the big lie 2.0

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Consider this astonishing fact about the 2020 U.S. presidential election: The losing party has never truly conceded the result. Although he eventually admitted that his opponent Joe Biden would take office, former President Donald Trump has consistently asserted that Biden only did so fraudulently—that he, Trump, was “cheated” and had actually won the election.

This is new.

A temporarily disputed election is not without precedent. In 2000, another presidential election was hotly contested, with the final outcome coming down to a few hundred votes in Florida. But unlike Trump, Vice President Al Gore conceded when his legal challenges failed a few weeks later. Gore’s concession allowed for the peaceful transition of power and ensured the continuation of American democracy. Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election persisted long after his legal challenges were soundly rebuffed, galvanizing the Republican Party, with a strong majority now believing that the election was rigged.

Trump’s lies about the election are easily disproven with simple math—verified vote totals from state election officials. But that has not stopped elected Republicans from subscribing to what is rightly called “The Big Lie.” One hundred forty-seven Republican members of Congress–139 Representatives and 8 Senators–voted to overturn the election results during the Congressional certification process. And since then, Republicans have challenged the official vote count in several states that President Biden won. Georgia election officials affirmed the state’s results in three different tallies after Trump backers challenged the results. Trump’s allies in Arizona conducted a partisan audit after claims of “fraud” that nevertheless found that Biden won the state. Even in states such as Utah where Trump won, activists are pushing for audits of the vote count. 

The Big Lie is a direct threat to democracy because democracy cannot function without the loser’s consent. Without the losing party acknowledging the legitimacy of the electoral victor, institutions may cease to properly function and future elections may not be conducted democratically.

The purposeful attempt to overturn legitimate election results is called election subversion, and it presents a serious risk in 2024. Subversion can come in many forms. A Republican secretary of state at the state level refuses to certify election results. Republicans in a state legislature ignore the popular vote and send a separate slate of electors to the Electoral College. Or a Republican-controlled Congress attempts to reject a legitimate slate of electors that reflect a state’s popular vote. As more Republicans who parrot The Big Lie get elected, the risk of one of these election subversion outcomes playing out becomes greater. 

“Enough states are starting to move these policies that we are, in fact, at a tipping point,” said Megan Lewis, the executive director of the Voting Rights Lab. “These lawmakers need to stop these efforts or we run the risk of eroding the fabric of our democracy.”

The Big Lie is a direct threat to democracy because democracy cannot function without the loser’s consent.

The worst part about election subversion is that given the nature of the Constitution, there’s not much that elected officials can do about it. Congress must confirm the results of the election, and it is entirely possible that Republicans will control Congress by the time the 2024 election rolls around.

Any successful 2024 election subversion would present a constitutional crisis with no simple resolution. It is possible that one side will back down in the heat of the moment. It is also possible that one side will back down after losing a protracted legal battle. But Trump’s prolonged claims of election fraud have fundamentally shifted something within the Republican Party. The January 6th insurrection has already shown that a Trump-led movement can end in violence. The year 2024 will be illuminating for the future of democracy in America, and no one can be certain how things will turn out. 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.