How the GOP learned to stop worrying and love ‘stolen’ election claims

Making her case to Republican voters before next month’s primary in her state, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) released a new ad succinctly capturing how Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election are being weaponized.

“The fake news, big tech and blue state liberals stole the election from President Trump,” Ivey says in the spot, which is titled “Stole.” She later adds that “the left is probably offended. So be it.”

Ivey’s assertion that the election was stolen is indefensible nonsense. But the specific phrasing of it, suggesting a conspiracy that involved the machinations of those long-hated elites rather than some cadre of as-yet-unidentified poll workers and schemers, is exactly how non-Trump Republicans plan to appeal to the voters who have been convinced that Trump was the real winner.

Not that Ivey shies away from unfounded fraud claims. But we’ll come back to that.

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From the earliest days of his candidacy, Donald Trump forced Republicans and the conservative media to figure out how to make his most extreme rhetoric defensible, if not palatable. Trump would say something and his base of supporters would quickly seize on it. His allies were left playing catch up, needing to both nod along with Trump in order not to alienate voters or viewers but while still often insisting on some tether to reality.

So the specific claim that Trump Tower had been wiretapped became a story about intelligence agencies revealing the identity of someone who had been talking to Russia’s ambassador. The insistence that the Russia probe was a witch hunt — offered even before we learned anything about its genesis — became a complicated story about improperly obtained warrants and, more recently, a false claim that it was all Hillary Clinton’s fault.

When Trump lost in November 2020, the party might have been forgiven for assuming that the defeat marked the end of the pattern. One official infamously told The Washington Post that even as Trump continued to smoke about alleged fraud, the party could simply let him burn himself out.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” the official said. “…It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20.”

Rarely have quotes aged so poorly.

Trump’s continuation of months of rhetoric alleging that mail ballots were suspect became weeks of complaining about counting those ballots became months of elevating any accusation about wrongdoing that came across his transom, however obviously false. An ecosystem arose around his claims — “stop the steal” — that generated a lot of money by propagating the narrative. Trump’s most loyal supporters believed (and still believe) that the election was stolen.

So the right got to work. As with the Russia investigation before it, it needed to come up with a way to agree that the election was stolen without embracing the junk that was obviously false or deranged. The result? Maybe there was rampant fraud, maybe there wasn’t. But everyone could agree that the election was rigged against Trump by the very elites he was trying to disempower.

One of the earliest joints of this approach came from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). He argued that the law expanding vote access in Pennsylvania was unconstitutional, implying that this gave Biden an unfair advantage. The law, passed by Republicans, had gotten to the state’s Supreme Court, with the chief justice saying that even if the law was invalid, the votes weren’t — a preview of how many similar allegations about “rigging” would play out.

In the 17 months since Trump lost, this alternate narrative has been dutifully fleshed out. The media rigged the election by Trump by not reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop, it is claimed, often conflating the social-media restrictions on the initial New York Post story with the media at large and occasionally overstating the purported effect of that restriction. Nonprofit groups rigged the election by encouraging vote turnout in places where turnout was often low — places that often had heavier densities of Democratic voters. (This particular argument was aided by Time magazine’s deeply unfortunate framing of an effort to bolster election systems as a conspiracy.) Democratic states rigged the election by making it easier to vote during the pandemic.

This line of argument suffers from the fatal flaw that there’s no allegation that any significant number of ballots cast were themselves illegal, as officials and even critics have acknowledged. It’s primarily an argument that encouraging more people to vote without hindrance is unfair to Republicans — and, more ominously, something to be treated as dishonest or illegal. The Republican Party and the Trump campaign spent millions of dollars explicitly trying to get people to vote for Trump. That nonprofits and state governments spent millions trying to get people to vote, though, is cast as proof that the system is rigged.

The end result is this ad from Kay Ivey. If you are a Republican who thinks the election was stolen — you’re right, though perhaps not in the way that you have been led to think by Trump. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of a 5-year-old keeping his fingers crossed behind his back; if interrogated, Republicans can clarify that they meant that the election was stolen solely through devious machinations, not literal stealing of votes.

Except that Ivey takes the argument a step further.

“Here in Alabama,” she pledges, “we are making sure that” — stealing an election — “never happens. We have not and will not send absentee bundles to everyone and their brother. We banned the corrupt curbside voting and our results will always be audited.”

This isn’t simply the “rigged” argument but instead sits in the middle between that and what Trump alleges. Curbside voting is “corrupt” because … why? Because of fraud? Or because it’s an expansion of access in more Democratic areas? That it could be perceived as either, of course, is the point. If expanding the vote in general is treated as dishonest or illegal, as above, then you can simply wave your hand at any tool for making voting easier as something to be avoided at all costs.

The reason the vote wasn’t “stolen” in Alabama is because Alabama is a deeply Republican state, not because of any putative prevention that Kay Ivey supports. He elected a Democrat in 2017 — barely — solely because of how Trump energized the left and because the Republican was credibly accused of inappropriately touching a teenage girl. But because the state has so many Republicans, Ivey also needs to pledge to fight against this nonexistent election theft.

While it was often the case that Republican efforts to backstop Trump’s false claims were simply an effort to move past what he’d said, this one bears ancillary benefits. New laws aimed at scaling back voting access as passed in Georgia and Florida apply a legislative response to frustrations about Trump’s loss.

Republican legislators are, indeed, making sure that stealing an election never happens again. But only where “stealing an election” means “more Democrats came out to vote because it was easier for them to do so.”

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