Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office but Donald Trump looms large in the American psyche. Mike Pence’s top aides testified before a federal grand jury. An investigation by Georgia prosecutors is progressing rapidly. In a high-stakes game of chicken, the Justice Department’s message becomes more ominous. Trump’s actions would be under the DoJ’s microscope. He teases a re-election bid. The second season of the January 6 committee hearings is approaching.
Into this cauldron of distrust and disgust jumps Jonathan Lemire, with The Big Lie. He is Politico’s White House bureau chief and the 5 a.m. warm-up for MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He did his duty. He exposes the facts. His book is a mixture of narrative and lamentation.
Lemire argues that Trump gave birth to the “big lie” during his 2016 campaign, as an excuse if Senator Ted Cruz lost in the primaries or Hillary Clinton lost in the general election. Trump despised both adversaries.
In the primary, Trump lost Iowa — then falsely claimed Cruz robbed him.
“Based on the fraud committed by Sen. Ted Cruz during the Iowa caucus, either a new election should be held or Cruz’s results will be overturned,” Trump tweeted.
In the general, six months later, he dropped another bomb.
“I fear that the elections are rigged. I have to be honest.”
In the final presidential debate, he upped the ante, refusing to say he would accept the electorate’s verdict.
“I’ll watch it then,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you going.”
He clearly warned us. Lemire’s first book is aptly subtitled: “Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020.”
Then and now, Trump posited that only fraud could derail him. After beating Clinton in the Electoral College, he claimed he also won the popular vote. In Trump’s mind, he was a victim of ballots cast by illegal aliens.
“Besides winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted.
For those within earshot, he said people who “didn’t look like they had the right to vote,” did.
To appease his ego, he appointed a commission headed by Kris Kobach, a nativist Kansas secretary of state, to press his claims. He found nothing.
In a mix of fiction and wish-fulfillment, Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser, went on some fantastical flights. Spicer said Trump’s inaugural crowd was larger than Barack Obama’s. Conway presented us with alternative facts.
Lemire’s indictment goes far beyond the one proposed by Clinton, who called Trump voters deplorable. He calls the problem systemic – and hits it. He is angry but does not deign. The Big Lie is also about elite conservative lawyers, Ivy League-educated senators, Republican House leaders, and My Pillow guy Mike Lindell.
Like Gollum in Tolkien’s Rings trilogy, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy wants to get his hands on the president’s gavel this wrong. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser and author of the ill-fated “Green Bay Sweep” plan to nullify the election, faces criminal contempt charges. Such acolytes know exactly what theyre doing.
Congressional extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are vocal totems, bolstered by an enraged ex-president and a vengeful base. In such a world, it doesn’t seem surprising that shouts of “hang Mike Pence,” makeshift gallows, and Confederate battle flags in the halls of the Capitol have come to supplant “fuck your feelings,” Trump’s 2016 mantra.
As expected, Steve Bannon appears in The Big Lie. He loves talking to the press. It’s in his DNA. The former Trump campaign guru and White House aide, now found in contempt of Congress, calls his former boss a reflexive liar.
According to Lemire, Bannon said, “Trump would say anything, he would lie about anything.” At the right time, a spokesperson for Bannon challenged Lemire’s sources, telling the Guardian they were inaccurate.
In Jeremy Peters’ book Insurgency, Bannon thought Trump “would go down in history as one of the two or three worst presidents of all time.” In Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, he described the Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr and a group of Russians in the middle of the 2016 election campaign as “betrayal” and “unpatriotic”.
And yet, Bannon’s role in Trump’s bid to stay in power remains the focus of the Jan. 6 committee. On January 5, 2021, Bannon announced on air that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow”. He spoke to Trump that morning.
Despite its thoroughness, Lemire omits the role of a group of Republicans giving the big lie extra weight. In May 2021, The Washington Post reported on the efforts of Republicans in Texas led by Russell Ramsland, a businessman with an MBA from Harvard.
After the 2018 midterm reviews, Ramsland and his colleagues advanced convoluted theories regarding “voting machine audit logs — lines of code and timestamps that document the machines’ activities.” Pete Sessions, a defeated congressman, didn’t buy what Ramsland was selling. Trump did.
For Trump’s minions, it remains a war for lost place and status.
“Republicans need to prove to the American people that we are the party of … Christian nationalism,” said Greenefirst-time congressman from Georgia.
Like a poisonous weed, the big lie took root.
“It is now part of the core belief of the Republican Party,” Lemire writes. Violence and insurrection have become legitimate. “The big lie was who they were.”
Our cold civil war is heating up.
The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020 is published in the United States by Macmillan