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.
Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat.
To understand the corruption, chaos, and general insanity that is continuing to engulf the Trump campaign and much of the Republican Party right now, it helps to understand the predicate embraced by many Trump supporters: If Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidency, America dies.
During last week’s Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker insisted that life under a Biden presidency would be dystopian. Charlie Kirk, the young Trump acolyte who opened the proceedings, declared, “I am here tonight to tell you—to warn you—that this election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.” President Trump, who closed the proceedings, said, “Your vote will decide
- whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide
- whether we will defend the American way of life or allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” And in between Americans were told that
- Democrats want to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” and that
- they “want to destroy this country and everything that we have fought for and hold dear.”
“They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether,” a St. Louis couple who had brandished weapons against demonstrators outside their home, told viewers. “Make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”One does not have to be a champion of the Democratic Party to know this chthonic portrait is absurd. But it is also essential, because it allows Trump and his followers to tolerate and justify pretty much anything in order to win. And “anything” turns out to be quite a lot.
In just the past two weeks, the president has praised supporters of the right-wing conspiracy theory
- QAnon, which contends, as The Guardian recently summarized it, that “a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia, human trafficking and the harvesting of a supposedly life-extending chemical from the blood of abused children.” Trump touted a conspiracy theory that
- the national death toll from COVID-19 is about 9,000, a fraction of the official figure of nearly 185,000; promoted a program on the One America News Network accusing demonstrators of secretly plotting Trump’s downfall; encouraged his own supporters to commit voter fraud; and claimed Biden is controlled by “people that are in the dark shadows” who are wearing “dark uniforms.”
- Trump believes his own government is conspiring to delay a COVID-19 vaccine until after the election. He retweeted a message from the actor James Woods saying
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “should be in jail” and another from an account
- accusing the Portland, Oregon, mayor of “committing war crimes.”
- The president is “inciting violence,” in the words of Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan.
- Trump defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter who is charged with first-degree homicide; and stated that
- if he loses the election in November it would be because it was “rigged.” At the same time,
- the second-ranking House Republican, among other of the president’s supporters, has shared several manipulated videos in an effort to damage Biden.
This is just the latest installment in a four-year record of shame, indecency, incompetence, and malfeasance. And yet, for tens of millions of Trump’s supporters, none of it matters. None of it even breaks through. At this point, it appears, Donald Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.
This phenomenon has no shortage of explanations, but perhaps the most convincing is the terror the president’s backers feel. Time and again, I’ve had conversations with Trump supporters who believe the president is all that stands between them and cultural revolution. Trump and his advisers know it, which is why the through line of the RNC was portraying Joe Biden as a Jacobin.
Republicans chose that theme despite the fact that during his almost 50 years in politics, Biden hasn’t left any discernible ideological imprint on either the nation or his own party. Indeed, Biden is notable for his success over the course of his political career in forging alliances with many Republicans. I worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the early 1990s when William Bennett was its director and George H. W. Bush was president. Biden was then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; he and his staff were supportive of our work, and not in the least ideological. There will be no remaking of the calendar if Joe Biden becomes president.Still, in the minds of Trump’s supporters lingers the belief that a Biden presidency would usher in a reign of terror. Many of them simply have to believe that. Justifying their fealty to a man who is so obviously a moral wreck requires them to turn Joe Biden and the Democratic Party into an existential threat. The narrative is set; the actual identity of the nominee is almost incidental.
A powerful tribal identity bonds the president to his supporters. As Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, has argued, the tribal instinct is not just to belong, but also to exclude and to attack. “When groups feel threatened,” Chua writes, “they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”
That works both ways. Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.
The danger of this mindset—in which the means, however unethical, justify the ends of survival—is obvious. And so in this case, Trump supporters will tolerate everything he does, from
- making hush-money payments to porn stars and
- engaging in sexually predatory behavior, to
- inviting America’s adversaries to intervene in our elections, to
- pressuring American allies to dig up dirt on the president’s opponent, to
- cozying up to some of the worst dictators in the world, to
- peddling crazed conspiracy theories, to
- mishandling a pandemic at the cost of untold lives, to
- countless other ethical and governing transgressions.
