The ‘stolen election’ myth is powerful enough to keep Trump in power
We should never underestimate the power of a political myth, artfully contrived and relentlessly repeated, to alter the course of history.
Donald Trump’s myth, that he lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden because it was “stolen” — like the myth that Germany lost World War I because it was “stabbed in the back” — is one that promises to live on and pollute political life for years to come.
In speeches and Twitter comments, Trump has shamelessly claimed, without a shred of evidence, that he really won the race and was robbed of his victory by widespread election fraud. In a Twitter rant on Nov. 6, while mail ballots were still being counted in several swing states, Trump wrote:
‘I easily WIN the Presidency of the United States with LEGAL VOTES CAST. The OBSERVERS were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be ILLEGAL VOTES. U.S. Supreme Court should decide!’
Trump’s campaign operatives, presidential staffers, congressional allies, conservative media admirers and rank-and-file supporters took up the cry. The President has also initiated several lawsuits challenging the validity of vote counts in key states with close outcomes, promising to bring the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though Trump is expected to peacefully exit the White House at the end of his term, few anticipate that he will do so graciously or ever concede defeat. And in years to come, the myth of the “stolen election” is bound to grow in countless social media posts, talk shows and speeches.Advertisement
The “stab-in-the-back” myth originated in November 1918 after Germany requested a cessation of hostilities, the Armistice, which, in effect, was a surrender to the Allied powers of France, Britain and the United States. The Armistice was followed in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles that imposed heavy financial reparations on Germany, substantially limited the size of its armed forces and removed strategically important chunks of territory from its sovereign control.
Germany capitulated in 1918, because it had lost the will and capacity to continue fighting. After four years of total mobilization and bloody warfare, with its civilian population starving, its government threatened with revolution, its army lacking adequate manpower and supplies, its defensive lines crumbling, and its borders facing the prospect of invasion, it had little choice.
Allied forces, however, had not yet set foot on German soil, let alone wreaked the kind of destruction which Nazi Germany was to suffer at the end of World War II. This fact allowed German ultra-nationalists to claim that their country had never actually been beaten in battle but instead had been sold out by internal traitors in league with insidious international forces, supposedly a cabal of Communists and Jews.
Gen. Erich Ludendorff, one of the highest-ranking military officers in the German army and the major architect of its war strategy, was a leading proponent of this “stab-in-the-back” myth. Yet he certainly knew better, since he was at the helm when Germany stood on the brink of defeat.
An authoritarian, Ludendorff subsequently participated in 1920 and 1923 in two failed coup attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments of the Weimar Republic, the successor to the Imperial regime which had waged the war. One of those coup attempts was led by Adolf Hitler.
When the Armistice was signed, Hitler was an obscure army corporal recuperating in a military hospital. News of the Armistice shocked and embittered him. Unable to accept that Germany had been defeated, he seized on the “stab-in-the-back” rationale, integrating it into his worldview. Combined with a virulent racism and a belief that Germany required “lebensraum” (expansion of its territory through military conquest), Hitler’s ideology was the impetus for a disastrous war and the genocidal murder of 12 million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and other “inferior races.”Advertisement
In January 1933, Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and in August 1934 assumed total power as “Fuhrer,” head of state and government. By 1939, he had plunged his country into World War II.
In a highly symbolic act, after France fell to a German invasion in 1940, Hitler insisted that the document of surrender be signed by French representatives in the Compiegne Forest in the same railway car (brought there from a museum) where the Armistice had been signed. This was his revenge for the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and the “stab-in-the-back” he believed had led to it.
Trump signaled for months prior to the 2020 election that mail-in ballots would promote fraud. His claim made no sense in terms of electoral mechanics and was contrary to the experience of past elections. But Trump knew that Democrats would favor voting by mail, since they took more seriously than Republicans public health warnings about the risk of coronavirus exposure in crowded polling stations. Indeed, the president encouraged Republicans to vote in person rather than by mail.
I believe Trump intended all along to use this false claim about mail balloting as a backup strategy in case he lost the election, enabling him to blame fraud for his defeat. Originally electoral fraud meant that bogus ballots would be submitted by non-existent or ineligible voters. Since the election, however, Trump has tweaked the claim to contend there has also been fraud in the counting process.
If there’s one constant in Trump’s life and career, it’s been his unwillingness to acknowledge losing. And since he has often lost in business (and now in politics) as a result of his consummate arrogance and poor judgment, he’s always had a backup strategy: Never accept responsibility for the loss, blame someone or something else for whatever went awry, and pretend that the loss is actually a victory.
The myth of the “stolen election” is not only Trump’s way of coming to terms with a loss, it has a practical purpose. It allows him to remain an important player in GOP politics. If his followers believe he was cheated out of the election, they will continue to support him, which, in turn, will give him political clout with the Republican establishment.
The “stolen election” myth, like the “stab-in-the-back” myth, is a bad harbinger. As long as a significant portion of the American public embraces it, we will not be rid of Trump’s malign influence on our political system. Worse, he may come back to haunt us in the 2024 Presidential election in the way that railway car re-appeared in the Compiegne Forest in 1940.