Trump voters know his lies are part of a con game — but they think they're in on the joke
Republican Party muckety-mucks in Georgia are worried about the upcoming Senate runoff elections in January. No, not about the threat of massive Democratic turnout, which is certainly possible. They're worried that their own voters will sink the chances of both Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
The problem some Republicans perceive is that Donald Trump and the various conspiracy theorists he has empowered keep declaring that the Nov. 3 election was "rigged" and that Democrats — especially in cities with large Black populations — are somehow manipulating vote totals.
That's completely false, of course. But the claim is being pumped throughout right-wing media, from Trump's Twitter account to Fox News to email lists to all the sleazy sub-Fox knockoffs like Newsmax and OAN to viral Facebook posts. Polling shows that it's working, with 63% of Republican voters claiming they don't believe the election was "free and fair."
So worry has started to spread among the party elite in Georgia: How can they get GOP voters to turn out, if those voters keep hearing that Democrats are going to steal the election?
Earlier this month, Sophia Tesfaye explained the concerns in Salon, arguing that "Trump's attacks on America's electoral system [could] depress GOP turnout," because "the president GOP voters adore has said that America's elections are rigged."
I'm much more skeptical. I suspect Republican voters understand full well that Trump and his allies are lying about voter fraud, and they're playing along because they believe doing so is politically advantageous. On Jan. 5, their actions will tell the truth: They'll turn out to vote in Georgia in huge numbers, because they don't really believe the elections are rigged.
In Democratic circles, it's long been a concern that conspiracy theories about elections can discourage voter turnout. Voting is a chore under the best of circumstances, and long lines and other voter suppression tactics — largely aimed at the Democratic base — can make it a miserable experience. People aren't going to do it if they're convinced that voting doesn't matter. As such, Democratic politicians and organizers tend to push back hard against conspiracy theories, and even try to avoid talking about long lines at polls or similar impediments, fearing it might scare voters away from even trying.
The difference, however, is that Democratic voters aren't steeped in bad faith the way Republicans are. But like their elected leaders, they are fluent in speciousness. They understand that Trump's conspiracy theories aren't sincere expressions of belief, but shibboleths uttered to score political points and to justify future election cheating. Republican voters understand perfectly that Trump's lies are part of a con game — and they imagine they're in on the con.
Certainly, since Tesfaye's article was published, GOP fears have been rising that Trumpian conspiracy theories could cause Perdue and Loeffler to lose to Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (respectively) in next month's special election.
On Thursday, the Washington Post ran a piece of delicious schadenfreude bait, reporting that Perdue and Loeffler are facing a "conundrum" by "asking Trump supporters to put their faith in the same voting system their president claims was manipulated to engineer his defeat."
"Would you bother voting in an election you thought was hopelessly corrupt?" Matt Shuham and Kate Riga at Talking Points Memo write in their coverage of this conundrum, pointing out that the situation is even more dire for Republicans when "even the elected Republican leadership of your state" is being accused of being in on the conspiracy to steal the election for Democrats. That's a reference to Trump's attacks on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans and (at least until now) allies of the president.
Some prominent Trump supporters, in fact, are actively discouraging voting in the election. "I choose not to vote in another fraudulent election with rigged voting machines & fake mail ballots," Lin Wood, a right-wing attorney who represents Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse and has filed lawsuits alleging fraud in the presidential election, tweeted on Sunday.
Another PAC, this one linked to Trump's nefarious ally Roger Stone, has been encouraging voters to write in Trump's name instead of voting for either GOP senatorial candidate. (It's hard to say what the point of that would be, other than a theatrical protest: Trump is not a Georgia resident, and write-in votes don't even count in a two-person runoff election.)
"Georgia Republicans are now actively pleading with Trump," Greg Sargent of the Washington Post writes, hoping that he can "explain to voters that the voting was actually legitimate in their own state."
Fears are running so high that Donald Trump Jr., seemingly undercutting his father's "rigged" narrative, tweeted last week that it was "NONSENSE" to say Georgia votes don't count and that Peach State voters must "IGNORE those people" who are spouting conspiracy theories — such as, um, his dad? — and come out to vote on Jan. 5.
But the fact that Don Jr. doesn't even seem to register that he's contradicting his father's outrageous lies is exactly why I don't believe that all these bewildering claims will actually depress Republican turnout. Don Jr. clearly understands and expects his audience to understand that Trump is lying about the 2020 election, and that they should go ahead and vote without any worry that Trump actually means what he says or that the elections are actually rigged.
This conclusion is borne out by polling evidence. For instance, while the majority of Republican voters will insist to pollsters that they believe the election wasn't fair, when asked about whether their own vote was counted, a strong majority — 72% — say yes.
This discrepancy suggests that Republican voters know they're "supposed" to say the election was rigged in Joe Biden's favor, because saying so pleases their overlord and benefits their medium-term political agenda. But ultimately, they don't really believe it.
Then there's the biggest poll of them all: Election Day. Despite the fact that Trump has been claiming for years that the election would be "rigged", his voters were not dissuaded from turning out. On the contrary, Trump got 74 million votes, 11 million more than in 2016 and second only to Biden's 80 million as the largest vote total in American history. That isn't the behavior of people who actually think their votes will be magically disappeared by the "deep state." That's the behavior of people who know perfectly that their votes count — indeed, in the American political system writ large, their votes count disproportionately — and who only say otherwise as a nod and a wink to Trump's con.
Trust me, I enjoy reading about Republican panic, and the possibility that their anti-democratic conspiracy theories could blow up in the party's face and cost it control of the Senate. I cackled through coverage of Perdue and Loeffler's teams sweating bullets at the thought that infighting will sink their election chances. But I don't buy a word of it. Democrats are going to have to fight tooth and nail to win those Georgia's runoff races, because Republican voters will turn out in droves. At the end of the day, the typical GOP voter knows all this talk of rigged elections is smoke and mirrors, and will behave accordingly.
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