At the first Republican debate tomorrow night we will no doubt see most of the candidates onstage condemn the various indictments against Trump for conspiring to steal the 2020 presidential election. With the exception of Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie, these challengers feel they must tread lightly in their criticisms, since Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among Republican voters.
But there is another reason that these particular criminal charges against Trump and his co-defendants gets a pass from both GOP candidates and the voters they hope to woo. Lies, corruption, and the use of the state to meddle in elections isn’t a new expression of authoritarian corruption. Rather, it is baked into the politics of the modern GOP.
Republican strategists learned important lessons in the fight over who would get the presidency in the 2000 election. Beginning with the 2002 midterms, the Bush Admin used the DOJ to aggressively investigate Democrats for vote fraud based on little or no evidence, then fanned the flames of these lies in the media, and subsequently kept investigations open during actual elections in order to discredit their outcomes. In 2006 the Bush Administration actually fired nine of its own U.S. attorneys for refusing to prosecute spurious voter fraud allegations.
Key architects of this strategy went on to the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks after 2008 to push baseless conspiracies of widespread voter fraud (particularly in Black and immigrant-heavy districts) while pushing for more barriers to voting.
After SCOTUS gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, GOP-dominated legislatures rushed to throw up new obstacles to voting (in Georgia Brian Kemp reminded legislators that they no longer needed pre-clearance to pass these new laws).
Trump claiming in 2016 that 3 to 5 million votes for Clinton were cast illegally by undocumented immigrants in 2016 came straight out of the GOP playbook. As House Minority Whip in 1993, Gingrich tried to stop the passage of Motor Voter, calling it the “Non-Citizens Voting Rights Act,” and predicting massive vote fraud, citing the Department of Agriculture estimates that over 300,000 undocumented were currently receiving food stamps at welfare offices, and thousands more had drivers licenses.
Voters in Georgia and elsewhere overcame new voting barriers in 2020, but the Big Lie itself was already out there as a fully articulated staple of conservative discourse.
The fact that tens of millions of Americans believe that Biden stole the 2020 election isn’t just an effect of Trump’s fascist charisma. It was already in the Republican drinking water.
In fact, Tucker Carlson’s racist and nativist language of “political replacement” is better understood as stemming from mainstream GOP election rhetoric than as a novel expression of white nationalism in the Trump era.