Codifying the Big Lie
The GOP's doubly dishonest "election integrity" playbook
I’ve been trying to keep my cool, but the right’s defense of new Republican-authored laws regulating elections, such as the one recently established in Georgia, is so dishonest it’s hard to stay on an even keel. But I’m trying, man. I’m trying. It’s important to articulate what Republicans are up to and repeat it ad nauseam because they’re trying like hell to bury the truth with bluster, umbrage, and witlessly complicit both-sides horserace political coverage. They’ll get away with it, too, if we let their relentless mendacity wear us out.
Here are the main beats of the Republican playbook for selling their election-rigging agenda, as I see it:
Pretend that no one has noticed that the GOP’s election reform proposals are based entirely on Donald Trump’s transparent lies about the election — the same lies that led directly to a violent, seditious Republican assault on the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the election.
Now, it’s not a great look for the Grand Old Party that its flood of new election regulations are premised on the same disinformation and propaganda that inspired the most shocking act of political terrorism in modern American history. But once you’ve bought in to wall-to-wall disinformation as a political strategy, the solution is obvious and easy: more disinformation!
Recast the January 6th insurrection — a deadly Republican assault on the Capitol that scattered a joint session of Congress as it tallied electoral votes! — as a peaceful protest of legitimately concerned citizens that got a little rowdy.
Treat those inclined to take direct, violent attacks on the U.S. government at all seriously as paranoid, ax-grinding partisan nuts out to “cancel” Congressional Republicans who did nothing but voice the concerns of their partisan constituents.
Of course, what these Republican members of Congress were really doing was enthusiastically repeating blatant lies that animated an insurrection whose explicit purpose was to overturn a legitimate Democratic election victory. Should someone point this out, the plain truth must be reframed as slanderous disinformation! Take umbrage! Be indignant! Treat honest people as though they’re crazy and hateful for believing what they saw with their own eyes in real time on TV.
Simply ignore the fact that Republican votes on January 6th to reject the election results from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania just were votes for the mass disenfranchisement of Democrats. How could this possibly be relevant to Republican “voter integrity” bills!?
Insist that new election regulations are needed to “restore the confidence of voters,” while playing dumb about the fact that Republicans undermined it in the first place by spreading lies based on the viciously anti-democratic premise that Democratic political participation (especially by non-white voters) is inherently suspect, if not entirely illegitimate.
Obviously, if Republican distrust in the electoral system is ultimately based on the assumption that Democratic votes are illegitimate, the only way you can restore Republican confidence in the system is through measures that stymie or invalidate Democratic voting. Naturally, that’s what these Republican election reform bills aim to do. But this is not a legally acceptable basis for election reform and bad messaging to boot. Therefore, if anyone points this out…
Scream bloody murder!
Generally and especially, treat your fellow citizens as though they’re idiots who fell off the turnip truck they were born on yesterday.
You can see the whole tawdry charade, and its wild inversion of empirical and moral reality, in Josh Hawley’s shameless tirade on Fox News over Major League Baseball’s withdrawal of the All-Star Game from Georgia:
What’s happening in Georgia is what they tried to do to those of us who stood up for election integrity back in January. Anyone who has said that our elections need to be free, they need to be fair, we need to consider election reform, they try to cancel you.
And now the woke corporations are trying to do the same thing to Georgia. And they’re going to try to do it to anybody, any state, any person who stands up for election integrity.
This is… this is…
The smarmy, unctuous, phony piety animating this claim to stand for “election integrity” is really something. Hawley is referencing his lead role in the campaign to subvert President Biden’s electors in Congress.
Hawley has insisted he was merely “representing” constituents concerned about the 2020 election. In fact, he actually misled them with extraordinary cynicism, by sustaining the deception that the outcome was questionable and might be reversed.
After those lies inspired the violent assault on the Capitol, Hawley took scalding criticism, which he has now tossed into the Right-Wing Media Victimization Machine, magically converting it into an effort to “cancel” him.
Hawley’s depraved ambition makes his contempt for the American people especially vivid. Yet a similar streak of contemptuous dishonesty runs through nearly every defense of new Republican election regulations because they’re all running the same playbook. They all expect us to ignore the fact that, despite Herculean efforts to find some, there was no fraud in the last election. They expect us to forget that the only notable irregularity in Georgia was that president criminally intervened to goad Georgia election officials into fixing the result in his favor.
But most of us aren’t actually stupid. We recognize that the “problem” Georgia’s new elections laws are meant to address is that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump and the GOP lost both its Senate seats to Democrats, neither of whom are both Christian and white, in a clean election run by Republicans according to Republican-authored rules that were meant to prevent this very outcome.
