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The Tangle of Trumpian Conspiracy Theories

How the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election, the “Great Replacement” theory, and other fringe ideas are entwined.
May 26, 2022
The Tangle of Trumpian Conspiracy Theories
45th US President Donald J. Trump speaks at the 'Save America' rally as he endorse Dr. Mehmet Oz for senate, in Greensburg of Pennsylvania, United States on May 6, 2022. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Conspiracy theories rarely grow alone. They are like vines: when placed next to one another, they entwine and mature together—the worldviews and communities where they thrive are trellises they climb to the heights of absurdity. Which is why Donald Trump’s “Big Lie”—the belief that the 2020 election was illegitimate and that he was its real winner—cannot be understood on its own. It is tangled up with the conspiratorial Great Replacement theory and with the anti-democratic notion that state legislatures have the sole authority to elect presidents.

These three ideas are distinct enough that they can be discussed separately—but people who embrace one of them are more likely to embrace the others. That is, a person who believes that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump is more likely than not to reject, at least tacitly, the idea of a multiracial United States and to repudiate the intrinsically American principle that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

This realization is especially troubling given recent reporting from the New York Times showing that 44 percent of Republican lawmakers in nine swing states—that’s 357 sitting legislators—“took concrete steps to discredit or overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.” And in Pennsylvania, where Big Lie enthusiast and Jan. 6th insurrectionist Doug Mastriano won the Republican gubernatorial primary last week, the overwhelming majority of the party’s state legislators sought to reverse the election outcome or delay the vote count.

The easy explanation is that Republican incumbents and candidates, in the name of political expedience, have gone all in on the Big Lie merely as a show of loyalty to the former president in hopes of winning over his supporters and securing election victories.

But that superficial explanation for the GOP’s direction is belied by the fact that many of these Republicans endorse not just the narrow Big Lie about the election but also two other un-American theories—the Great Replacement and the independent state legislature.

Recall that the Trump-induced myth of election fraud was grounded in the bogus idea that areas with high concentrations of black and Hispanic voters were the source of the illegitimacy. Trump lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia thanks in no small part to lopsided margins in the Detroit, Milwaukee, and Atlanta metro areas in a high-turnout election. The subtext of the Big Lie could not be more clear: Trump and his acolytes were accusing black and Hispanic voters of being foot soldiers in the Democratic plot to steal the election. And, should one need more information to connect the dots, we can turn again to Pennsylvania: During the first presidential debate, Trump previewed his election denialism by suggesting that “tens of thousands of ballots” could be manipulated there because “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” a plurality-black city. And sure enough, just over a month later, Philadelphia was the first city Trump targeted in the Big Lie.

The fingerprints of the Great Replacement theory, which suggests that there’s an intentional political strategy being implemented to have racial and ethnic minorities take the place of white people and culture in America, are all over this framing. Replacement theorists accuse the Democratic party of using black and Hispanic voters to displace the electoral voice of real Americans. As replacement evangelist Tucker Carlson proclaimed last year, “This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because [Democrats] are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?” Indeed, Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik declared Democrats, who have received the lion’s share of the black vote for decades, are attempting a “permanent election insurrection” by exploring pathways to citizenship for immigrants—an odd proposition given that a year ago many pundits and GOP officials couldn’t stop pointing out the party’s gains among Hispanic and black voters.

Through this lens, the very participation of people of color is viewed as a threat to American democracy and a distortion of the social order that replacement theorists believe the Constitution established. The Big Lie is a product of the belief that the Americans these theorists deem undesirable have too much influence on election outcomes.

If the Big Liars and replacement theorists feel political losses are imminent and enduring, they suddenly become more accepting of anti-democratic actions to rig the game by weighting the areas where they hold power. Enter the independent state legislature theory—a fanatical interpretation of the Constitution’s Elections and Electors Clauses suggesting that, among other things, state legislatures are authorized to act independently of the popular vote when selecting presidential electors. In practice, this means that a state assembly can ignore the votes of their constituents and unilaterally determine which presidential candidate should receive its Electoral College votes.

This theory is linked to some Republicans’ longstanding mantra “America is a republic, not a democracy”—the idea being that the representative nature of a republic is the true means by which the governed provide consent, not through casting their votes directly for candidates for a particular office like the presidency. Rather, the republic serves to moderate the voice of the people, who, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “seldom judge or determine right.” This was part of the reason for which the Framers devised the Electoral College: to dilute the democratically expressed will of the populace. Better to empower the enlightened men of principle—“the rich and well born,” in Hamilton’s words—than to permit an obtuse public to decide who should lead. In this construction, the best and truest Americans are the proper caretakers of the country and its people. (It is worth noting just as a historical footnote that the idea of the Electoral College originated with a Pennsylvanian—James Wilson, also one of the creators of the Three-Fifths Compromise.)

The independent state legislature theory gaining steam in Republican circles not only self-designates whose voices matter most, but also undercuts the ability of the governed to provide consent and dismisses the participation of those Americans who experience the world differently on account of race or ethnicity.

Considering the three together—the Big Lie, replacement theory, and the independent state legislature doctrine—demonstrates how they work to assert one undeniably un-American view: It is not only permissible to prevent a democracy governed by an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse cohort, it is imperative because of the existential threat multiracial politics poses to “real Americans.” The Big Lie not only insists the election was stolen but names the groups it believes are culpable and endorses anti-democratic means to exclude them from the electoral process.

It is said that Pennsylvania Avenue—the boulevard that connects the White House and the U.S. Capitol where Congress and the early Supreme Court convened—was given its name as a concession for moving the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. It is perhaps the most symbolically democratic street in America.

Centuries later, Pennsylvania remains a centerpiece. Republican gubernatorial candidate and Big Lie proponent Mastriano has said that he will appoint a secretary of state who will carry out his desire to rescind every Pennsylvanians voter registration and “start all over again.” Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania’s extremely tight Republican senatorial race, now heading into a recount, a dispute has arisen around whether the commonwealth should count undated mail-in ballots, which have been considered both a vehicle for voter fraud by the right and voter suppression by the left. Pennsylvanian Republicans submitted an alternate slate of electors for the 2020 presidential election—and the state is the site of the replacement theory–motivated May 2018 shooting at a synagogue.

When Ben Franklin, Pennsylvania’s favorite son, emerged from the Constitutional Convention, he is famously quoted as saying the delegates had created “a republic, if you can keep it.” Whether we can “keep it” remains a live question. We are on the cusp of answering his charge, and our answer hinges on the nation’s willingness to be governed by a multiracial cohort or its insistence that the current slate of leaders can let the promise of America wither on the vine.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.