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Donald Trump's Big Lie Is a Virus—and It Already Has Variants

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While reading the very excellent Washington Post piece about the spread of election fraud claims across the United States, I couldn’t shake the feeling the story felt eerily like aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Big Lie had its roots with Donald Trump, but the election conspiracies soon morphed of their own accord, leaping from the swing states that were key to Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory to infecting even deeply red states like Alabama, Oklahoma and Idaho. Those states, somewhat bafflingly, are now dealing with a whole new barrage of unfounded charges and demands for audits even though the GOP won those states handily. This demonstrates how the election fraud genie is not only clearly out of the bottle, it has variants we have yet to fully encounter or grasp.

Similarities between the virus and election fraud abound. Both Covid-19 disinformation and the Big Lie travel along more hidden paths of the web including in private groups and vectors that aren’t easily monitored or well-understood by mainstream media. Those who believe the 2020 election was stolen, like those who believe the coronavirus is a hoax or the vaccines are a way to microchip and track people, are similarly willing to accept the barest of anecdotal, unverified claims as grounds for their beliefs.

They are also prepared to risk their own lives and put others at extreme risk of harm or death based solely on these false claims, as we witnessed on January 6 during the attack on the Capitol. Whether it’s pandemic disinformation or election fraud, those infected believe that something fundamental to their identity—e.g. freedom from governmental or societal rules or their uniquely privileged status within the majority—is being seriously threatened by dark forces (cabals, communists, tech companies) that they don’t understand and are powerless on their own to stop. They unwittingly present themselves as perfect hosts for any type of dangerous misinformation.

There are superspreaders of election misinformation and conspiracy, too. The Post article follows two of these individuals, My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell and his associate Douglas Frank, a math and science teacher from Ohio who claims to have discovered secret algorithms based on “6th-degree polynomials”—a claim that probably sounds about as fancy to the unlearned as Joe Rogan does talking up ivermectin.

Our civic institutions, like our medical system, are now straining under the load. The more Americans infected by the Big Lie, the harder it is for our election infrastructure to function properly. Election workers have been forced to conduct audit after audit unnecessarily, have been on the receiving end of death threats, and are frankly exhausted by the constant stream of false claims and outright lies. Election officials, like top health officials, have become targets for the far-right. On social media, Douglas Frank has called for “firing squads” and for those found guilty of “treason” including Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who has refused to even entertain his bogus claims. Frank recently posted on the site Telegram that Benson should face a jury “capable of dispensing capital punishment.”

Some officials on the right clearly have bought into these lies. An elections supervisor in Mesa County, Colorado, after meeting with Frank, brought an outside agent into her offices to make copies of the hard drives of voting machines in violation of election laws. That incident is now under criminal investigation. In Wisconsin, a sheriff in Racine County sought charges against five election board members because, during the height of the pandemic, they instructed county clerks to send absentee ballots to a nursing home instead of visiting the home first, as technically required by state law. While these instances are so far isolated ones, they suggest that our legal safeguards might be under generalized attack. Big Lie adherents are being encouraged by the likes of Steve Bannon to run for local office and seize control of the GOP to reshape American elections, possibly putting proverbial deluded foxes in charge of our electoral hen houses.

It’s also now clear that misinformation and conspiracy around the virus and election fraud are by and large a GOP issue, and the party’s lawmakers have responded in a distressingly similar manner. In both instances, opportunistic Republican officials have thrown red meat to their base, passing “election security” laws over non-existent threats even while they outlaw common sense mask and vaccine mandates in the face of very real ones. By doubling down in this manner, they have perpetuated false beliefs that election fraud is rampant while the virus is no big deal.

That failure is now costing them actual votes. Those who believe that elections are rigged are less likely to bother to cast their votes, as we saw in the Georgia run-off election after Trump continued to beat the drum over the Big Lie. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, voters in counties won by Trump in November failed to materialize to vote for the GOP Senate candidates in January, in part because Trump’s message that the election was stolen discouraged voters. Craig Roland, a 61-year-old Rome resident, said he didn’t believe his vote would count. “What good would it have done to vote? They have votes that got changed,” Roland said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever vote again.”

In a far darker turn, it’s also now costing them actual living voters. Far more Republicans are now dying of the virus than Democrats, in large part because GOP voters remain relatively unvaccinated, according to reporting by the New York Times which found, “In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June….In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.”

One thing is clear: The Big Lie has now mutated and likely will survive long past Donald Trump. As with lies and misinformation about the pandemic, it will devour those who succumb to it and will strike wherever we are most vulnerable, without regard to party or geography. It will exhaust critical workers who work to defend our system, and they will need our support and care. And we will need new and bold mitigation methods as well as persistent educational and information campaigns to restore our democracy to health.

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