Letters From an American

CPAC: The Big Lie’s Megaphone

CPAC: The Big Lie's Megaphone

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 28: Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

March 1, 2021

This morning, conservative pundit William Kristol wrote in The Bulwark what a number of us have been saying for a while now, and it dovetails cleanly with the current Republican attempt to suppress voting.

Kristol warns that our democracy is in crisis. For the first time in our history, we have failed to have a peaceful transfer of power. The Republican Party launched a coup — which fortunately failed — and “now claims that the current administration is illegitimately elected, the result of massive, coordinated fraud. The logical extension of this position would seem to be that the American constitutional order deserving of our allegiance no longer exists.”

“So,” he notes, “we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.”

Claims that American democracy is on the ropes in the face of an authoritarian power grab raise accusations of partisanship… but in this case, the person making the claim is a conservative, who goes on to urge conservatives to join behind President Joe Biden to try to save democracy. Kristol warns that “a dangerous, anti-democratic faction” of the Republican Party “is not committed in any serious way to the truth, the rule of law, or the basic foundations of our liberal democracy.”

Kristol’s call is notable both because of his position on the right and because he warns that we are absolutely not in a moment of business-as-usual. Perhaps because it is impossible to imagine, we seem largely to have normalized that the former president of the United States refused to accept his loss in the 2020 election and enlisted a mob to try to overturn the results. Along with his supporters, he continues to insist that he won that election and that President Joe Biden is an illegitimate usurper.

This big lie threatens the survival of our democracy.

At the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference this weekend in Orlando, Florida, Trump supporters doubled down on the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election. From a stage shaped like a piece of Nazi insignia, speakers raged that they were victims of “cancel culture” on the part of Big Tech and the left, which are allegedly trying to silence them. To restore fairness, they want to stop “voter fraud” and restore “election integrity,” and they want to force social media giants to let them say whatever they want on social media.

In the Washington Post, commentator Jennifer Rubin said the modern conservatives at CPAC had no policy but revenge, “resentment, cult worship and racism,” and no political goal but voter suppression. It is “the only means by which they seek to capture power in an increasingly diverse America,” she notes. A poll showed that “election integrity” was the issue most important to CPAC attendees, with 62% of them choosing it over “constitutional rights” (which got only 48%).

Trump himself packaged this lie in words that sounded much like the things he said before the January 6 insurrection. He claimed that he had won the election, that the election was “rigged,” and that it was “undeniable” that the rules of the election were “illegally changed”—although none of his many court challenges stuck. He attacked the Supreme Court in language that echoed the attacks on his vice president, Mike Pence, that had rioters searching him out to kill him. “They didn’t have the guts or the courage to make the right decision,” Trump said of the justices.

The purpose of this big lie is not only to reinforce Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, but also to delegitimize the Democratic victory. If Democrats cheat, it makes sense to prevent “voter fraud” by making it harder to vote. “We must pass comprehensive election reforms, and we must do it now,” Trump said.

Republican reforms, though, mean voter suppression. Currently, Republican legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills to restrict voting. They want to cut back early voting and restrict mail-in voting, limit citizen-led ballot initiatives, and continue to gerrymander congressional districts. Arizona is trying to make it possible for state legislatures, rather than voters, to choose the state’s presidential electors. Rather than try to draw voters to their party’s candidates by moderating their stances, they are trying to win power by keeping people from voting.

I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous this is. We have gone down this road before in America, in the South after 1876. The outcome was the end of democracy in the region and the establishment of a single, dominant party for generations. In those decades, a small body of men ruled their region without oversight and openly mocked the idea of justice before the law. A member of the jury that took only 67 minutes to acquit Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 famously said, “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” White men dominated women and their Black and Brown neighbors, but their gains were largely psychological, as the one-party system created instability that slowed down economic investment, while leaders ignored education and infrastructure.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a lawsuit concerning Arizona election laws. The case is from 2016, when Democrats argued that two Arizona voting laws discriminated against Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous voters in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that hamper voting on the basis of race. The laws called for ballots cast in the wrong precinct to be thrown away and allowed only election officials, letter carriers, household family members, or caregivers to return someone else’s mail-in ballot. A violation could bring a $150,000 fine. The court’s decision in this case will have big implications for the legitimacy of the restrictions Republican legislatures are trying to enact now.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to shore up voting rights with H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021. This sweeping measure would make it easier to vote, curtail gerrymandering, make elections more secure, and reform the campaign finance system.

They are also proposing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, H.R. 4, which would restore the parts of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 in the Shelby v. Holder decision, limiting changes to election laws that disproportionately affect people of color. After Shelby v. Holder, a number of states immediately enacted sweeping voter suppression laws that disproportionately hit minorities, the elderly, and the young, all populations perceived to vote Democratic.

Neither of these bills will pass the Senate unless the Democrats modify the filibuster rule, which permits Republicans to stop legislation unless it can muster not just a majority, but a supermajority of 60 votes.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of Judge Merrick Garland for Attorney General. Garland is noted for supervising the prosecution of the men who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995, hoping to topple the federal government. In his opening remarks to the Senate Judiciary committee last week, Garland vowed that, if confirmed, he “will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6—a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government.” He promised that he would follow where the investigation led, even if it went “upstream” to those who might not have been in the Capitol, but who nevertheless were participants in the insurrection.

The vote to move Garland’s nomination to the full Senate was 15 to 7, with Ben Sasse (R-NE), Mike Lee (R-UT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AR), John Kennedy (R-LA), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) all voting no.

With the exception of Sasse, all those voting no have signed on to the big lie.

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here.

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.