The Korea Herald


[Susan Stokes] Neutralizing Trump’s big lies

By Korea Herald

Published : June 29, 2023 - 05:41

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With the federal indictment of Donald Trump, the former US president is doubling down on divisive rhetoric. America is thus at the start of another depressing chapter of in a seemingly never-ending war of narratives. A June 7-10 CBS/YouGov poll found that only 38 percent of likely Republican voters view Trump’s mishandling of classified documents as a national-security risk, compared to 80 percent across other voter blocs.

Trump’s falsehoods about the case threaten to undermine public confidence in federal law enforcement, just as his insistence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” undermined confidence in the integrity of America’s democratic process. Fortunately, shifts in public opinion about the 2020 election point to effective strategies for resisting attacks on core democratic institutions.

To be sure, polls have shown that roughly two-thirds of Republican voters think Joe Biden lost the election and prevailed only through fraud. This lie drove Trump supporters to storm the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Republican-controlled states to enact laws restricting ballot access in the name of countering voter fraud (a problem that has been shown to be extraordinarily rare). But tucked away in polling data is a little-noticed fact: Over time, more Republican voters have come to doubt Trump’s election lie, and have accepted Biden as the rightful president.

This trend is reflected in polls conducted by Bright Line Watch, an inter-university collaboration of political scientists (of which I am a founding member). In a November 2020 poll, we found that basically all Democrats and two-thirds of independents believed that Biden was definitely or probably the rightful winner, compared to only one-quarter of Republicans. The implication was that three-quarters of Republican voters suspected that a usurper was entering the White House. But we have since repeated this poll five times, and the most recent one, in November 2022, showed that 35 percent of Republicans now accept Biden as the legitimate president.

Although that is still a minority, it represents a 40 percent increase over the original one-quarter of GOP voters. Moreover, polls by other organizations reveal the same trend. Between November 2020 and December 2022, pollsters at Monmouth University repeatedly asked a sample of Republican voters whether they believed Biden won “fair and square” or only “due to election fraud.” The share of those attributing his victory to fraud shrank from 69 percent to 55 percent.

Which GOP voters have been most prone to stop believing Trump’s lie? Digging into the Bright Line Watch data, we find that it is largely people with more formal education, particularly a college degree (around 17 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats in our samples). While 30 percent of GOP voters with a college degree believed in 2020 that Biden won the election fairly, that number had grown to almost 50 percent by late 2022. GOP voters whose formal education ended in high school were also less enthralled by Trump’s election lie two years later. But compared to GOP college graduates, the initial credulity of high school graduates was greater, and its decline more gradual.

Some will be tempted to write off the large majority of GOP voters who claim not to care that Trump shared highly classified documents and information with visitors to his Florida and New Jersey clubs. But it would be a mistake simply to assume that this cohort is beyond reach. When Trump lied to his supporters about the 2020 election, those who believed him were not just zany dupes. Like most of us, they lacked first-hand knowledge against which to check their beliefs. Unfamiliar with the workings of election administration, they deferred to the leaders whom they trusted most.

Then, as contrary evidence began to pile up, a well-oiled disinformation machine kicked into high gear, offering these voters talking points with which to sustain their position and neutralize arguments from the other side. For example, many Trump supporters became convinced that the Trump-appointed judges who dismissed his campaign’s lawsuits were just making technical decisions, not adjudicating claims of fraud.

So, what lessons can we take from the election lie’s modest loss of traction? For starters, it helps to keep hammering away at the facts, and to appeal to voters’ capacity for critical thinking. Trump himself relies heavily on repetition, and Democrats should do the same, making clear again and again that his recklessness and self-centeredness have jeopardized national security and potentially exposed the American people to enormous harm.

The election lie fed on the fact that few of us have direct knowledge of how elections are conducted. Likewise, few have direct experience with intelligence gathering, protecting information about the country’s nuclear arsenal, hypothetical invasion planning, and the like. Most of us have never entered a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility), the standard procedure for reviewing highly classified documents. Those who do therefore need to explain to the rest of us, repeatedly if necessary, why the former president’s treatment of these documents was not just haphazard but potentially catastrophic -- and, indeed, criminal.

Susan Stokes

Susan Stokes is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and faculty director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)