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Lies Are the Building Blocks of Trumpian Authoritarianism

Deceit and the danger to democracy.
February 7, 2022
Lies Are the Building Blocks of Trumpian Authoritarianism
(photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Americans like to think our country is immune to authoritarianism. We have a culture of freedom, a tradition of elected government, and a Bill of Rights. We’re not like those European countries that fell into fascism. We’d never willingly abandon democracy, liberty, or the rule of law.

But that’s not how authoritarianism would come to America. In fact, it’s not how authoritarianism has come to America. The movement to dismantle our democracy is thriving and growing, even after the failure of the Jan. 6th coup attempt, because it isn’t spreading through overt rejection of our system of government. It’s spreading through lies.

It turns out that you don’t have to renounce any of our nation’s founding principles to betray them. All you have to do is believe lies: that real ballots are fake, that prosecutors are criminals, and that insurrectionists are political prisoners. Once you believe these things, you’re ready to disenfranchise your fellow citizens in the name of democracy. You’re ready to cover up crimes in the name of fighting corruption. You’re ready to liberate coup plotters in the name of justice.

And that’s where we are. Donald Trump and his party have sold these lies to more than 100 million Americans. He has built an army of authoritarian followers who think they’re saving the republic.

As president, Trump abused every power he could, from pardons to control of the military. And as he lays the groundwork to run for re-election, he continues to advocate and threaten such abuses. But for the most part, he’s careful to frame them as the opposite of what they are. “I am not the one trying to undermine American Democracy,” he declared last month in a statement marking the anniversary of Jan. 6th. “I am the one trying to SAVE American Democracy.”

At a rally in Arizona this past Jan. 15, Trump repeated his standard lie that “the real insurrection took place on Election Day,” through voter fraud. From that standpoint, he noted, the Jan. 6th uprising was an attempt to restore democracy, and the people arrested in the uprising were “political prisoners.” The House Jan. 6th Committee is, in Trump’s words, a partisan cabal that trampled innocent people “like this is . . . a communist country.” So are the federal and state prosecutors looking into Trump’s possible financial and political crimes. In the name of law and order, he urged his supporters to rise up against these agents of the state: “We must protect our nation from these monsters that are using law enforcement for political retribution.”

Trump continued his Orwellian themes at a Jan. 29 rally in Texas. He argued that President Joe Biden had been installed by fake ballots, not real voters, and that legislation to make voting easier would just lead to more fake ballots. Democrats “don’t have a voting rights bill,” Trump scoffed. “They have a voting fraud bill.”

This strategy—inserting lies into conventional moral appeals, so that his listeners think they’re doing the right thing when they’re actually doing the opposite—is central to Trump’s propaganda. Without the lies, the evil would be exposed. That’s what happened a week ago, when Trump forgot to lie. In a statement, he complained that when Congress counted electoral votes on Jan. 6th, Vice President Mike Pence could have, and should have, “change[d] the results” and “overturned the Election.” The words “change” and “overturn” revealed Trump’s despotic intent. So, in a follow-up statement two days later, he replaced them. His true purpose, he insisted, was to “ensure the true outcome” and “ensure the honest results.”

Trump isn’t alone in peddling these lies. The Republican party stands behind him. On Friday, the Republican National Committee, following his lead, censured Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for telling the truth about Jan. 6th. The party’s censure resolution adopted Trump’s upside-down account of the insurrection and the investigation. It accused Cheney and Kinzinger, who sit on the House Jan. 6th Committee, of “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

The party has also adopted Trump’s broader strategy of using lies to induce and disguise authoritarian behavior. Instead of arguing that laws should be tightened to make it harder to vote, Republicans pretend that ballots blocked by such laws wouldn’t come from real or legal voters. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz has falsely asserted that voting rights legislation would enfranchise “illegal aliens,” not “American citizens”—and, therefore, the legislation “doesn’t protect voting rights, it steals voting rights.” Instead of arguing that people who committed crimes on Jan. 6th should be let off the hook, Republicans pretend that the real criminals are the investigators themselves. Lawmakers and staffers on the committee are “running over the law, pursuing innocent people,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News on Jan. 23. “They’re the ones who . . . face a real risk of jail for the kind of laws they’re breaking.”

