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Coming Unglued

The GOP’s Cult of Election Deniers Is a Growing Threat to the Nation

This year, more than half of GOP candidates are Big Lie cultists. Repeat: more than half. It’s getting harder to see how democracy can survive this.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Crowds gather for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that more than half of all Republican candidates for the House and Senate and key statewide offices, 299 out of 569, are Big Lie believers. That number is only going to grow. It may grow by Election Day, as pressure mounts on Republicans to go full MAGA. It will certainly grow over the next two years. If Donald Trump runs for president in 2024, I’d imagine that when the Post does a similar survey two years hence, it’ll be more like two-thirds, perhaps three-quarters.

We see this kind of thing in the headlines every day, and we become inured to it. But it’s important to step back and think about what a monumental change this is, and one that may—I’m very tempted to say will—destroy American democracy. There wasn’t widespread election denial back in 2018, while Trump was president. But in the space of three elections—2020, 2022, and 2024—we’ve gone from a sizable number but still a clear minority of election deniers among GOP officeholders to a disturbing majority. If I’m correct, we could be moving on to an overwhelming majority of Republican office seekers—and elected officials.

This doesn’t mean an overwhelming majority of Americans will be in thrall to this dark fantasy. Nevertheless, it raises a dire question: Can the system withstand that onslaught? Our backstop last time was the courts. Trump lost more than 60 cases. I think he’d lose them again, although we don’t really know how many hack judges like Aileen Cannon Trump and Mitch McConnell have peppered across the federal bench, willing to make a joke of the law for Trump’s sake. But the other point here is that next time, the courts may not matter. Attorneys general, secretaries of state, state legislatures, and the House of Representatives can do the dirty work, leaving the courts out of the picture.

And what body might give them that authority? Ironically, the Supreme Court. The highest legal authority in the land appears poised to make potential election theft the law of the land. This term, the court is hearing Moore v. Harper, a case in which Republicans in six swing states are arguing that state legislatures should have complete control over the conduct of federal elections—the so-called independent state legislature, or ISL, theory. If the court holds for the plaintiffs, and depending on how the majority opinion is written, it could mean that state legislatures will have several means at their disposal by which they can identify some voting irregularities, declare the election corrupt, and choose electors who will vote for Trump or any other Republican when the electors convene in December.

So that’s the ISL crisis. But there are plenty of others, revolving around Big Lie candidates running for the offices in numerous states that oversee election administration. Carolyn Fiddler of Daily Kos, who does such a great job of tracking statehouse politics and state races, recently counted 12 GOP candidates for secretary of state—running to oversee elections—who are Big Lie backers. Three or four of those are in blue states and won’t win, but the other seven or eight are either guaranteed to win or have a shot. Fiddler also noted that more than 1,000 election deniers are running for state legislative seats, and in six crucial states where chamber control “is absolutely in play”: Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

Attorneys general defend their states in court, meaning that they decide what kinds of legal mischief to go after and what to leave alone. Big Lie candidates are on the ballot, Fiddler writes, in 10 states. They’re mostly red and purple states. To read about some of these people is mind-blowing. Arizona candidate Abe Hamadeh was born in this country after his Syrian-born father’s visa had expired; he broke the law when he was born, in other words. OK, that’s a little unfair. But just imagine what people with his right-wing politics would be saying about a Democrat in like circumstances. Not to be outdone by her Syrian counterpart, Israeli-born Rana Chattah, running in Nevada, has called Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (the biggest Big Liar among attorney generals) her “hero” and wrote to a blogger of her (Black) Democratic opponent that “he should be hanging from a f***ing crane.”

Republicans have been cheating at elections my entire adult lifetime. You know the old stories. They mostly have to do with suppressing and subverting the Black vote. The fliers left on windshields of cars in Black neighborhoods warning people that if they’re not paid up on all their utility bills, they can’t cast a ballot.

When I was a young reporter, I’d flit around New York City’s Black neighborhoods some Election Days to get a little glimpse of this sort of thing. The effort to confuse voters didn’t amount to much in New York, because there just weren’t many areas where Republicans were even competitive. But Republicans have been doing this sort of thing since they became the anti–civil rights party in the 1960s, and in more competitive cities and states, they probably altered more than a few outcomes.

That was a despicable activity to witness. In my youthful naïveté, I wondered why these kinds of shenanigans weren’t bigger stories and why everyone, even Republicans, wasn’t more upset to hear about this institutionalized dishonesty. This is supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy, I’d rant down the bar to whoever would lend me an ear, and one of our two major political parties is regularly in the business of trying to prevent a large number of citizens from voting?

But that was quaint compared to what these fascists are up to now. And make no mistake, this is explicitly fascist in the way it assaults reality and upholds lies as the truth—that is, the way they claim that they and Trump are the victims of a stolen election and that they and Trump are democracy’s true defenders. This is straight-up fascist propaganda.

How do we beat them? There’s only one way. Vote in bigger numbers. Make the margins so decisive that they can’t plausibly challenge results. We will see, next month and two years thence, whether enough Americans see the danger and care enough to stop it.