It is a question I often hear people ask during conversations about the rise of Adolf Hitler: If I had been alive in Germany when the Nazis took power, would I have had the courage to side against them?
This article first appeared in Salon.
Thanks to the 2020 presidential election, there is now a convenient way to answer that query. Hitler rose to power because he told a Big Lie. Millions of people believed that Big Lie because they held more sinister beliefs; millions more likely didn't believe it, but weren't willing to denounce it as an outright lie at the time.
The same dynamic is true regarding Donald Trump's claim that Joe Biden stole the election from him. It is a Big Lie being embraced to advance a racist, anti-democratic agenda. Anyone who doesn't stand up to that Big Lie today would have likely been complicit in Hitler's Big Lie last century. Anyone who actually believes Trump's Big Lie ... do I need to finish that sentence?
A lot of prominent Republicans who are trying to worm their way around this issue by not quite saying they believe the Big Lie, but rather that it is somehow validated by the fact that many other people agree with it. Shortly before Trump egged on his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas argued that America should rely on a white nationalist precedent to resolve the election (presumably in Trump's favor) because "recent polling shows that 39 percent of Americans believe the election that just occurred, quote, was rigged. You may not agree with that assessment. But it is nonetheless a reality for nearly half the country."
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made a similar argument one month later. In a dissent about a case regarding the use of mail-in ballots in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Thomas wrote that "an election free from strong evidence of systemic fraud is not alone sufficient for election confidence," but that people on the losing side of an election need "the assurance that fraud will not go undetected." Never mind that there is literally no evidence that mail-in voting being particularly susceptible to fraud. Thomas' argument was essentially the same as Cruz's: Even if there isn't evidence of fraud, if one side claims the other side might have stolen an election, that's enough to justify making it harder for the other side to vote.
Let's call these things what they are: Attempts by Republican officials to exploit Trump's Big Lie to create permanent Republican rule, but without quite saying that they agree with the Big Lie itself. But even if such prominent Republicans don't flat-out say that the Big Lie is true, refusing to denounce it emboldens more people to believe it — and emboldens policymakers to change society based around it.
This is where the Hitler analogy comes into play. When he and the Nazis were fighting to gain power in Germany during the 1920s, they did so by claiming that their country had been defeated in World War I because they were betrayed by a secret coalition of Jews and socialists. Hitler connected his Big Lie to the cult of personality he was creating for himself by connecting the emergence of his epiphany to Nov. 9, 1918, the day that Kaiser Wilhelm II was overthrown in a democratic revolution. (Germany officially lost the war two days later.) Hitler exaggerated his own experiences as a soldier and argued that he began to pursue a career in politics to restore Germany's stolen valor as a result of the supposed Jewish and socialist treachery.
It is impossible to overstate how much this Big Lie enabled Hitler to rise to power. Although the Nazis never won more than 37.3% of the vote in an election, they were able to leverage that minority into seizing power in 1933. Shortly after that they began to systematically dismantle the democracy that had been created after the German Revolution, suppress and murder political opponents, implement policies that oppressed Jews and other minority groups and lay the foundations for an aggressive foreign policy to reestablish a German empire. Over and over again, these actions were rationalized as being not exactly evil or discriminatory, but as a necessary response to the fact that so many people were convinced Germany would have won the Great War (as it was called at the time) if it hadn't been stabbed in the back by a cabal of enemies. Perhaps the perfect symbol for this was that Kristallnacht, the massive pogrom that wound up being a prelude to the Holocaust, was scheduled to occur on Nov. 9, 1938, on the 20-year anniversary of the supposed betrayal.
You may be wondering, at this point, what evidence Hitler and his supporters had to back up their claims. The answer is, simply put, none whatever. They had no documents, no verifiable firsthand accounts, no smoking guns of any kind. There was a lot of misinformation put out by Nazi and Nazi-adjacent media outlets, to be sure, but not a single shred of it was backed up by any concrete facts. This is why Hitler's claim was a Big Lie: It was a lie so massive in its implications, and so boldly untethered to reality, that it becomes more difficult to challenge simply because no one could imagine that something so audacious was 100% false.
This brings us back to the 2020 election. There are a number of demonstrable ways to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Biden defeated Trump. For one thing, Trump has always been a sore loser. When he was still a reality TV star, he argued that the Emmys were "rigged" against him after he was snubbed for his work on "The Apprentice." During the 2016 Republican primaries, he falsely accused Cruz of "fraud" and stealing the crucial Iowa caucuses, hinting that if Cruz wound up winning the presidential nomination instead of him (as seemed possible at the time) it would be illegitimate. After Trump was nominated, he turned his sights on his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly accused Clinton and the Democrats of doing dishonest things "at many polling places" without providing proof. He said that the election was "rigged" against him, refused to answer questions about whether he would concede if he lost and eventually said he would only accept the election's results "if I win."
Trump did win, of course, but only in the Electoral College. Because his failure to win the popular vote undermined his legitimacy (only four presidents before him had been elected without winning the popular vote), Trump insisted that millions of people had voted illegally. He even created a voter fraud commission to back up what he said, although it was later disbanded after its members couldn't find or prove any significant fraud. As the 2020 election approached, Trump moved on to the possibility that he might join the 10 previous incumbent presidents defeated in their next election. To avoid suffering that fate, he argued that mail-in ballots were ripe for fraud (again, without any actual evidence) and, as in 2016, told his supporters, "The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged."
