The Washington Post has surveyed the 249 Republicans serving in the House of Representatives and the Senate to get them to answer a simple question: Did Joe Biden win the presidential election? The newspaper was able to find only 27 congressional Republicans who were willing to affirm this simple truth. Of the remaining 222 congressional Republicans, two declared Trump had won, and 220 (approximately 88 percent of all congressional Republicans) refused to say who won. Learning exactly who is willing to acknowledge reality is even more dismaying. As the newspaper details, “Of the 15 House Republicans who recognize the true winner, six are retiring from politics at the end of this month and two more represent districts that Biden won convincingly.”
Many Republican voters share this unwillingness to accept Biden’s victory. On Friday, a Washington Post article reported that “A Nov. 13-17 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 68 percent of Republicans (+/-5) say that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. A Monmouth poll carried out between Nov. 12 and Nov. 16 finds that 61 percent of Republicans (+/-3.5) are ‘not at all confident’ that the election was fair and accurate.”
The article went on to argue that this sort of partisan reluctance to accept defeat was normal in modern American democracy: “Thirty-seven percent of Democrats said that Bush stole Ohio in 2004, and 36 percent of Republicans said the same about the 2012 election.” But even if we accept the comparison, these early numbers are nearly half that of the current polls. There’s a vast difference between only seven in 20 people believing a theory as against between six and seven in 10.
The rise of mass conspiracy theories about the election goes far beyond previous elections. Writing in The New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat admits to being surprised by “the sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the election was really stolen, measured not just in polling data but in conversations and arguments, online and in person, with people I would not have expected to embrace it.”
Relying not just on polls but also his own experience, Douthat provides a useful ethnography of the new breed of conspiracy theorists. One particularly important group is the “open-minded normie.” These are people who are willing to entertain conspiratorial thoughts but are otherwise not intensely political. As Douthat notes, this group is particularly open to persuasion from trusted sources. What is new in the current situation is that
this openness has been validated by the president of the United States and his retainers in a way that other forms of conspiracy curiosity are not. There is a longstanding pattern in both political parties of gently encouraging conspiracizing. (The Diebold-stole-Ohio theories in 2004 were given oxygen by prominent congressional Democrats; MSNBC’s Russiagate coverage was not exactly cautious in the theories that it entertained.) But Trump is obviously different—higher-profile and more radical. He’s a president, not a cable-TV host or a congressman, and he’s shouting allegations, any allegations, with no pussyfooting, hedging or deniability involved.
Douthat’s analysis is fair enough, although it is worth noting that Russiagate, while vastly over-hyped by “resistance” liberals, at least had a smidgen of a basis in reality. As the Mueller report makes clear, Trump and his family really were pursuing business deals with dubious Russian businesspeople even as he ran for president in 2016. The problem with Russiagate was that liberals bought into the national security state’s framing that there was a sinister plot afoot, with Trump being under the sway of Russia. This narrative of Trump as “Putin’s puppet” helped block out the genuine evidence of Trump’s corrupt business practices all over the world. The very fact of a businessman president who kept his globe-spanning organization going while in office raised all sorts of conflict-of-interest problems that few in American politics were willing to confront. Russiagate conspiracy-mongering was a minor problem compared with the larger failure to hold Trump accountable.
Douthat also blames the new conspiracy theories on “outsider-intellectuals.” This is the familiar species of knee-jerk contrarians who spring up on every issue offering homemade charts and graphs disputing the mainstream consensus. These amateur sleuths are usually annoying but they are hardly novel.
More interesting is Douthat’s final category: “the recently radicalized.” Douthat argues that just as many liberals feared Trump was creating a fascist state, “a lot of conservatives experienced May and June of the Covid era as a mirror image of those anti-Trump fears—as a crisis that seemed to be deliberately exploited for revolutionary purposes by politicians and activists of the left.” By this account, ordinary conservatives were radicalized by a combination of contradictory and changing messages from health authorities (don’t wear masks, wear masks), the eruption of the Black Lives Matter protests, and the disparate impact of Covid (where small businesses suffered more than large corporations and, Douthat argues, anti-racist protesters seemed to get a special dispensation denied to the rest of society).
Douthat’s account of conservative radicalization has some plausibility, although he’s far too indulgent of the lore that the newly radicalized tell themselves. He also ignores the fact that Covid hit the poor and people of color harder. Moreover, this radicalization shouldn’t be seen as a natural response to the Covid crisis but as a continuation of earlier trends in right-wing politics. The myth that elite liberal figures like George Soros are using Covid to remake society didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a product of long-standing right-wing conspiracy culture.
If this myth started to flourish in 2020, just as the overlapping QAnon myth did at the same time, it is because of the failed political response to Covid. The pandemic left tens of millions of Americans dislocated socially and temporally. The very partial stimulus that was handed out favored big business and wasn’t sustained enough to make a long-term lockdown possible. Many of the messaging failures came from the fact that Covid-19 was a new disease and information about it was developing over time, as were the resources that could fight it.
If America had a competent president, these shifts in messaging could have been explained clearly. But with Trump as president, countless Americans went through the crisis with only a partial understanding of what was going on and a suspicion of government messaging that was encouraged by Trump himself, since the president sometimes insulted his own scientific advisers.
Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic created the perfect environment for the rise of conspiracy theories, especially among his supporters who didn’t want to admit he had failed.
The upshot is that Biden will be inaugurated as president of a country where a substantial chunk of the population doesn’t accept his legitimacy. There’s no clear path for convincing the radicalized minority to acknowledge not just Biden’s legitimacy but also the need for dealing with Covid. Biden’s best plan would be to focus intensively on delivering a competent response to the pandemic. If Covid is quickly tamed as vaccination becomes available, there is a chance of a return to some semblance of economic normality, especially if Biden can strong-arm the Federal Reserve to stick to a full-employment policy.
The biggest stumbling block will be Trump and the Republican Party. Trump has every incentive to keep fanning conspiracy theories, in order to keep the loyalty of his followers. And the Republican Party has every reason to remain loyal to Trump, since it can’t risk alienating his followers. The open question is whether, even given the best possible handling of the pandemic, the newly radicalized will ever be willing to make peace with a Democratic president.