Trump is given carte blanche by his supporters because they perceive him as their protector, transforming his ruthlessness from a vice into a virtue.
In my experience, if Trump supporters are asked to turn their gaze away from their perceived opponents, and instead to focus and reflect on him and on his failures, they respond in a couple of consistent ways. Many shift the topic immediately back to Democrats, because offering a vigorous moral defense of Donald Trump isn’t an easy task. It’s like asking people to stare directly into the sun; they might do it for an instant, but then they look away. But if you do succeed in keeping the topic on Trump, they often twist themselves into knots in order to defend him, and in some cases they simply deny reality.
“Motivation conditions cognition,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wisely told me. Very few Trump supporters I know are able to offer an honest appraisal of the man. To do so creates too much cognitive dissonance.That they are defending a person who is fundamentally malicious, even if he makes judicial appointments of which they approve, is too painful for them to admit. They are similarly unable to admit they are defending an ethic that is at odds with what they have long championed. They have accepted, excused, and applauded Trump’s behavior and tactics, allowing his ends to justify his means. In important respects, this is antithetical to a virtue ethic. So once again, it’s easier for them to look away or engage in self-deception; to convince themselves that Donald Trump is not who he so clearly is.
These reactions aren’t confined to Trump supporters; people across the political spectrum struggle with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, in giving too much benefit of the doubt to those with whom we agree and judging too harshly and unfairly those with whom we disagree. That is part of the human condition. The degree to which Democrats, including feminists, overlooked or accepted Bill Clinton’s sexually predatory behavior—including his campaign’s effort to smear his accusers and its use of a private investigator to destroy Gennifer Flowers’s reputation “beyond all recognition”—is an illustration of this. So Flowers was branded a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar,” even though Clinton later, under oath, admitted to having an affair with her.
“If you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” James Carville said in response to Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton sexually harassed her. In defending President Clinton against the charges of sexual harassment made by Kathleen Willey, who accused Clinton of groping her without her consent, Gloria Steinem wrote, “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” And Nina Burleigh, who covered the White House for Time magazine, said, “I’d be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” So Democrats should be careful about looking down at others for accommodating themselves to unsavory and even repulsive characters for the sake of partisanship.
But what’s different in this case is that Trump, because of the corruption that seems to pervade every area of his life and his damaged psychological and emotional state, has shown us just how much people will accept in their leaders as a result of “negative partisanship,” the force that binds parties together less in common purpose than in opposition to a shared opponent. As the conservative writer David French has put it, with Donald Trump and his supporters we are seeing “negative partisanship in its near-pure form, and it’s the best way to explain Trump’s current appeal to the Republican party.” His ideology is almost entirely beside the point, according to French: “His identity matters more, and his identity is clear—the Republican champion against the hated Democratic foe.”
I know plenty of Trump supporters, and I know many of them to be people of integrity in important areas of their lives. Indeed, some are friends I cherish. But if there is a line Donald Trump could cross that would forfeit the loyalty of his core supporters—including, and in some respects especially, white evangelical Christians—I can’t imagine what it would be. And that is a rather depressing thing to admit.
Polarization and political tribalism are not new to America; fear and hatred for our fellow citizens have been increasing for decades. We’ve had plenty of presidents who have failed us, in ways large and small. But this moment is different because Donald Trump is different, and because Donald Trump is president. His relentless assault on truth and the institutions of democracy—his provocations and abuse of power, his psychological instability and his emotional volatility, his delusions and his incompetence—are unlike anything we’ve seen before. He needs to be stopped. And his supporters can’t say, as they did in 2016, that they just didn’t know. Now we know. It’s not too late—it’s never too late—to do the right thing.
The Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents.
“100,000 Dead,” an ad from the anti-Trump super PAC known as The Lincoln Project, comes at you like a miniature horror film. It starts with a shot of seven white body bags, detailed enough that you can see the outline of limbs underneath, and the voice of President Donald Trump at a press briefing in February. The nation’s Covid-19 caseload will soon be “close to zero,” Trump says; his words repeat in an increasingly distorted voice, as the camera pulls back to reveal row upon row of body bags in the shape of an American flag. New words land on the screen with audible thumps: “100,000 dead Americans. One wrong president.” It ends with the faint sound of wind whistling, as if through a graveyard.
Down to the smallest detail, it’s a masterful nugget of compact filmmaking. And it helped draw attention to a renegade corps of Republican strategists, veterans of campaigns for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, who are applying their attack-ad skills to their own party’s president—and going for the kill shot, every time. “Mourning in America,” their ad released in May, starts with a pointed reference to the Ronald Reagan slogan, then blames Trump for the full range of post-Covid despair, using images of hospital hallways, decrepit buildings and an upside-down flag. (Facebook slapped the ad with a “partly false” warning label, since it assigns Trump all of the blame for relief bills that were passed by the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.) “Debt,” released in late June, starts off like a History Channel documentary about the sacrifices made during World War II, and ends with an image of a Greatest Generation member, hooked up to a ventilator.
Some of the ads are running on TV, on Fox News or in battleground states. Some are simply released online, at a rapid pace. Many are based on assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true: that swing voters will be as unforgiving as Democrats about Trump’s Covid response, for instance, or that they’ll be bothered any more by Trump’s coarse rhetoric than they were, or weren’t, four years ago. Still, the Lincoln Project is clearly getting under the skin of the president and his supporters. And the evidence is not just raging tweets; in one of those Washington funhouse mirror moments, the Trump-friendly super PAC Club for Growth just released an ad attacking the Lincoln Project founders as if they were candidates themselves.
How has one renegade super PAC managed to trigger Trump and his allies so thoroughly? Part of it is surely frustration that a group of Republicans would issue a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. Part of it is skill: the Lincoln Project ads are slick, quick and filled with damning quotes and unflattering photos. But part of it might just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats. Trump may sense that these ads are especially dangerous because they pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to him by those same feelings in 2016. And history, even science, suggests that might in fact be the case—that Republicans have a knack for scaring the hell out of people, and that makes for some potent ads.
Not every Lincoln Project video peddles in fear. Some are traditional political ads, overenthusiastically produced and applied to issues that might irk the president: supporting Democrat Steve Bullock for U.S. Senate in Montana, attacking Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Some are 30-to-60-second versions of the kind of schoolyard taunting you might expect from Trump himself. In “Shrinking,” released after the president’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, a female voice mocks the size of the crowd: “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.”
The group’s most memorable ads, though, are the ones that are self-serious and brutal. Within days of news that Vladimir Putin paid the Taliban to target American soldiers, the Lincoln Project released two ads that hammer Trump as a lackey of foreign enemies, using language that, in another year, Republicans might have used to make Democrats look weak. “Betrayal” features Dan Barkhuff, a former Navy SEAL who declares that “any commander-in-chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of some Russians right now—diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.” “Bounty” starts with images of flag-draped coffins and the sound of tapping drums, then pivots to a standard attack-ad trick: carefully-spliced clips of Trump and Putin at joint press conferences, the action drawn out so that every smile and handshake looks doubly sinister.
