a public relations executive who counted Liberty among his clients. He won a seat on the school’s board of trustees in 1991 after serving as Liberty’s spokesman and became the board’s executive committee chairman in 2008.
In January 2016, days before Trump was scheduled to speak at Liberty, Falwell emailed DeMoss asking whether he should endorse Trump for president. DeMoss says he recommended against endorsing anyone, and Falwell thanked him for the “great advice.” Falwell, at the speech, held back his imprimatur. But a week later, he anointed the billionaire with his support. DeMoss was horrified. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Falwell seemed to take the rebuke in stride, saying he was “disappointed” in DeMoss but understood “that all the administrators and faculty have their own personal political views.”
Within a few months, though, DeMoss would be gone. The night before a Liberty board meeting that April, the executive committee, including Falwell, convened without DeMoss to vote on a motion to oust him from his role as chairman. DeMoss says that his criticism of the endorsement was the cause. (Before the meeting, Falwell had called him a pawn of rival campaigns.) DeMoss resigned as a trustee days later, on April 25, 2016, citing “a lack of trust.”
A week after that, Liberty changed the sign on DeMoss Hall to “Arthur S. DeMoss Hall,” making clear that the structure honored the father and not the wayward son. The message to faculty and students was clear: If you challenge Falwell, you will be not only removed but erased.
The culture of Liberty is governed by lists of principles. According to the Faculty Handbook, for instance, professors are expected to “promote . . . free market processes” and “affirm . . . that the Bible is inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.” One cause of perpetual insecurity at Liberty is the school’s militant refusal to award tenure to any faculty member (outside the law school, which must offer it for accreditation). Instructors are instead hired on year-to-year contracts; during the spring semester, they find out whether they will be coming back the next fall.
The result is constant, erratic faculty turnover. One recently fired teacher describes the spring as a cycle of stressed-out, fearful professors wandering into each other’s offices to ask if they had their contracts renewed yet. “If you’re a conservative Christian in the academic world, the chances of you getting a job are nil in many areas,” says Melton, who worked at Liberty as an associate professor for 15 years before resigning because of what he described as the school’s surveillance and fear tactics. “The administration knows that, and . . . they wield that very effectively, keeping people quiet.”
Late-notice faculty removals have also become more commonplace, according to Melton, stemming in part from Falwell’s stated desire to tame the teaching corps. “He considers the faculty to be disposable beasts of burden,” Melton says. Last summer, 14 professors at Liberty’s School of Education were suddenly told that their contracts would not be renewed as part of what former Liberty spokesman Len Stevens called a “reorganization.” This June, a dozen faculty members at Liberty’s School of Divinity were notified that their contracts would not be renewed. By that late in the year, it is too late to find another job in higher education for the fall.
For former faculty members, Liberty’s culture of fear can live on. The school often requires terminated professors to sign a nondisclosure agreement if they want their severance packages, several told me — a practice that is extremely uncommon in higher education, according to Robert Bezemek, a California lawyer who represents labor unions at universities. (As Melton puts it, “They force this NDA on you by leveraging the ability to feed your family against you.”) Even former teachers who hadn’t signed NDAs told me they feared that talking to me on the record would somehow get them blacklisted from jobs elsewhere or imperil their friends who still work at Liberty. One thought my request to speak with him was a trap, calling my previous connection with the school “fishy.” When I contacted another for an interview, she warned me, “The university is on to you.” I confess I harbor a certain paranoia, too, from years of being watched at the Champion. Melton and several other current and former members of the faculty told me that they believe the administration surveils everything they do on Liberty’s server, tracking when instructors complete a task late and searching for evidence of “disloyalty,” as a former professor put it. Another onetime instructor declined to use his university-issued laptop because he thought Liberty had equipped it with spyware.
One cause for alarm came just before Trump’s inauguration, when then-Provost Ronald Hawkins ordered all campus faculty members to fill out an anonymous survey rating how politically and socially liberal they were on a scale of 1 to 5. “We are interested in how we compare with other institutions on political and social views,” Hawkins’s office said in a follow-up email to faculty members. But, according to a former professor who talked with others in her department, many initially refused to take the survey out of fear that if a department had too many left-leaning professors, the administration might target it for more oversight or even firings. There is no evidence of Liberty firing a faculty member explicitly for his or her political beliefs, but everyone I spoke to believed that the school could easily manufacture some other pretense. “There is zero trust between the administration and faculty,” Melton says. FIRE, a nonprofit that fights for free speech on campus, put Liberty on its 2019 list of the 10 worst colleges for freedom of speech.