After Biden won a convincing victory, both in the national popular vote and the Electoral Colleg, Trump disgraced himself by being the only defeated president in American history to refuse to accept his loss. Over and over again, he and his surrogates fabricated stories about vote dumps, corrupted voting machines, Republican poll watchers being obstructed and fraudulent mail-in ballots. He engaged in the rhetorical tactic known as "gish-galloping," or overwhelming people with so many bad-faith arguments that they get overwhelmed and struggle to tell the difference between truth and fiction.
It isn't really necessary to go through every specious Trump claim with a fine-toothed comb. He already had the opportunity to do so multiple times, and he lost on every single occasion. His own attorney general, William Barr, investigated Trump's claims and found that Biden had won legitimately. Republican leaders in the key states whose results would need to be overturned for Trump to win admitted that he had lost. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Trump's assertions had no merit. He filed dozens of lawsuits and lost every single one that asserted fraud, as well as nearly all of the ones in which he did not claim fraud. (More than two-thirds of the 60 cases he brought to court did not claim fraud at all but appear to have been PR stunts; he won only one of those, a Pennsylvania case over technical procedural issues.) Many of those judges were Republicans, including some appointed by Trump himself.
Unwilling to accept his loss even though it had been unanimously and overwhelmingly reaffirmed by the entire legal system, Trump then falsely claimed that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to overturn the election by refusing to certify the electoral votes on Jan. 6. When Pence did not do so (because he simply didn't have that power), Trump told a mob that he had urged to assemble in Washington that day, "We are going to the Capitol" so Republicans like Pence could find "the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country." Everyone in the world knows what happened next.
To be clear: If you believe Joe Biden stole the election, you would necessarily have to believe in a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of Republicans — judges, state legislators, the president's own attorney general and vice president — to deny him his rightful victory. You would also have to believe that it's just a coincidence that Trump has repeatedly been a sore loser — in the Emmys, in the 2016 Republican primaries, during and after the 2016 election and in the build-up to the 2020 election — and claim that on this particular occasion, he was right.
Of course, as my Salon colleague Amanda Marcotte recently pointed out, "conspiracy theories are rarely about a literal, sincere understanding of the facts, but closer to religious fables or myths — comforting narratives that a person tells themselves in order to justify an underlying belief system." She noted that recent polls show Republicans believing a lot of things that blatantly contradict each other. In addition to 60% agreeing or somewhat agreeing that Biden stole the election, 55% agree or somewhat agree that the Capitol rioters were actually staged by antifa and 51% agree or somewhat agree that the rioters were mostly peaceful and law-abiding. How can someone say that the rioters were violent left-wing radicals members yet actually peaceful pro-Trump protesters, all at the same time?
This paragraph from Marcotte's essay is worth quoting in full:
In this case, the underlying belief being rationalized is the Republican turn against democracy itself. Republican voters understand their ideology and party are both unpopular. They know that maintaining power means overruling the wishes of the majority of Americans. But rather than admit out loud — or possibly even to themselves — that they would rather end American democracy, they cling to these comforting conspiracy theories that let them tell a story where they're the heroes, not the villains trying to strip rights away from other Americans.
That, right there, is the bottom line. The Germans who "believed" in Hitler's Big Lie did so not because he had any proof that Germany had been stabbed in the back, but because they hated Jews, hated leftists and wanted to restore the German Empire to its pre-World War I glory. The Republicans who "believe" in Trump's Big Lie do so not because there is any logical argument that Biden stole the election, but because they don't want to admit that a majority of Americans do not support their policies. In order to stay in power, they need to disenfranchise racial minorities, low-income voters and anyone else who might be inclined not to support Republican politicians.
They simply can't admit that they are supporting white nationalists who mean to destroy democracy. So they embrace a Big Lie.
As my colleague Chauncey DeVega recently wrote, Republican state legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills that would restrict voting. More measures like this are being proposed, with Trump's Big Lie being cited over and over again as a rationalization for them. Some of these bills have already been enacted, with dozens more heading toward probable passage.
As DeVega writes:
In public statements, leading Republicans have basically admitted that their efforts to nullify multiracial democracy are not driven by concerns about "voter fraud" or "voter security" but rather by the desire for power and control.
This has fueled an inevitable counter-narrative from the right wing and its enablers, in which the American people are being told, to borrow from Trump's command, not to believe their lying eyes.
Ironically enough, one of the wisest statements that could be made to apply to this predicament came from another disgraced Republican, Richard Nixon. Before he was elected to the presidency in 1968, he lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. Unlike the 2020 election, there actually was some evidence of chicanery in the 1960 contest, and Nixon seriously considered challenging the results. There wasn't enough evidence for him to be able to overturn the election in court, however, and he ultimately decided that his defeat was more his own fault than anyone else's. As he wrote in his memoir, "Six Crises," "it was not that I believed I should accept defeat with resignation," but rather that he remembered the words of his college football coach. As Nixon recalled, Chief Newman told him that "the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not on his victorious opponents or on his teammates."
If Republicans want to learn the right lessons from the 2020 election, they should look at Trump's massive failures as president and their own failures as a political party. They should find a way to modernize their message so that it is both consistent with conservative values and distances itself from the corrupt regime of Trump and the ugly bigotry that has driven away so many potential supporters.
That would be the way of democracy. The path of enabling Trump's Big Lie, by contrast, is the way of fascism.