Stoking fear is a tried-and-true tactic of political advertising, stemming back to the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s 1964 anti-Barry Goldwater ad “Daisy.” But many of the most indelible ones have stemmed from the Republican camp, and over time, they’ve grown increasingly blunt. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Bear” ad used a grizzly as metaphor for the Soviet nuclear threat: “Isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear—if there is a bear?” the voice over intoned. That ad inspired George W. Bush’s “Wolves” from 2004, which accused John Kerry of being soft on terrorism. George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad linked Michael Dukakis to a prisoner who committed brutal crimes on a weekend pass, flashing the words “Kidnapping,” “Stabbing,” and “Raping” on the screen. (The ad has since been scorned, not just for exploiting racial stereotypes, but also for paving the way for tough-on-crime bills that had lasting social repercussions.)
The secret of fearmongering is a willingness to go there, and that’s where the Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents. The group’s founders aren’t calibrating their ads around a Democratic base that mistrusts the military, delves into nuance, or shies away from causing offense. That leaves ample room for dog-whistle symbols that range from clichés to horror-movie tropes: One ad accuses Trump of being played by China, and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.
Research shows there’s a reason these ads could be effective with Republicans voters: Conservatives are an especially fear-prone group. In a 2008 paper in the journal Science, researchers subjected a group of adults with strong political beliefs to a set of startling noises and graphic images. Those with the strongest physical reactions were more likely to support capital punishment, defense spending and the war in Iraq. A 2011 paper in the journal Cell found a correlation between conservative leanings and the size of the right amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes emotions in response to fearful stimuli. In her book Irony and Outrage, University of Delaware professor Dannagal Young points out that liberals and conservatives respond differently to entertainment rhetoric: Liberals have a higher tolerance for open-ended ambiguity, while conservatives look for closure and want problems to be solved.
That research helps explain why some attack ads move the needle with the right populations—and why some, in retrospect, don’t. Take the Hillary Clinton campaign ad, “Mirrors,” which aired about a month before the 2016 election. Hailed, in certain circles, as an instant classic, it showed a series of young girls looking at their own reflections as Trump’s voice played in the background, saying things like, “I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers.” Mother Jones deemed the ad “powerful”; Bustle called it “brilliant.” But it didn’t convert the white suburban women Clinton’s advisers surely hoped to reach, because it not only preached to the choir, but spoke in the language of the choir. It was too subtle, Young might say, asking viewers to connect the dots, rather than hammering in a dramatic point. And it played to voters’ conscience and values—the kinds of things voters have to think about—rather than their raw emotions.
Trump’s ads, by comparison, have required little thought; the dots are pre-connected in thick Sharpie ink. His first 2016 ad, “Great Again,” touted his willingness to utter the words “RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM,” which the ad displayed in all caps over images of masked fighters and photos of the San Bernardino shooters. (The same ad pledged that Trump would “cut the head off ISIS.”) His campaign’s fear-stoking 2018 anti-immigration ad, featuring an illegal immigrant convicted of murder and caravan footage that evoked an invasion, was so incendiary that many networks, including Fox News, refused to run it.
The Lincoln Project, too, knows how to deliver an unsubtle message, and Trump has given them some useful raw material. Recent news footage makes him look weak and despondent—as when he descended from a helicopter after his Tulsa rally, a MAGA hat drooping from his hand like a dead trout. (The Lincoln Project’s ad sets the scene to “Jurassic Park” theme music, played badly on melodica.) The image of Trump holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, intended as a metaphor of strength, now plays as shorthand for tone-deaf insincerity. Another ad, “#Trumpisnotwell,” mashes recent video of Trump gingerly walking down a West Point ramp with 2018 footage of him climbing onto Air Force One, with toilet paper apparently stuck to his shoe. In a line straight out of the Trump playbook, the ad suggests that the media is hiding information about his health. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president,” the narrator says, over echo-y tones of slasher-movie music.
It’s enough to inspire a presidential tweetstorm, or six. Lately, Trump and his surrogates have tried to fight back, calling the Lincoln Project founders “RINOS,” painting the group as elitists who think of Trump fans as deplorables. Trump has offered counter-images: This week, he retweeted a meme of himself in an Uncle Sam pose, pointing menacingly at the camera, between the words “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.”