Things aren’t much better for the 15,000 students on campus. In 2009, Liberty withdrew funding and recognition for its College Democrats chapter because, as Mark Hine, the senior vice president of student affairs, put it, the national party defends abortion, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, supported “the ‘LGBT’ agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.” A.J. Strom, who graduated in May, tells me that several students wanted to revive the College Democrats but no faculty members were willing to advise them, without which Liberty will not recognize a student club. “They said they would love to sign on but that if Jerry saw their name on the club application, they would be fired,” Strom says.
Student leaders have consistently helped administrators enforce the culture. After the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, members of Liberty’s Student Government Association drafted a statement expressing solidarity with Heather Heyer, the protester murdered by a neo-Nazi, and all people demonstrating against white nationalism. Then-SGA President Caleb Johnson refused to release the message and send it to university administrators for fear of what Falwell might think. (Johnson said in an email this past week that the statement’s author was “a self-described ‘Never-Trumper’ ” and that “we would not allow the platform of Liberty Student Government to be improperly used by a political activist with obvious ulterior motives.”) “There’s 100 percent an atmosphere of fear at Liberty,” says Caleb Fitzpatrick, who was then the student government’s speaker of the House and helped draft the statement. “There was a need to avoid being seen as a liberal or progressive, or even being different.”
In September 2018, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement, Liberty invited conservative provocateur Candace Owens to speak at an assembly. A few days before her visit, Owens tweeted that the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault were “making it up.” In response, Addyson Garner, then president of a libertarian club on campus, organized a rally to support victims of sexual assault, called #LUforMeToo, which would occur right after the Owens speech. The day before, Jacob Page, then the student body president, summoned her to his office, where he and Vice President Derek Rockey pressured her to cancel the event, Garner says. She left the office in tears, but she and her fellow organizers decided to protest anyway. About 25 students attended, a rare show of defiance on a campus that discourages political dissent. (In an email this past week, Rockey said he thought students should attend a public dialogue on these topics rather than stage a protest. Page said he and Rockey “support bringing awareness to victims of sexual assault” but “felt it was unproductive to engage in partisan protests.”)
Guests at the school who deviate from the prescribed philosophy can be targeted, too. In October 2017, the anti-Trump pastor and writer Jonathan Martin arrived at the invitation of the Christian musical duo Johnnyswim, who were performing on campus that night; Martin also announced on Twitter that he would lead a prayer meeting with students the next morning. Falwell took it as an unauthorized protest, and the LUPD sent three armed officers to remove Martin from campus, telling him he’d be arrested if he returned. Martin tweeted that it was “evidently in response to my strong criticism of @JerryFallwellJr’s alignment not only with the darkest contours of Trumpism, but expressly with Steve Bannon & the alt-right he represents.” Falwell told the Champion that Martin’s forcible removal was “a matter of safety.”
A similar episode unfolded in 2015 when Jonathan Merritt, a Liberty alumnus and Christian writer, was disinvited to speak on campus after authoring an article critical of Hobby Lobby, the company permitted by the Supreme Court in 2014 to deny its employees contraceptive health-care coverage. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, is close with Falwell. “You don’t seem to remember who your friends are,” Merritt remembers Falwell saying over the phone.
One afternoon in April 2016, when I was still a cub reporter in my sophomore year, I received a one-sentence email from Deborah Huff, our adviser: “need to talk to you about SG,” the subject line read; I should call her that night. She copied the editor in chief, a senior. I was clearly in trouble.
“SG” stood for Scott Garrett, a traditionalist conservative who represents Lynchburg in the state legislature. According to records I had found through the Virginia Public Access Project, he owned millions of dollars in stock, some from companies that lobby lawmakers in Richmond. A few days earlier, I interviewed him for the Champion about possible conflicts of interest stemming from his assets.
After dinner, I called Huff. She sounded annoyed. When I described my reporting to her, she told me the Champion would not run my story, because Garrett was afraid that the article would hurt his reputation. The message was clear: I had no business heckling Liberty’s friends and allies. (“I don’t remember the incident in question,” Garrett emailed me this week when I asked him for a comment. “And I don’t understand why I would say the article would hurt my reputation because there was no conflict of interest.”)
