As election day came and went with little fanfare this year, we are reminded of the chaos of the 2020 election. The days of uncertainty as mail-in ballots trickled in, the disputed results and courtroom standoffs in battleground states, and, most of all, the conspiracy theories about election fraud. It has been over one year since the defeat of Donald Trump and the propagation of what has come to be known as the “Big Lie.” With Trump removed from major social media platforms and absent from public office, it is easy to feel that this phase of American history is behind us; however, this misinformation is still very much active and relevant.
The Big Lie refers to claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Allegedly, this “steal” occurred through a variety of channels including mail-in ballot fraud, technological manipulation, and ballots being cast by dead, fake, and noncitizen voters. According to CNN, the term “the Big Lie” was initially used by critics of Trump in the leadup to the election as he consistently claimed the election would be rigged, and it gained even more traction after his refusal to concede in the weeks after the election. Trump has since appropriated the term, however, and uses it to further his claims that the election itself was fraudulent. On May 3rd, 2021, he issued a statement saying, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
Even as his platform has been greatly diminished since leaving office, the Big Lie remains the central message of Trump and his supporters, and this message seems to have great resonance. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted in August found that two-thirds of Republicans still believe that “the election was rigged and stolen from Trump.” This embrace of the Big Lie can be seen among many Republicans in Congress, as well as state and local elected officials. It has even been described by Trump allies as a “litmus test” for Republicans seeking office in 2022. This dynamic is already playing out; for instance, Rep. Liz Cheney was removed from her position as chair of the House Republican Conference in May in response to her vocal opposition to Trump’s election lies. In a recent Fox News interview, Cheney stated, “I think the only way the Republican Party can go forward in strength is if we reject the lie, if we reject what happened on Jan. 6, if we reject the efforts that President Trump made, frankly, to steal the election.” Although vocal, Cheney remains a minority in her opposition.
After Trump’s defeat, there was intense speculation about what the future of the GOP would look like. This discussion has been reinvigorated by the recent victory of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia who actively distanced himself from Trump throughout his campaign, offering a potential roadmap for other Republicans seeking to circumvent the Big Lie. However, avoidance may not be an option in most cases given the popularity of this narrative among Republican voters. Commentators have been wary of extrapolating from Youngkin’s victory: a recent Washington Post opinion piece argued that “virtually every Republican member of Congress will be running on a record of staunch defense of the “big lie” of a stolen election.”
All of this is to say that the Big Lie does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Trump said so himself at a rally in October: “The single biggest issue — the issue that gets the most pull, the most respect, the biggest cheers — is talking about the election fraud of 2020’s presidential election.” The GOP may be confined by Trump’s Big Lie as politicians are forced to face it head on, but that does not necessarily mean they will be electorally hindered by it. The ramifications of the Big Lie will also continue to be felt as restrictive voter legislation is passed across the country. According to ABC News, “17 Republican-controlled states have new voting restrictions in place in time for 2022 — via bills at least partly inspired by the mistruths told by the former president.” These bills ensure that the Big Lie, and the misinformation upon which it is based, linger long after Donald Trump is out of the political arena himself.