But the genius of the Lincoln Project ads is that they’re quite specifically after Trump, using his own favored tools of shamelessness and fearmongering, and turning them back on their source. Who knows? It could actually work.
One journalist remarked to me, “How in the world can these senators walk around here upright when they have no backbone?”
Not guilty. Not guilty.
In the United States Senate, like in many spheres of life, fear does the business.
Think back to the fall of 2002, just a few weeks before that year’s crucial midterm elections, when the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq was up for a vote. A year after the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of members of the House and the Senate were about to face the voters of a country still traumatized by terrorism.
Senator Patty Murray, a thoughtful Democrat from Washington State, still remembers “the fear that dominated the Senate leading up to the Iraq war.”
“You could feel it then,” she told me, “and you can feel that fear now” — chiefly among Senate Republicans.
For those of us who, from the start, questioned the wisdom of the Iraq war, our sense of isolation surely wasn’t much different from the loneliness felt in the 1950s by Senator Herbert Lehman of New York, who confronted Joe McCarthy’s demagogy only to be abandoned by so many of his colleagues. Nor was it so different from what Senator George McGovern must have felt when he announced his early opposition to the Vietnam War and was then labeled a traitor by many inside and outside of Congress.
History has indeed taught us that when it comes to the instincts that drive us, fear has no rival. As the lead House impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff, has noted, Robert Kennedy spoke of how “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.”
Playing on that fear, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, sought a quick impeachment trial for President Trump with as little attention to it as possible. Reporters, who usually roam the Capitol freely, have been cordoned off like cattle in select areas. Mr. McConnell ordered limited camera views in the Senate chamber so only presenters — not absent senators — could be spotted.
And barely a peep from Republican lawmakers.
One journalist remarked to me, “How in the world can these senators walk around here upright when they have no backbone?”
Fear has a way of bending us.
Late in the evening on day four of the trial I saw it, just 10 feet across the aisle from my seat at Desk 88, when Mr. Schiff told the Senate: “CBS News reported last night that a Trump confidant said that Republican senators were warned, ‘Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.’” The response from Republicans was immediate and furious. Several groaned and protested and muttered, “Not true.” But pike or no pike, Mr. Schiff had clearly struck a nerve. (In the words of Lizzo: truth hurts.)
Of course, the Republican senators who have covered for Mr. Trump love what he delivers for them. But Vice President Mike Pence would give them the same judges, the same tax cuts, the same attacks on workers’ rights and the environment. So that’s not really the reason for their united chorus of “not guilty.”
For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator. They are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted,” or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or — worst of all — that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary. They worry:
“Will the hosts on Fox attack me?”
“Will the mouthpieces on talk radio go after me?”
“Will the Twitter trolls turn their followers against me?”
My colleagues know they all just might. There’s an old Russian proverb: The tallest blade of grass is the first cut by the scythe. In private, many of my colleagues agree that
- the president is reckless and unfit. They
- admit his lies. And they
- acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know
- this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that
- more damning evidence is likely to come out.
So watching the mental contortions they perform to justify their votes is painful to behold: They claim that calling witnesses would have meant a never-ending trial. They tell us they’ve made up their minds, so why would we need new evidence? They say to convict this president now would lead to the impeachment of every future president — as if every president will try to sell our national security to the highest bidder.
I have asked some of them, “If the Senate votes to acquit, what will you do to keep this president from getting worse?” Their responses have been shrugs and sheepish looks.
They stop short of explicitly saying that they are afraid. We all want to think that we always stand up for right and fight against wrong. But history does not look kindly on politicians who cannot fathom a fate worse than losing an upcoming election. They might claim fealty to their cause — those tax cuts — but often it’s a simple attachment to power that keeps them captured.
As Senator Murray said on the Senate floor in 2002, “We can act out of fear” or “we can stick to our principles.” Unfortunately, in this Senate, fear has had its way. In November, the American people will have theirs.