Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office but Donald Trump occupies prime space in America’s psyche. Mike Pence’s most senior aides have testified before a federal grand jury. An investigation by prosecutors in Georgia proceeds apace. In a high-stakes game of chicken, the message from the Department of Justice grows more ominous. Trump’s actions are reportedly under the microscope at the DoJ. He teases a re-election bid. Season two of the January 6 committee hearings beckons.
Into this cauldron of distrust and loathing leaps Jonathan Lemire, with The Big Lie. He is Politico’s White House bureau chief and the 5am warm-up to MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He has done his homework. He lays out facts. His book is a mixture of narrative and lament.
Lemire contends that Trump birthed the “big lie” in his 2016 campaign, as an excuse in the event of defeat by either Senator Ted Cruz in the primary or Hillary Clinton in the general election. Trump held both opponents in contempt.
In the primary, Trump lost Iowa – then falsely claimed Cruz stole it.
“Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified,” Trump tweeted.
In the general, a half-year later, he dropped another bomb.
“I’m afraid the election is going to be 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 will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I will keep you in suspense.”
He definitely 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 he beat Clinton in the electoral college, he claimed he actually won the popular vote too. In Trump’s mind, he was the victim of ballots cast by illegal aliens.
“In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted.
To those within earshot, he said people who didn’t “look like they should be allowed to vote”, did.
To soothe his ego, he appointed a commission headed by Kris Kobach, a nativist Kansas secretary of state, to vindicate his claims. It found nothing.
In a blend of fiction and wish-fulfillment, Sean Spicer, Trump’s first White House press secretary, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser, embarked on flights of fantasy. Spicer declared that Trump’s inaugural crowd was larger than that for Barack Obama. Conway introduced us to alternative facts.
Lemire’s indictment goes way beyond that offered by Clinton, who called Trump voters deplorable. He casts the issue as systemic – and punches up. He is angered but does not condescend. The Big Lie is also about elite conservative lawyers, Ivy League-educated senators, Republican House leadership and Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy.
Like Gollum in Tolkien’s Rings trilogy, the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, wants to get his hands on the speaker’s gavel that badly. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser and author of the ill-fated “Green Bay Sweep” plan to overturn the election, faces charges of criminal contempt. Such acolytes know exactly what they do.
Extremists in Congress like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are vocal totems, empowered by an enraged ex-president and a vengeance-filled base. In such a world it seems no surprise cries of “hang Mike Pence”, makeshift gallows and Confederate battle flags in the halls of the Capitol came to supplant “fuck your feelings”, the mantra of Trump 2016.
As expected, Steve Bannon appears in The Big Lie. He loves dishing to the press. It is in his DNA. The former Trump campaign guru and White House aide, now convicted of contempt of Congress, trashes his former boss as a reflexive liar.
According to Lemire, Bannon said: “Trump would say anything, he would lie about anything.” On cue, a Bannon spokesperson disputed Lemire’s sources, telling the Guardian they were inaccurate.
In Jeremy Peters’ book, Insurgency, Bannon mused that Trump would “end up going down in history as one of the two or three worst presidents ever”. In Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, he described the Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr and a group of Russians amid the 2016 election campaign as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic”.
And yet Bannon’s role in Trump’s bid to stay in power remains of central interest to the January 6 committee. On 5 January 2021, Bannon announced on-air that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow”. He spoke to Trump that morning.
Despite his thoroughness, Lemire does omit the role of one group of Republicans in giving the big lie added heft. In May 2021, the Washington Post reported on the efforts of Texas Republicans led by Russell Ramsland, a businessman with a Harvard MBA.
After the 2018 midterms, Ramsland and colleagues pressed convoluted theories concerning “voting-machine audit logs – lines of codes and time stamps that document the machines’ activities”. Pete Sessions, a defeated congressman, didn’t buy what Ramsland was selling. Trump did.
For Trump’s minions, this remains a war over lost place and status.
“Republicans need to prove to the American people that we are the party of … Christian nationalism,” says Greene, a first-term congresswoman from Georgia.
Like a toxic weed, the big lie has taken root.
“It is now part of the Republican party’s core belief,” Lemire writes. Violence and insurrection have become legitimate. “The Big Lie was who they were.”
Our cold civil war grows hotter.
The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020 is published in the US by Macmillan