The roots of a movement to invalidate the presidential election predate 2020, and the ongoing false claims of widespread voter fraud by Trump and others could cause long-lasting damage

On Saturday, Nov. 14, about 200 people gathered in front of the Statehouse in Downtown Columbus to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election, in which incumbent President Donald Trump lost to former Vice President Joe Biden. They raised “Keep America Great” flags and held signs emblazoned with “TRUMP” while chanting “Four more years!” and “Stop the steal!”

Through megaphone speeches and in separate interviews, protesters echoed recent baseless claims made by Trump and others in the president’s orbit, particularly his attorneys, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell (and, as of yesterday, the Republican National Committee). The allegations involve supposedly dead voters; compromised voting machines; liberal media outlets conspiring against the president; and plenty more.

“There’s been fraud in this election — massive fraud — and we need to have it investigated,” said a middle-aged woman from Delaware.

“There was a concerted effort to rig the election,” said a 41-year-old mother of seven from suburban Cincinnati. (No protesters interviewed were willing to give their names.)

While these allegations are as serious as they are spurious, they’re also not unique to the 2020 election. In November 2016, just after his Electoral College victory, Trump tweeted that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” and that there was “serious voter fraud” in the presidential election. The grievances set the table for four years of finger-pointing by the president, sometimes directed at specific targets, other times lobbed at a shadowy cabal of left-wing conspirators plotting to take him down.

Within three months of taking office, Trump began claiming that holdovers from the Obama administration had bugged his office, a since-debunked conspiracy theory that came to be known as Spygate. It was the beginning of a “deep state” narrative Trump returned to often. “Every single thing that emerged that was damaging to Trump was blamed on the same group of people over and over. Spygate stuff fed into the ‘Russia hoax,’ which fed into the ‘impeachment hoax,’ which fed into the ‘COVID hoax,’” said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University and co-author of the forthcoming book You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polluted Information. “He has been telling this overarching story literally since he stepped foot in office.”

In each case, the veracity of the claim was beside the point. By using consistent rhetoric to tell an ongoing narrative, the president has been setting up the possibility of an election rigged by the deep state for years. And, along the way, an ecosystem of far-right outlets and social media influencers with huge audiences began reflecting and amplifying and expanding upon that narrative, which has grown to include conspiracy theories like QAnon.

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“If you've spent the last several years being told all of the nefarious deeds that these Democrats are doing — working with the news media, working with public health experts, working with election officials — it makes a lot of sense that [a stolen election] would be a lot of people’s conclusions,” Phillips said. “This is as much about someone’s identity and sense of 'Us versus Them' as it is this one specific case, because this specific case fits within a broader worldview in which not only is this unsurprising, people were expecting that this would happen.”

In that way, protesters rallying under the Stop the Steal banner in cities across the country was inevitable. In interviews, protesters at the Statehouse in Columbus said as much. “I think it’s common sense,” said a 43-year-old woman from Akron. “The swamp is deep, and I think this president put it out there and magnified it more than it's ever been. And I think it's waking a lot of people up. ... Look at history. Look at the presidents who tried to call out the deep state and what happened to them.”

“Nobody trusts that the major news outlets will tell us the truth,” said a mother of four from Cincinnati.

To a misinformation expert like Phillips, that extreme divide isn’t just frustrating. It’s perilous. “We cannot have a functioning democracy if a sizable percentage of the population [are] living on two different planets. It's not possible. And that's something that should scare Republicans as much as Democrats,” Phillips said. “If we can't figure out how to get that under control, we lose the United States.”

Legally speaking
The Trump administration has been litigating the election in battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, with only one court case in Pennsylvania going its way so far. Steven Huefner, a professor at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law and deputy director of the nonpartisan research and education program Election Law at Ohio State, cited a couple of commonalities among the cases.

“The public rhetoric about the cases is very different than what is actually in the filings or is being argued before the court when oral arguments occur,” Huefner said. “What’s in the filings and what’s occurring in oral arguments, in almost all these cases, is a very narrow set of allegations about errors that might have occurred, not about widespread fraud. … In fact, in the oral arguments, when the presiding judges have asked pointed questions — ‘Are you alleging fraud?’ — the response the lawyers have given has been, ‘No, we’re not alleging fraud.’”

“The other commonality,” Huefner continued, “is that the errors that are alleged are, in most cases, fairly small, isolated things about a particular precinct or particular list of voters that would never be a sufficient basis for throwing out the election.”

During interviews at last Saturday’s rally, protesters mostly stuck to vague allegations involving dead voters, bad actors electronically switching votes from Trump to Biden, and suspicious variations in vote totals — all claims that were publicly debunked by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a government agency established by Trump in 2018, on its “Rumor vs. Reality” fact-checking page prior to the election. After the election, CISA issued a statement saying, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” This week, Trump fired CISA Director Christopher Krebs.

When protesters did get specific, they often mentioned supposedly damning affidavits from election observers in battleground states. This claim, Huefner said, hinges on a lack of appropriate access for election observers and has surfaced in a couple of Pennsylvania lawsuits. “The claim has sometimes gone so far as to say that, because [observers] didn't have appropriate ability to observe the [counting] process, all of the mail-in ballots in a given county have to be discarded,” he said. “The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, which is the ultimate authority on what kinds of observer processes need to be followed [in Pennsylvania], has said observers did have adequate access. So that claim has already been resolved and found to be without merit.”

