Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s bestselling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is co-author of the forthcoming book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the ’90s to Now.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Now that polls have shown that the attempt to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom has failed – perhaps by a historic margin – I’d like to paraphrase a frequently memed quote from Return of the Jedi’s Admiral Ackbar and say: It was a trap!
The recall was never anchored in any concrete failure on Newsom’s part; not even the effort’s most vocal leaders could ever articulate a compelling reason why voters should remove him, or explain why anyone in the crowded clown car of alternative choices would govern better. But in staging the recall campaign, Republicans tipped their hand regarding the strategy that they’re presumably prepared to deploy in all future campaigns: Reinforcing the Big Lie narrative that any election won by a Democrat is fraudulent by definition.
Despite his preemptive claims of fraud in the weeks before the election, conservative radio host Larry Elder, the leading Republican in the race, told his supporters to “be gracious in defeat” in the early hours of Wednesday morning, conceding that Newsom had successfully defended his position and saying that he would not contest the results. But in doing so, he added the ominous warning that, “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.”
Elder became the Republican front-runner more or less by default – sorry, Caitlyn Jenner – despite relative obscurity and a chaotic personal life that made him an unlikely standard-bearer for the charge to depose the sitting governor. His ex-fiancee publicly alleged that he’d waved a handgun at her while he was high on marijuana, prompting other Republican candidates to demand that he withdraw from the race. (Elder denied these claims saying he “never brandished a gun at anyone.”)
Furthermore, his views were extreme even for a conservative: His racial perspectives have led Black activists to call him “the Black face of White supremacy,” and he’s spoken of wanting to set the minimum wage at zero (though he has paradoxically also said he has “no intention of getting rid of the minimum wage”), abolish Medicare and use his power to ban abortion, according to tweets from prominent anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, while vowing to roll back state-level protective mandates on Covid-19 – all positions that most voters in deep blue California would find horrifying.
But the conservative ecosystem that backed Elder’s run didn’t seem to be simply looking for him to win, even though the uniquely arcane mechanisms of California’s recall politics made it briefly seem as if that might be possible.
The true goal of Elder’s Republican backers appeared to be for him to at least lose by a margin that would allow them to contest the results in order to claim that Democrats had once again engaged in magical manipulation of ballots, voting machines or the brains of voters themselves, thus making the election seem null and void and expanding already widespread doubt and paranoia about the nature of our democracy.
How do we know this? Because Elder told us.
Elder recently proclaimed on Fox News his belief that the elections would be rife with fraud, repeating a far-right talking point that emerged in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. “The 2020 election, in my opinion, was full of shenanigans. And my fear is they’re going to try that in this election right here.”
Trump himself followed up with a concurring statement: “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?” he wrote in a statement sent via his Save America PAC. “Millions and millions of Mail-In Ballots will make this just another giant Election Scam, no different, but less blatant, than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!”
Elder’s campaign went as far as to push a request to voters to report fraud through a portal on his campaign website. “Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” read the linked page titled “Fight California Election Fraud!” “The primary analytical tool used was Benford’s Law and can be readily reproduced.”
But that message was pushed out on Monday, the day before the election – that is, before there were any results to analyze.
The incompetence of Elder’s campaign team, and the overwhelming, indisputable outcome of the recall vote itself, with far more “No” votes than “Yeses,” thwarted this latest attempt by Republicans to metastasize the Big Lie. Perhaps if the timing screw up on the election fraud claims hadn’t occurred – or if the recall vote had been closer – we’d see a California repeat of the nightmarish carnival of Republicans pushing to audit the 2020 presidential election in an array of states.
As Gov. Newsom’s top strategist Sean Clegg told CNN’s Dan Merica, “We saw it in the November election. We saw it in the January 6 insurrection … They’re trying to throw battery acid on our Constitution, on our electoral norms. And it’s a preview of coming attractions. We’re going to see the same thing in 2022 and the same thing in 2024.”
Republicans are no longer running against Democrats. They’re running against democracy.
Get our free weekly newsletter
To be sure, our democracy isn’t perfect, but the real problems it faces are not fraud, but phenomena like denial of poll access, racist gerrymandering and the overwhelming shadow influence of dark money. All of which are being eclipsed by these persistent false allegations of manipulation, rigging and hacking, despite the fact that no fraud has credibly been found in any of the audits and recounts that have taken place in our modern era.
The Big Lie didn’t overturn the result of the 2020 election, and it didn’t work to get Newsom out of office. But it does consistently rally the conservative base and raise huge amounts of money, encouraging Republicans to keep spreading it.
We can only hope it won’t work next time either.