Source: The Guardian
Earlier this month, Team Trump claimed in court that their efforts to nullify Joe Biden’s victory could not possibly have been fraudulent or be described as a criminal conspiracy, because those in and around the White House had merely been acting on the basis of sincerely held suspicions.
This sparked the latest round in the never-ending debate over whether or not Republicans actually believe that the election was stolen from them. Politically, it is important to push back against the opportunistic ways in which Republicans up and down the country have been using the “big lie”. But if we are trying to understand what is animating the right’s rapidly accelerating radicalization against democracy, binary assumptions of Republicans as either true believers or power-hungry cynics are not very helpful and actually obscure more than they illuminate. In some fundamental way, Republicans are both. What we really need to grapple with is why so many Republicans are convinced the outcome of the election was illegitimate regardless of whether or not there were specific procedural irregularities.
Surveys have consistently indicated that a clear majority, probably about two-thirds, of Republicans consider Biden an illegitimate president. It’s highly likely that many of them are well aware that some of the specific conspiratorial claims emanating from the right – fake ballots? Lost ballots? “Illegals” voting? – are bogus. But they don’t seem to care about the specifics. They just believe Biden shouldn’t be president.
What is most alarming is the underlying ideology that leads so many on the right to consider Democratic victories invalid – even if they concede there was nothing technically wrong with how the election was conducted. It has become a core tenet of the Republican worldview to consider the Democratic party as not simply a political opponent, but an enemy pursuing an “un-American” project of turning what is supposed to be a white Christian patriarchal nation into a land of godless multiracial pluralism. Conversely, Republicans see themselves as the sole proponents of “real” America, defending the country from the forces of radical leftism, liberalism and wokeism.
Even if they don’t subscribe to the more outlandish conspiracies propagated by Trumpists, many Republicans agree that the Democratic party is a fundamentally illegitimate political faction – and that any election outcome that would lead to Democratic governance must be rejected as illegitimate as well. Republicans didn’t start from an assessment of how the 2020 election went down and come away from that exercise with sincerely held doubts. The rationalization worked backwards: They looked at the outcome and decided it must not stand. In other words, accusations of fraud gain plausibility among conservatives not because of empirical evidence, but because they adhere to the “higher truth” of who is and who is not legitimately representing – and therefore entitled to rule – “real” America.
It is worth paying attention to how reactionary intellectuals have been dealing with the 2020 election. We certainly wouldn’t expect Trump, most Republican officials, or the conservative base to devour rightwing treatises. As much as they would like to believe it, these reactionary thinkers are not leading the movement. But they tend to articulate the radicalizing authoritarian spirit that is threatening American democracy in strikingly stark terms. In this way, the rightwing intellectual sphere provides a crucial window into the energies and anxieties that are animating the right more broadly.
In March 2021, the magazine American Mind published a particularly instructive essay by Glenn Ellmers, entitled “‘Conservatism’ is No Longer Enough”. American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a rightwing thinktank in California that has become home to some of the most outrightly pro-Trumpian intellectuals. It is notable that Ellmers makes no claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” – he doesn’t allege manipulation, voter fraud, or conspiracy, and in fact explicitly acknowledges that more people voted for Biden than for Trump. He does not peddle conspiracy theories. Yet Ellmers maintains that the outcome of the 2020 election is illegitimate and must not be accepted.
According to Ellmers, Biden’s presidency represents an “un-American” idea of multiracial pluralism – something that is fundamentally in conflict with what he refers to as “authentic America”. In his view, everyone who voted for Joe Biden and his “progressive project of narcotizing the American people and turning us into a nation of slaves” is also “un-American” and therefore not worthy of inclusion in the body politic. Ellmers declares that “most people living in the United States – certainly more than half – are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term”. Only “authentic Americans” are allowed in Glenn Ellmers’ United States – a racialized idea of “the people,” most clearly represented by “the vast numbers of heartland voters”.
On the other side are “un-American” enemies, not coincidentally characterized by their blind admiration for a young Black artist: “If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman.” Ellmers’ racist, anti-pluralistic vision is remarkably radical: he wants to redraw the boundaries of citizenship and exclude over half the population.
Ellmers is outraged precisely because he accepts the fact that a majority voted for Biden, that “authentic Americans” have become the minority in a country which they are supposedly entitled to dominate. Here we have a striking glimpse of the depth of despair underlying the pervasive siege mentality on the right. What’s scandalous about the 2020 election, in this interpretation, is not that it was “stolen”, but that “un-American” forces straightforwardly won.
Reactionaries like Ellmers have internalized the idea that they represent a persecuted minority, fighting with their backs against the wall in a desperate effort to defend “authentic America”. They dispute the legitimacy of the 2020 election not necessarily on the basis of fraud and conspiracy but because democracy itself subverted the will of “real America” by allowing the “wrong” people too much of an influence on the fate of the country.
Trump’s incessant lies represent a vulgar, clumsy, narcissistic strand of conspiratorial thinking; those lies are shared by some, opportunistically used by many, and widely accepted on the right because they adhere to a “higher truth”: “we” are entitled to rule in America. That’s what is behind the widespread support for, or willingness to accept, any kind of suspicion, regardless of whether or not there is any shred of empirical evidence. If an election doesn’t result in “us” being in power, it must be illegitimate, as we are “real America”; if it puts “them” in charge, it cannot be accepted, as they are out to destroy the nation.
Whether or not Republicans actually believe conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, most are absolutely convinced the result was illegitimate – and they are all too willing to use allegations of fraud or ally with conspiracy theorists if it helps prevent future “illegitimate” outcomes. It is precisely the mixture of deeply held ideological convictions of white Christian patriarchal dominance, of what “real America” is supposed to be and who gets to rule there, and the cynical opportunism with which these beliefs are enforced that makes the assault on democracy so dangerous.
Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer.
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