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Trump’s big election lie pushes America toward autocracy

Clinging to power by claiming you are the victim of internal enemies is a very dangerous tactic. Don’t underestimate where this can go.

A supporter of President Trump unfurled an American flag while demonstrating Tuesday outside of a building where votes were being counted in Philadelphia.
A supporter of President Trump unfurled an American flag while demonstrating Tuesday outside of a building where votes were being counted in Philadelphia.Mark Makela/Getty

When you lose, it is good and healthy to know why. In the First World War, the conflict that defined our modern world, the Germans lost because of the overwhelming force assembled by their enemies on the Western Front. After the Americans entered the war, German defeat was a matter of time. Yet German commanders found it convenient instead to speak of a “stab in the back” by leftists and Jews. This big lie was a problem for the new German democracy that was created after the war, since it suggested that the major political party, the Social Democrats, and a national minority, the Jews, were outside the national community. The lie was taken up by the Nazis, and it became a central element of their version of history after they took power. The blame was elsewhere.

It is always tempting to blame defeat on others. Yet for a national leader to do so and to inject a big lie into the system puts democracy at great risk. Excluding others from the national community makes democracy impossible in principle, and refusing to accept defeat makes it impossible in practice. What we face now in the United States is a new, American incarnation of the old falsehood: that Donald Trump’s defeat was not what it seems, that votes were stolen from him by internal enemies — by a left-wing party. “Where it mattered, they stole what they had to steal,” he tweets. He claims that his votes were all “Legal Votes,” as if by definition those for his opponent were not.

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Underestimating Donald Trump is a mistake that people should not go on making. Laughing at him will not make him go away. If it did, he would have vanished decades ago. Nor will longstanding norms about how presidents behave make him go away. He is an actor and will stick to his lines: It was all a fraud, and he won “by a lot.” He was never defeated, goes the story; he was a victim of a conspiracy. This stab-in-the-back myth could become a permanent feature of American politics, so long as Trump has a bullhorn, be it on Fox or on RT (formerly Russia Today) — or, though Democrats might find this unthinkable, as an unelected president remaining in power.

After all, a claim that an election was illegitimate is a claim to remaining in power. A coup is under way, and the number of participants is not shrinking but growing. Few leading Republicans have acknowledged that the race is over. Important ones, such as Mitch McConnell and Mike Pompeo, appear to be on the side of the coup. We might like to think that this is all some strategy to find the president an exit ramp. But perhaps that is wishful thinking. The transition office refuses to begin its work. The secretary of defense, who did not want the army attacking civilians, was fired. The Department of Justice, exceeding its traditional mandate, has authorized investigations of the vote count. The talk shows on Fox this week contradict the news released by Fox last week. Republican lawmakers find ever new verbal formulations that directly or indirectly support Trump’s claims. The longer this goes on, the greater the danger to the Republic.

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What Trump is saying is false, and Republican politicians know it. If the votes against the president were fraudulent, then Republican wins in the House and Senate were also fraudulent: The votes were on the same ballots. Yet conspiracy theories, such as the stab in the back, have a force that goes beyond logic. They push away from a world of evidence and toward a world of fears. Psychological research suggests that citizens are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories at the time of elections. Trump understands this, which is why his delivery of conspiracy theory is full of capital letters and bereft of facts. He knows better than to try to prove anything. His ally Newt Gingrich reaches for the worst when he blames a wealthy Jew for something that did not happen in the first place.

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History shows where this can go. If people believe an election has been stolen, that makes the new president a usurper. In Poland in 1922, a close election brought a centrist candidate to the presidency. Decried by the right in the press as an agent of the Jews, he was assassinated after two weeks in office. Even if the effect is not so immediate, the lingering effect of a myth of victimhood, of the idea of a stab in the back, can be profound. The German myth of a stab in the back did not doom German democracy immediately. But the conspiracy theory did help Nazis make their case that some Germans were not truly members of the nation and that a truly national government could not be democratic.

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Democracy can be buried in a big lie. Of course, the end of democracy in America would take an American form. In 2020 Trump acknowledged openly what has been increasingly clear for decades: The Republican Party aims not so much to win elections as to game them. This strategy has its temptations: The more you care about suppressing votes, the less you care about what voters want. And the less you care about what voters want, the closer you move to authoritarianism. Trump has taken the next logical step: Try to disenfranchise voters not only before but after elections.

The results of the 2020 elections could be read to mean that Republicans can fight and win on the issues. Reading the results as fraudulent instead will take Republicans, and the country, on a very different journey, through a cloud of magical thinking toward violence.

If you have been stabbed in the back, then everything is permitted. Claiming that a fair election was foul is preparation for an election that is foul. If you convince your voters that the other side has cheated, you are promising them that you yourself will cheat next time. Having bent the rules, you then have to break them. History shows the danger in the familiar example of Hitler. When politicians break democracy, as conservatives in Weimar Germany did in the early 1930s, they are wrong to think that they will control what happens next. Someone else will emerge who is better adapted to the chaos and who will wield it in ways that they neither want nor expect. The myth of victimhood comes home and claims its victims.

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This is no time to mince words. In the interest of the Republic and of their own party, Republicans should accept the results.

Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, is the author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century” and, most recently, “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary.” Follow him on Twitter @TimothyDSnyder.