Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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McManus: ‘Election denialism’ rooted

Future elections likely to be packed with turmoil — and potentially dangerous

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On Jan. 6, when followers of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol to try to block the election of President Joe Biden, the insurrection seemed like a bizarre anomaly — a freak storm whipped up by pro-Trump extremists and right-wing militias.

But in the months since the attack, the movement that spawned the uprising — sometimes called “election denialism” — has turned out to be larger, more durable and every bit as worrisome as the violence of that chaotic day.

Biden won the election decisively — whether measured by the popular vote (where his margin was a healthy 7 million) or by electoral votes (where he won by the same majority Trump did four years before). It was not a particularly close election.

Still, Trump has succeeded in one important respect: He has convinced millions of Republican voters that the election was stolen from them. That’s making chaos and even violence around future elections more likely, many experts fear.

A CNN poll in September found that 78 percent of Republicans said they believed Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Almost 6 in 10 said “believing that Donald Trump won” was an important part of being Republican — up there with traditional principles such as low taxes and limited government.

Another survey, the Economist/YouGov poll, found that election denialism grew over the first nine months of 2021.

It’s tempting to consider this just more evidence of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning,” the tendency to believe only those facts (in this case, imaginary facts) that conform with your partisan views. But it’s more dangerous than that.

If Republicans lose close congressional elections in 2022, or if Trump or another GOP candidate loses the presidential race in 2024, a large group of voters is already primed to believe the only possible explanation will be fraud — and some are willing to resort to violence to reverse the result.

“About 65 million Americans believe that Joe Biden stole the election and is an illegitimate president,” Robert A. Pape, a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago, said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Of those 65 million, he added, about 21 million believe violence is justified to restore Trump to the presidency, based on polling conducted by Pape’s research organization, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. That number “is the pool of potential recruits” for a future insurrection, he said.

“Think about this as if it were a wildfire. Wildfires are often set off by lightning strikes, but there will always be lightning. The important question is how much dry wood is on the ground when it strikes. The tinder is more important than the match.”

Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters are doing plenty of groundwork to contest the results of future elections.

They’re changing the rules, passing laws to enable GOP-dominated state legislatures to exert control over election administration and recounts.

They hope to change the referees, too. In at least five swing states, pro-Trump Republicans are running for the once-obscure office of secretary of state — chief election officer, in other words — as election denialists proclaiming that the 2020 vote was rigged.

In 2024, if the opportunity presents itself, Trump or another nominee may profit from the lessons of 2020 and do a more effective job of overturning the results — this time, perhaps, with the help of a GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

They could, of course, win the next election the old-fashioned way, by winning more votes than their opponent. But if they fall short, they have a Plan B — one that a lot of voters already appear willing to support, and a cause for which their most militant supporters are ready to march on the Capitol again.

Americans once saw Election Day as an occasion that bound the nation together, the culmination of a rough but peaceful competition that ended with a graceful concession speech from the loser — an essential declaration of faith in the democratic system.

Now, thanks to the former president and his abettors, our next few elections appear likely to be dangerous opportunities for turmoil, instability — even, perhaps, another insurrection. It may not come in the same shape as Jan. 6; the Capitol Police may be better prepared next time. But Trump’s disinformation campaign has already made postelection violence more likely.

Jan. 6 may have been only a dress rehearsal.

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