How Trump Convinced Millions of Americans that the Election was Fraudulent
A group of armed radicals storming the capital. Shots fired. A decentralised, militia-like battalion comprised of a white supremacists, QAnon conspiracists and other insurrectionists, all coming together in a kind of Trump-aligned hive mind. Not all of them had been extremists before. Some, like Jenny Cudd, had been a flower-shop owner before she was persuaded by Trump’s election fraud rhetoric. At the age of thirty-six, she became emboldened to take up arms against her own state, and in doing so, commit an act of treason. It seems like America hasn’t processed that all of this could happen.
What happened on January 6th was not a malfunction in an otherwise stable political system. Instead, everything from the hierarchy of power to the algorithms of social media made the insurrection on Capitol Hill far from unlikely. The obscure the obvious cause of what happened was the fact that millions of Americans had been convinced, most in sound mind, that the results of the 2020 election were illegitimate. The challenge then becomes to find out how millions in Trump’s base went from uneasily questioning claims of fraud in November, all the way to a firebranded conviction in January that the election had been snatched from it rightful winner. Part of the chaos is that there isn’t one unified line of argument as to how the results were subverted—instead, there are hundreds and hundreds of different conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, all unique from one another.
Throughout the past few months, many pundits have been wondering how this happened. And yet there are five irremovable factors that made the belief in a fraudulent election so widespread. Given the precise combination of these factors, anyone could have envisioned the hundreds of conspiracy theories about the election, even way back in 2016.
Factor one: Trump claimed, as would have happened either way, that he won the election. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it was always going to happen. During a campaign rally, Trump pre-emptively said in September that, “The Democrats are trying to rig this election because that's the only way they're going to win.” When asked if he would accept the results of the election, he said, “No. I have to see. Look you—I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going to say no.” The same thing happened in 2016, when Trump outright said that he wouldn’t accept the results of the election if he lost—only back then, we never had a chance to see him claiming that it was rigged, given that he happened to win. He did, on the other hand, claim that the popular vote had been rigged against him; just as he claimed in 2012 that the Emmies had “no credibility” after his television show The Apprentice didn’t win an award that year. The fact of the matter is, Trump has a history of always denying when he loses at anything. Regardless of whether fraud occurred or not, he was always going to say that it had.
Given that that’s what happened in November 2020, the second factor inevitably followed: many of his followers with a platform, including political pundits, and social media conservatives, started scrutinising the election heavily. These sycophantic Trump supporters were the kinds of people who give his claims credibility, and in this case, they wanted to believe his claims—so they started to look for evidence of fraud. In some cases, that meant actually looking at voting records and registration rolls. In other cases, that meant simply sitting on an armchair and thinking to yourself that mail-in ballots certainly sound suspicious.
Thirdly, elections are a unique and incredibly complex phenomenon, with thousands of districts, documents, and multiple steps and methods to complete the voting process. When you include the nuances of ID and voter verification methods, it’s clear that there were thousands of avenues by which you could imagine that election fraud occurred—and that’s even if they’re not backed by the evidence.
When you combine factors two and three, it becomes clear that if you want to find a way to argue that the election was illegitimate, you’ll find a way. It’s not hard to come up with a ‘sign’ that something doesn’t add up, even if your claim is actually baseless; and in this way, Trump’s core group of pundits and supporters became the first mouthpiece for the idea that the election was stolen.
One example of this is the viral claim that Michigan impossibly gained 140,00 votes for Biden overnight, which first gained traction after Republican congressman Mike Mackowiak tweeted about it. In truth, the extra 140,000 votes were actually caused by a typo after someone accidentally added an extra zero to 15,371, bringing Biden’s vote total to 153,710. If you think this sounds suspicious, then consider that this was an unofficial county submission, and those votes were never counted. Not only that, but the county quickly realised their mistake afterwards and changed it.
These kinds of clerical errors happen every year, but because of the scrutiny of this election, they were only noticed time around. Mike Mackowiak, the first person to tweet about the ballot find, realised he had been incorrect and rescinded his original tweet. He said, “This tweet was taken and shared honestly. I have now learned the MI update referenced was a typo in one county. I have deleted the original tweet.” But by then, it was too late. The story caught wind and was spread around social media like wildfire, leading to another conspiracy theory about the election that’s still prevalent to this day—and that’s where the fourth factor comes in.
At this point in the twenty-first century, it’s undeniable that the vast majority of people don’t fact check every political claim they stumble upon. It would be a kind of utopian fantasy to imagine that the average person sits at home, rigorously fact-checking everything they hear on social media from unbiased sources. In fact, most people won’t even lend themselves to a five-second Internet search. And that’s how claims of election fraud, like Mike Mackowiak’s, quickly gained traction and became shared around social media—even if all it took was half a minute on Google to disprove them. As is the case with the vast majority of these conspiracy theories.
And now for factor five: a scientific principle known as the Illusionary Truth Effect. This is a phenomenon has been reliably demonstrated by countless studies, including one in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Simply put, it states the more something is repeated to you, the harder it is to disagree with it.
Nobody is immune to the inner stronghold of human psychology. This means that when ordinary Trump supporters became bombarded with claims of election fraud day in, and day out, on their Twitter timeline, and on their cable news—is it really a surprise that most of them went, over the course of several months, from thinking of those claims as mere conspiracy theories to actually subscribing to them?
When you combine all of those factors, suddenly, a picture emerges that it was inevitable that millions of them became convinced that the election was rigged. And this is no ordinary political claim either. This conspiracy, if it were true, would be explosively revolutionary, based in the notion that one of our foundational tenants in this country, democracy, would have fallen. With this idea now espoused by millions of the American population, a final breaking point was inevitable. And this is how, aged thirty-six, a flower-shop owner from Midland Texas found herself storming a government building in a plot to overthrow the government.
It’s all over now, of course. The insurrection failed, and Joe Biden is the President. But before we try and gloss over the events of January 2021, it would be a tragedy to miss the failures in our political system that led to this all happening in the first place. The fact that this nation tragedy was inevitable—given the structures of social media, political corruption, and how easily won over the social media mouthpieces were—should be enough to give anyone a serious wake-up call. America would be remiss to wait until the next national tragedy to realise that, somewhere down the line, there is a failure in our politics.