Former President Donald Trump has spent months spreading lies about the 2020 election, which he himself is now calling “THE BIG LIE” as he continues to claim that a massive conspiracy robbed him of a second term.
The result is that many Republicans now question the election results – and the lie has taken on a life of its own.
In Washington, congressional Republicans who recently ousted Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from the party’s leadership over her decision to call Trump out for his lies mostly united Wednesday against a review of the January 6 Capitol insurrection those lies helped incite.
Trump’s allies in Arizona are undertaking a sketchy, circus-like review of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County, even though local officials – themselves Republicans – are openly objecting to the process, which comes months after the state’s election was certified by its Republican governor. (Trump allies are now pushing for a similar review in Georgia, where Republican officials also certified President Joe Biden’s victory.)
In key states around the country, more restrictive election laws are being enacted, ostensibly to guard against fraud that did not happen.
I went back to CNN’s fact checks and historical warnings to put together this guide to the Big Lie and its various elements.
Where did the term “the Big Lie” come from?
It comes from Adolf Hitler, actually. In Mein Kampf, he accused Jews of spreading lies about how the German army performed in World War I.
The historian Zachary Jonathan Jacobson wrote about it in The Washington Post a few years ago:
Adolf Hitler first defined the Big Lie as a deviant tool wielded by Viennese Jews to discredit the Germans’ deportment in World War I. Yet, in tragically ironic fashion, it was Hitler and his Nazi regime that actually employed the mendacious strategy. In an effort to rewrite history and blame European Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, Hitler and his propaganda minister accused them of profiting from the war, consorting with foreign powers and “war shirking” (avoiding conscription). Jews, Hitler contended, were the weak underbelly of the Weimer state that exposed the loyal and true German population to catastrophic collapse. To sell this narrative, Joseph Goebbels insisted “all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands.”
Why did people start using that term to describe the 2020 election?
Use of the phrase started as a way for Trump critics to warn about the toxic nature of his election lies.
Here’s Joe Lockhart, a Democratic communications specialist and CNN commentator, writing about it in January.
And historian Timothy Snyder, author of “On Tyranny,” used it in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. “The idea that Mr. Biden didn’t win the election is a big lie,” he told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “It’s a big lie because you have to disbelieve all kinds of evidence to believe in it. It’s a big lie because you have to believe in a huge conspiracy in order to believe it. And it’s a big lie because, if you believe it, it demands you take radical action. So this is one way we have really moved forwards towards authoritarianism and away from democracy. It’s coming to a peak right now.”
How did Trump come to adopt the term?
This is another irony.
There have long been warnings about Trump’s lies. That Jacobson story in the Post is from 2018. Trump falsely claimed after the 2016 election, which he won, that millions of people had illegally voted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Leading up to the 2020 election, Trump again routinely asserted that voting in the US would be rigged against him, and afterward, when he denied his loss, critics began using the term “the Big Lie” to describe his rejection of the factual world.
Trump, master propagandist, has since seized the term from his critics and now routinely uses it to claim it is he who is the victim of untruths and conspiracies. “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE! ” he said in a statement issued by his PAC on May 3.
Since then, Trump’s use of it to claim his own persecution has arguably eclipsed its use to warn about his lies as a form of propaganda.
What are the elements of Trump’s big lie?
1. The election was stolen because it’s not possible Trump didn’t win.
In Trump’s telling, the big lie is that the election was stolen from him. A lie as massive as the stealing of an election with hundreds of millions of voters requires a bunch of smaller lies Trump’s used to sow doubt about the election.
CNN’s Facts First team has been writing about Trump’s specific election lies for many months, first leading up to the election, which he falsely claimed was rigged, and after he lost, when he falsely claimed it had been stolen in a variety of ways, all of which have been disproved. Look at this fact check from Daniel Dale, which addresses these crazy quotes, none of which are accurate:
- “… millions of ballots that have been altered by Democrats, only for Democrats.”