Out of fear that arguing with her would end my career at the paper — she selected which students would advance to editorships — I apologized for looking into Garrett’s finances and assured her that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again. I understood that her job, and by extension mine, was to protect our righteous, evangelical university. Before becoming a Liberty teacher and then supervisor of the Champion, Huff worked for the Fundamentalist Journal, a now-defunct Falwell-owned periodical. I didn’t see defending the faith or protecting Liberty as the main purpose of journalism. But in the face of a mentor I trusted, I believed I must have been in the wrong.
Looking back on the emails from that episode three years later, I’m embarrassed by my naivete — and my willingness to abandon a scoop with obvious journalistic merit. The scales began to fall from my eyes as, over the next 18 months, I saw how in every issue of the Champion the administration strategically manipulated or erased stories. Huff discouraged us from following leads that might disrupt the image of Liberty as a prestigious, respectable evangelical institution. In pitch meetings, she made it clear that the Champion would not cover Liberty scandals, even those that appeared in mainstream news outlets (such as the Falwells’ secret business relationships or the wave of Liberty alumni who sent back their diplomas after Falwell defended Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist Charlottesville rally).
By the time I became the Champion’s editor, the censorship I hoped to stop was already shameless. In February 2017, I wrote an article on a higher-education task force that Trump had asked Falwell to lead. Falwell emailed me his personal edits, removing every quote from an expert concerning possible conflicts of interest that Falwell created by accepting the position (in the end, the task force was never formed). Months later, Huff ordered that my story about Martin’s expulsion from campus include lines about how Liberty is inclusive of different political beliefs, in the face of obvious counterevidence. An administrator spiked a news report about an on-campus swing dancing club that was temporarily banned. When film students drafted a petition in early 2018 objecting to “The Trump Prophecy” — a hagiographic tale about a firefighter who said he had prophesized Trump’s election, which Liberty students were compelled to produce in order to receive their degrees — faculty at the film school crafted our coverage into a fluffy bit of PR highlighting students who looked forward to working on set. Champion reporter Jack Panyard was so disgusted, he removed his byline from the piece. Then there was sports editor Joel Schmieg’s column about “locker room talk” after the “Access Hollywood” video came out; Falwell blocked it from publication.
This interference frequently caused shouting matches with, and passive aggressive emails from, administrators. “Too bad the editor and chief of The Champion penned this editorial for the homecoming edition without any effort to learn all that is being done at Liberty to prevent and react appropriately to sexual assault,” Liberty General Counsel David Corry wrote to Falwell and Huff about my column on campus sexual assault. Instead of sticking up for the journalists she supervised, Huff emailed me to complain that I did not “make sure Liberty was separated from the conversation or address what Liberty does that is different than other schools.” Later that day, the piece was removed from the website without my consent. (In his preemptive statement last month, Falwell seemed to address these episodes. “In the past few years, some students screamed ‘censorship’ when they didn’t get their every word published in our campus newspaper,” he wrote. “But that standard isn’t even attained within the newsroom of commercial newspapers.”)
In the wake of these run-ins, members of our staff often gathered in my office to daydream about taking the paper independent or grouse about Huff, whom we felt was gaslighting us. What kind of newspaper adviser would denounce our attempts to keep Liberty accountable and make us repeatedly apologize to administrators for trying? By this point, it was clear that the principles of investigative journalism I was learning in class were verboten when it came to Liberty itself. The Champion could never be an avatar of press freedom or truth-telling.
I grew up in a politically conservative household and was active in my denomination; my values changed at Liberty as I embraced a more inclusive and open vision of the church. My views of Liberty, and of the values I saw Falwell profess on a daily basis, changed as well. I considered transferring schools or resigning from the paper. The weekly fight for the right to publish was exhausting. Still, I decided to stay because I saw that, on the occasions we won — when we either persuaded administrators to leave an article alone or worked around their objections — we sparked dialogue among students on Twitter and in classrooms that challenged Liberty’s status quo. But ultimately, our fraught relationship with our overlords was untenable, and something had to give.
