Letters From an American

Don’t Look Away — The Big Lie is Still Out There

Don't Look Away — The Big Lie is Still Out There

Garland, 68, is well-known as a moderate centrist, who made headlines when he oversaw the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers in 1995-1997. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

February 21, 2021

On ABC’s This Week this morning, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) refused to admit that Democrat Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.

It’s hard to overestimate how dangerous this lie is. It convinces supporters of the former president that they are actually protecting American democracy when they fight to overturn it. Jessica Watkins is one of 9 members of the right-wing paramilitary group the Oath Keepers indicted for their actions on January 6. Yesterday, her lawyer told the court that Watkins behaved as she did because she believed that then-President Donald Trump would use the military to overturn what he falsely insisted was the rigged election.

“However misguided, her intentions were not in any way related to an intention to overthrow the government, but to support what she believed to be the lawful government. She took an oath to support the Constitution and had no intention of violating that oath….”

Watkins claims she was given a VIP pass to the pro-Trump rally, had met with Secret Service agents, and was charged with providing security for the leaders marching to the Capitol from Trump’s January 6, 2021, rally.

Supporters of the former president are portraying the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6 as a legitimate expression of anger over an election in which states did not follow their own rules. This is a lie that the Trump wing hopes will resurrect their lost power. Politico’s Gabby Orr and Meridith McGraw report that Trump is planning to “exact vengeance” on the Republicans who have turned against him, running his own candidates in 2022 to undercut them. Earlier this week, he met with Scalise.

Trump’s big lie is deeply cynical, and yet it is falling on the ears of voters primed to believe it.

Republican Party leadership launched the idea that Democrats could not win an election legitimately all the way back in 1986. They began to examine the made-up issue of voter fraud to cut Democrats out of the electorate because they knew they could not win elections based on their increasingly unpopular policies.

In 1986, Republicans launched a “ballot integrity” initiative that they defended as a way to prevent voter fraud, but which an official privately noted “could keep the black vote down considerably.” In 1993, when Democrats expanded voter registration at certain state offices — the so-called Motor Voter Law —  they complained that the Democrats were simply trying to enroll illegitimate Democratic voters in welfare and unemployment offices.

In 1994, Republicans who lost elections charged that Democrats only won through voter fraud, although then, as now, fraud was vanishingly rare. In 1996, House and Senate Republicans each launched year-long investigations into what they insisted were problematic elections, one in Louisiana and one in California. Keeping investigations of alleged voter fraud in front of the media for a year helped to convince Americans that voter fraud was a serious issue and that Democrats were winning elections thanks to illegal voters.

In 1998, the Florida legislature passed a voter ID law that led to a purge of voters from the system before the election of 2000, resulting in what the United States Commission on Civil Rights called “an extraordinarily high and inexcusable level of disenfranchisement,” particularly of Democratic African American voters.

After 2000, the idea that Democrats could win only by cheating became engrained in the Republican Party as their increasing rightward slide made increasing numbers of voters unhappy with their actual policies. Rather than moderating their stance, they suppressed the votes of their opponents. In 2016, Trump operative and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone launched a “Stop the Steal” website warning that “If this election is close, THEY WILL STEAL IT.” The slogan reappeared briefly in 2018, and in 2021, it sparked an attack on our government.

The idea that Democrats cannot legitimately win an election has been part of the Republican leadership’s playbook now for a generation, and it has worked: a recent survey showed that 65% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was plagued by widespread fraud, although election officials say the election was remarkably clean.

Republican lawmakers are going along with Trump’s big lie because it serves their interests: claiming fraud justifies laws to suppress Democratic votes. Alice O’Lenick, a Republican-appointed election official in Gwinnett County, Georgia, endorsed restrictive measures, saying, “they have got to change the major parts of [laws] so we at least have a shot at winning.”

But that is not the only story right now.

Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin the nomination process for Biden’s prospective attorney general, Merrick Garland. While he was still Judiciary Committee chair, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) seemed curiously resistant to holding a hearing for Garland.

Now, Trump Republicans have made their demands clear in a letter to new Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL). It is signed by all but two of the Republicans on the committee, illustrating that the Republican contingent on the Senate Judiciary Committee is made up of Trump supporters. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Charles Grassley (R-IA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) want Garland “to commit the Department of Justice” to investigating New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, for his handling of the coronavirus in his state.

Garland, 68, is well-known as a moderate centrist, who made headlines when he oversaw the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers in 1995-1997. On Saturday, he released his opening statement to the committee.

He reaffirmed that the attorney general should be the lawyer for the people of the United States, not for any one individual. He noted that 2020 was the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Justice (DOJ), created during the Ulysses S. Grant administration to protect the rule of law in the southern states where, at the time, Ku Klux Klan members were murdering their Black neighbors to keep them from exercising their rights.

The rules developed in those years are the foundation for the rule of law, Garland wrote in apparent criticism of the previous president’s DOJ. We need the Justice Department to be independent from partisan influence, including that coming from the White House. We need it to provide clear guidelines for FBI intelligence operations. We need it to treat the press respectfully and to be as transparent as possible. We need it to respect the professionalism of the DOJ’s career employees, and to have clear guidelines for prosecutors.

Garland went on to outline what he sees as the crucial mission he would undertake as Attorney General: guaranteeing the equal justice to all Americans promised 150 years ago and still elusive. “Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” he wrote.

He pledged to protect Americans from abuse from those who control our markets, “from fraud and corruption, from violent crime and cybercrime, and from drug trafficking and child exploitation” while also being ever-mindful of terrorist attacks.

Then Garland took head-on the big lie: “150 years after the Department’s founding, battling extremist attacks on our democratic institutions remains central to its mission.”

“If confirmed,” he wrote, “I 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.”

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.