You don’t need to be a Democratic partisan to grasp that Republicans felt an urgent need to revise these rules not because they facilitated fraud — Georgia’s Republican election administrators found none — but because they didn’t “work” as intended. You just need to be awake. And we all know what it means for the law to “work,” don’t we?
It means, for example, that the GOP snatches back Warnock’s seat in 2022, despite his enormous popularity with Georgia’s black voters and Stacy Abrams’ mobilization machine. Speaking of whom… Governor Brian Kemp barely squeaked past Stacy Abrams in 2018, despite actively abusing his authority as Secretary of State to give himself a leg up. If you think the Georgia GOP drafted this bill without a sense of alarm about the implications of the 2020 results for a Kemp rematch against Abrams — a black woman revered for her skill in organizing and turning out black voters — well, bless your heart.
Similarly, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the choice to remove the Secretary of State from the state election board if you can’t see the obvious: the Georgia GOP is profoundly anxious about the prospect that Democrats will continue to win statewide elections, but it remains relatively secure in its gerrymandered General Assembly majorities.
Incidentally, the Times chalked this move up to political revenge against Raffensberger for refusing to rig the election for Trump. That’s strikes me as an oddly short-sighted bit of analysis. If you think about it for half a second, it’s pretty obvious why the Republican majority would want to strip the state’s voters of the authority to choose the person who runs the state’s elections and transfer that authority to itself: (a) they think they might need the Election Board to put its thumb on the scale to win, but (b) it won’t if it’s run by a Democratic Secretary of State, and (c) they’re understandably worried they’ll get one.
The new law’s provision empowering the Election Board to replace county election administrators snaps the picture into focus. This new authority gives the Election Board a very heavy thumb. However, the board won’t be able to use it on behalf of Republicans if a Democrat controls it and Democrats just won three hugely consequential statewide elections. In that context, transferring the authority to choose the head of the board to the Republican-controlled legislature is no-brainer. In a pinch, Republicans will be able to defenestrate Fulton County election officials and count the votes themselves, which could easily flip Warnock’s seat and shut Abrams out for another cycle should newly imposed voting restrictions turn out not to be enough. In any event, it leaves the GOP with a way to saddle Democrats with an electoral handicap as long as it retains control of the General Assembly.
It all makes total sense — but only on the assumption that the Georgia GOP is trying to secure and insulate its power to disenfranchise Democratic voters against the threatening prospect of statewide Democratic majorities. After all, the administration of the 2020 election provides no reason at all to strip the Secretary of State’s office of its authority over elections — unless you believe Trump’s lies about Raffensberger. Nor did the administration of the last election supply a reason to empower the Election Board to replace county election officials — unless you’re willing believe Trump’s lies about the corruption of Democrats in minority-heavy jurisdictions. But these guys don’t actually believe the lies. They know the election was clean. It’s just that they loathe and fear Georgia voters, Democrats and Republicans alike. As Stephen Hayes observes:
As Jamelle Bouie writes, “The incontrovertible truth is that if Trump had won Georgia, or if Republicans had held Kelly Loeffler’s and David Perdue’s seats in the Senate, this law wouldn’t exist.”
This truth is incontrovertible in the sense that everybody knows it and everybody knows that everybody knows it. Yet Republicans controvert it anyway, treating us all like we’re dumber than a sack of mulch by pretending that everyone doesn’t already know that there is no pre-existing problem that Georgia’s new election laws, or each of the 250-some Republican state election-regulation proposals, are meant to fix other than the alarming failure of the pre-existing Republican disenfranchisement toolkit to prevent Democrats from winning statewide elections and national power.
Republicans insist that we debate these bills “on the merits,” as though the fact that they originate in a disinformation campaign that drove a coup attempt and spurred a terrorizing episode of seditious partisan political violence couldn’t possibly bear on the merits. They demand that we forget the context that gave rise to their self-dealing proposals for “reform” because they know that this context is everything. They know that their Orwellian push for “election integrity” embodies the Big Lie and makes it bigger.
Biden’s victory may not have been legally fraudulent, but Republicans don’t think that this establishes his legitimacy. For those seeking uncontested power, the Big Lie is convenient. But for true believers, the Big Lie embodies a higher truth: Democratic election victories are fraudulent because Democrats are fraudulent Americans. These bills are meant to make it even harder than it already is for Democrats to convert their superior numbers into democratic representation. Everyone, at some level, understands this. Kevin Williamson obviously understands this. Nervous old men mesmerized by Fox News agitprop understand it as well as anyone, maybe better. It’s just that most Republicans approve, as guys like Williamson are constantly, coyly hinting, but prefer not to be perfectly frank about it in public. They know that they have little to gain from honestly and openly explaining that they believe that genuine democratic equality would be bad because suburban, exurban, and small-town white Christians have fallen into the minority, but America won’t continue to be truly American unless they call the shots, nevertheless. So they lie and then lie about their lying.