Safety restrictions meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus played into the issue, Huefner said. “You can imagine that, in the COVID era, with dozens of people clamoring to be observers, those officials charged with managing the counting locations would understandably have a little bit of nervousness about where to place people and how close they should be,” he said, noting that observers were sometimes placed 20 feet away. “[Some] observers said, ‘No, that's not close enough. We can't see. We have to be six feet, because six feet is the COVID distance.’ An intermediate court had said yes, they should let you be within six feet, and then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said, no, there's no reason you have to be within six feet. That's reading too much into the law. The law doesn't specify that. They had reasonable access.”

While rare circumstances of voter fraud do occur, Huefner has seen nothing approaching the scale of fraud alleged by the Trump administration. So why would the president’s team proceed with multiple legal cases it knows it’s likely to lose? One explanation, Huefner said, is to create chaos and discord.

“It’s not about actually changing the results of the Nov. 3 election in any state as it is sowing enough confusion and doubt about it that the Trump campaign could get Republican-controlled legislatures in a few of these states to disregard their state’s popular vote for purposes of appointing their state's presidential electors, and instead, have the legislature itself unilaterally disregard their state’s popular election and appoint a slate of Trump electors to vote on behalf of their state on Dec. 14,” Huefner said. “We’ve seen public statements to that effect from Rudy Giuliani and from others close to president.”

Huefner’s Election Law at Ohio State colleague Ned Foley, who coined the term “blue shift” and accurately predicted how voting results could change on election night as a result of absentee ballots and other new voting options, recently told Alive sister publication Columbus Monthly he fully expects a majority of Congress to respect the election results on Jan. 6, when the House and Senate vote to recognize the Electoral College victory. If the losing party doesn’t accept defeat, Foley wrote this week in the Washington Post, democracy is dead.

Consequences and, maybe, solutions
Fact-checking these election fraud claims doesn’t fix the underlying problems. It’s unlikely Stop the Steal protesters, who will likely be back at the Statehouse this weekend, would read the previous several paragraphs and find Huefner convincing. In fact, it’s highly unlikely someone who is convinced of a rigged election would read past the first paragraph of this story, which stated Trump lost the election — a nonstarter for some, regardless of the veracity.

Furthermore, it’s not likely a person who believes in widespread voter fraud would read Columbus Alive at all, much less stumble across it on social media.

When asked about their media diet, Stop the Steal protesters listed far-right outlets such as OANN, Gateway Pundit and Newsmax. (One protester interrupted an interview, cutting in to say, “Be careful what you tell the left wing. Journalism has lost its way.”) But even more telling, when asked for sources and evidence regarding election claims, the first answer tended to be, “the internet,” or, “It’s all over. It’s everywhere.”

“It's really easy and very coherent and very logical to say, ‘Everywhere I turn, there's proof. All of the media that I consume is providing proof. Of course I'm going to believe it, because why wouldn't I? It would be irrational for me not to,’” Phillips said. “But what if there is a lot of information you're not seeing? What if there is a world outside of the world you think is the edge of your Truman Show?”

Bridging that divide isn’t easy, and consuming media in silos isn’t unique to the right. One potential solution is through the reform of social platforms that allow (and sometimes encourage) the spread of misinformation. Twitter, for one, has been adding a caution to many of Trump’s tweets: “This claim about election fraud is disputed.” But a warning label is one snippet of text in a sea of information.

“The ideas are so deeply entrenched in how people see themselves in the world. How are you going to moderate that?” Phillips said. “Donald Trump didn't invent mistrust in the news media. … He came along, and what he was saying fit in with those existing beliefs. He didn't cause them. He didn't create them. And social media didn't cause or create them, either. They just made it even less likely that people would see anything outside of their own worldview. These problems are decades and decades old, so we're not going to solve them technologically.”

The other potential solution is more grassroots but similarly fraught: face-to-face interactions across the divide. “How do we have those kinds of conversations? How do you gently ease your way into that discourse? Because if you move too quickly or you seem too biased, even if all you're doing is calling attention to a fact, they don't see it as a fact. They see that as a personal attack,” said Phillips, advising instead to gear conversations more toward how information networks function.

Much of the in-person-discourse solution also involves preventive measures, such as better media literacy education from kindergarten through high school. "Kids need to understand that what they're seeing online is not the world as it actually is. It's a world that's been picked and chosen for them," Phillips said.

In the short term, if false claims of widespread election fraud continue unabated, the consequences could be dire and directly related to the country’s other huge problem: COVID. “If you have a significant percentage of the population who regards the president as illegitimate, when that president rolls out the much-needed federal COVID response plan, and people’s response is, ‘You're not my dad,’ what is that going to mean for the country's ability to navigate the worst months of this crisis?” Phillips said. “There are immediate, life-and-death consequences for people rejecting wholesale that we experienced a free and fair election, because then it means they don’t have to follow the rules."

In the long term, the fate of democracy is at stake. “It’s almost incomprehensible what we are facing right now. There are things that could be done, but it would require buy-in for a Green New Deal for digital media,” said Phillips, who compares the online misinformation and disinformation situation to the climate crisis in her forthcoming book. “Like the climate crisis, we are approaching a point of no return. And it may be that we've already passed it, but we can't know that. And that’s not reason to just give up. That's actually the reason to try even harder, because there's so much to lose.

“If we’re asking the right questions, we are that much more likely to arrive at some solutions. … There's a chance we could get it right. And there's also a chance that we could get it wrong. But the possibility that we could get it right is enough to try as hard as we can and defend democracy with all our might.”