- “All of the mechanical ‘glitches’ that took place on Election Night were really THEM getting caught trying to steal votes.”
- “700,000 ballots were not allowed to be viewed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh which means, based on our great Constitution, we win the State of Pennsylvania!”
In every key state he lost, Trump has pushed an explanation, sowing doubt without actually proving anything.
That’s just Georgia.
In Trump’s mind, there were also dead voters in Michigan, “fake votes” in Nevada, Pennsylvania had more votes than voters, Detroit had more votes than voters … when you view it in totality, it feels desperate.
2. There was a massive technological conspiracy to rig the election.
A key element of Trump’s system of lies is that the voting equipment and software company Dominion Voting Systems was biased against him, had “bum equipment” and helped rig the election.
Dominion has since sued Trump campaign lawyers and Fox News and accused other Trump allies of spreading falsehoods. When mail-in ballots Trump had discouraged were counted and Democrats gained ground after the early hours of election night, he saw a conspiracy: “surprise ballot dumps’!” and “finding votes!”
This notion was revived in the Arizona audit, where Trump this past weekend seized on the idea that an election database had been deleted. The auditors hired by the state GOP acknowledged on Tuesday that it had not been.
3. Theories and wild claims pushed on the internet find their way into lawsuits and are then pushed by Trump.
Here’s one example. Viral video from footage Fulton County, Georgia, led to allegations there were suitcases of votes smuggled in to be counted. This video was mentioned in a lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and pushed by Trump. Officials in Georgia – Republicans! – investigated the claim and found the suspected suitcases were ballot bins and the video captured normal processes. The lawsuit brought by the Texas attorney general was ultimately thrown out by the US Supreme Court, a court which, by the way, has a conservative majority and three justices appointed by Trump.
Another example, from just this past week, is when Republican lawmakers in Arizona fed that false allegation that an election database had been deleted. It wasn’t deleted, as a Republican election official made clear – but not until after the allegation had been pushed to close followers of the conspiracy theories.
4. Investigators are biased, too.
Just as recounts that found no change to the election results were labeled by Trump as frauds and hoaxes, a review of the January 6 insurrection launched after his election lies can only be slanted. Trump turned hard on a bipartisan agreement to investigate the insurrection.
“Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left. Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” he said in a statement.
5. Trump supporters questioning the results are just being good citizens.
In the growing case of collective amnesia many Republican lawmakers are developing about the January 6 insurrection, there’s the idea that the people who stormed the Capitol were just concerned and wanting to be heard. Similarly, the lawmakers who voted to throw out the election results were just channeling the concerns of voters who think the process might be flawed, despite the lack of evidence there was any actual fraud.
McConnell and McCarthy, who as Senate and House minority leaders are the two top Republicans at the federal level, had both been critical of Trump’s false claims on the election and had previously criticized the insurrection in strong terms.
But now that it’s clear many Republicans are willing to tolerate, and potentially believe, Trump’s lies, McConnell and McCarthy are finding ways to support his views. Both, for instance, turned against the agreement struck for a January 6 commission, which many Republicans had, at least in principle, supported.
“Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left,” Trump said Tuesday night after both leaders had come out against the commission. “Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!”
There is no room for rejecting Trump’s Big Lie, as Republicans who do so are ostracized by the party leadership.
Trump’s big lie worked
The sham audit in Arizona continues, although behind closed doors, unlike the open counts and recounts of ballots the first time. A similar “forensic review” of ballots in Georgia is being pushed by allies of the former President.
Polls suggest a majority of Republicans – 55% in an April Reuters poll – think Biden’s victory was the result of illegal voting or rigging.
“What is perfectly clear,” wrote CNN’s Harry Enten after examining the data, “is that Republicans’ lack of faith in our current election infrastructure is a direct result of Trump’s historic efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 results.”
This story has been updated to reflect Wednesday’s House vote on a January 6 commission.