The end finally came for the Champion when a left-leaning faith group, the Red Letter Christians, organized a “Lynchburg Revival” in April 2018 to protest Falwell’s support of Trump and what the group called “toxic evangelicalism.” Two days beforehand, Liberty’s police department notified RLC leader Shane Claiborne that he would be arrested if he set foot on campus. The Champion had already decided to cover the event, but the stakes were higher now. Huff told us it would be too controversial for print, but the other editors and I didn’t think we could ignore it.
The day before the gathering, Falwell sent an email to Erin Covey, our assistant news editor: “Let’s not run any articles about the event. That’s all these folks are here for — publicity. Best to ignore them.” When we explained our dilemma to RLC organizers, they tipped off a reporter at the Religion News Service, which ran a piece detailing Falwell’s censorship. Covey gave on-the-record quotes. Panyard, who was set to succeed me as editor in chief in a few weeks, briefed the reporter on background, as did I. (Vox also picked up the story and amplified it, and I imagine it galled Falwell to be depicted as an insecure tyrant in a liberal publication.)
The school’s response was swift. Falwell convened a tele-meeting with Bruce Kirk, who was then dean of the School of Communication, and our entire staff. They reprimanded us for talking to the press, and Falwell justified his censorship by arguing that the Red Letter Christians were “not keeping with the values of the university.” Then he spoke candidly for the first time about, as he saw it, the virtues of censoring us: “That’s what you kids are going to run into when you get into the real world and start working for for-profit newspapers. That’s what they’re going to expect of you, and I want you to learn that while you’re here.” Kirk, who was sitting with us for the meeting, chimed in, agreeing with Falwell. Being censored by a higher-up in the media industry is “just a part of life,” he said. (Before he began at Liberty, he worked for a local news station operated by Sinclair Broadcasting.)
After the meeting, I felt sick. I hadn’t said a word while Falwell flayed us for trying to practice basic journalism and act with integrity. I went into my office, closed the door and waited until most of the staff had left the newsroom. Then I sat down at my desk and wept.
A week and a half later, Kirk called Panyard and Covey into his office and told them they were being let go as part of a “reorganization.” Nobody else was affected; they’d been fired. It was the most aggressive and direct action the administration had ever taken to silence the Champion. I was not fired — I was a lame duck anyway — but I resigned and refused to take part in the production of the year’s final edition. I cleaned out my office that same day. Soon after, I learned I would be the last student editor in chief of the Champion and that from now on the paper would be run directly by the school. (Kirk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.)
Even at Liberty, there are still those who publicly reject Falwell’s diktats. A petition supporting Mark DeMoss won more than 70 student signatures when Falwell ousted him in 2016. During the presidential election, free speech lived a little when Liberty United Against Trump, a student group, scored national media attention for its stance that the school did not uniformly approve of Falwell’s endorsement. It said it accumulated more than 2,000 student signatures for its statement.
Panyard, the deposed editor, launched a new independent newspaper, the Lynchburg Torch, with the help of other refugees from the campus weekly. In the past year, it has published stories that the Champion’s overseers would have blocked, such as a report on LGBTQ students who oppose Liberty’s position on same-sex relationships. Addyson Garner put on another rally this year to support queer Liberty students after transphobic comments from Falwell and his wife, Becki. (“We’re raising her as a girl,” Becki Falwell said of their granddaughter Reagan, as her husband looked on. “We’re not letting her have a choice.”) Dozens of students participated, according to Garner and posts on social media. It was the first time I had ever seen the rainbow pride flag flown openly on Liberty’s campus. The school is changing.
But in significant ways, it is not more tolerant, and it certainly does not celebrate “the open exchange of competing ideas” that Falwell described in his column. In a discussion with the incoming Champion staffers after I left, Kirk said, “Your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.” The students who recall a more open time at Liberty, before Trump, have now graduated. All those who remain chose to go to Falwell’s school after he endorsed Trump, forming a much more compliant student body that generally accepts and even supports Falwell’s crackdown culture.
I graduated last year. Since then, I’ve tried to put Liberty — and the stress and self-doubt that officials there saddled me with — behind me. But I still fume when Falwell spews dumbfounding conspiracies online or retweets a bigoted rant from Trump, and I still become uneasy when I see my diploma, which is sitting in a cluttered drawer at my parents’ house. I made amazing friends and memories on campus, but I’m realizing the extent to which I internalized the fear tactics; I still sometimes self-censor my thoughts and writing. How can a college education stifle your freedom of thought? When people ask me if I regret going to Liberty, as many do, I usually pause. I don’t know.