The committee has requested interviews, unsuccessfully, with two top Republicans who spoke directly to Trump on Jan. 6th and who witnessed his refusal to call off the mob. One is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who’s in line to become the next speaker, which would give him the power to end the congressional investigation. Three weeks ago, when McCarthy refused the committee’s request for an interview, he didn’t bother to justify protecting Trump. Instead, he pretended that Cheney and Kinzinger weren’t real Republicans. This allowed him to dismiss the committee as “purely an arm of the DCCC”—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—and therefore “illegitimate.”

Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, has also refused to answer questions from the committee, claiming executive privilege. The claim is hollow for many reasons, starting with the fact that Trump isn’t president anymore. But in a speech defending Meadows, Rep. Jim Jordan—who’s in line to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee if the GOP takes over—didn’t even acknowledge that Meadows was trying to conceal facts from the public. Instead, taking a cue from Trump, Jordan suggested that the former president was the public. “Executive privilege serves the public interest,” said Jordan. “It’s for us. It’s for we the people.”

In a country immune to authoritarianism, this campaign of lies would fail. But the campaign isn’t failing. It’s working. Rank-and-file Republicans, joined by many independent voters, believe the lies. They’re ready to put Republicans back in charge of Congress. They’re ready to support McCarthy when he shuts down the Jan. 6th investigation. And many are ready to re-elect Trump.

These people don’t think they’re betraying democracy. They think they’re saving it. In polls, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to say that “American democracy is under a major threat,” that “there is a serious threat to the future of our democracy,” and that “the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse.” What makes these Republicans functionally authoritarian is that they’re completely wrong about who poses the threat. In October, when a Quinnipiac survey asked whether “Donald Trump has been undermining democracy or protecting democracy,” 94 percent of Democrats said he was undermining it. But 85 percent of Republicans said he was protecting it.

Today, three-quarters of Republicans continue to insist that Biden “did not legitimately win the election.” When they’re asked why, they cite Trump’s lies, which they think are true. In a December survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 61 percent of Republicans said Biden was illegitimate because “fraudulent ballots supporting [him] were counted by election officials.” Forty-six percent said “ballots supporting Donald Trump were destroyed by election officials.” Forty-one percent said “voting machines were re-programmed by election officials to count extra ballots for Biden.”

Once you believe these lies, it’s easy to believe Trump’s lies about Jan. 6th, since the point of the Jan. 6th uprising was to block certification of the election. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken last month, more than 60 percent of Republicans said that in terms of violating the Constitution, the election was at least as bad as “the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.” Two-thirds of these people—43 percent of all Republicans—said the election was worse. In other surveys, most Republicans have maintained that people who committed violence on Jan. 6th—those who “forced their way into the U.S. Capitol” or were “involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol”—were “defending freedom” or “protecting democracy.”

Some of these fictions haven’t just permeated the Republican base. They’ve infected the broader electorate. In the last four Economist/YouGov polls, most white Americans without a college degree have said Biden didn’t legitimately win the presidency. In a Quinnipiac survey taken last month, a plurality of independents agreed with the statement that “too much is being made of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and it is time to move on.” In a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll taken two weeks ago, most independents said the Department of Justice was prosecuting Jan. 6th defendants primarily “for political reasons”—not “because they should be prosecuted”—and 54 percent of registered voters said the House Jan. 6th Committee’s investigation was “more of a partisan exercise” than “an independent inquiry.”

Among voters as a whole, Trump’s party—despite its embrace, defense, and extension of his authoritarianism—is seen as no worse than Democrats in adhering to democracy. In a Marist poll taken in October, when voters were asked which party was a “bigger threat to democracy in the United States,” 41 percent named the Republican party, but 42 percent named the Democratic party. And in a Fox News survey taken three weeks ago, when voters were asked which party would do a better job of “protecting American democracy,” 50 percent chose Democrats, but 48 percent chose Republicans. In both surveys, by margins of four to five percentage points, independents viewed the GOP as the more democracy-friendly party.

These numbers, combined with the corresponding patterns in Trump’s, McCarthy’s, and the RNC’s propaganda, teach an important lesson. We’re in a battle to save democracy, but the battleground isn’t values. It’s facts. We’re up against a party that spreads, condones, excuses, tolerates, and exploits lies—lies about our political process, and lies about an attempt to overthrow our government—in order to make Americans think that the party of authoritarianism is the party of democracy. And we’re in serious danger of losing.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.