The Biggest Lie
Why "Stop the Steal" poisoned American politics.
Before we start: Big livestream tonight at 8:00 p.m. to talk about impeachment and what comes next. Come and join us—these things score way up on the upper-left hand quadrant of the smart-fun graph.
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The root of the entire conflict we are seeing is a single lie: That Donald Trump won the election.
That’s it. That’s everything.
And until this lie has been repudiated, there can be no progress, no healing, no unity. Let me explain why.
Donald Trump has been lying his entire life. We don’t need to recapitulate this argument, but from draft dodging to bankruptcies to his inauguration crowd size to COVID disappearing, Trump’s mode of lying is substantially different from anything we have ever seen at the presidential level of American politics. His compulsive lying is why, for instance, his lawyers would not allow him to be deposed by the Mueller investigation: Because Trump is a walking, breathing perjury trap.
The question of why Trump lies is interesting, but immaterial. Maybe it’s a compulsion or psychological defect. Maybe it’s a strategic mindset. Who knows. But it is worth noting that lying has worked out very well for Donald Trump: He does not ever seem to have paid any sort of price for his lies.
The problem is that once he became president his lies ceased to be private lies and became public lies, with consequences for both America and the world.
It’s worth saying, again, that Trump’s contention that the results of the 2020 election are fraudulent is a lie. Not a mistake, not a difference of opinion, not a misunderstanding. A lie.
We know this because in the early morning hours of November 4, 2020, Trump appeared at the podium in the White House. Here’s a selection of his remarks:
It’s also clear that we have won Georgia. We’re up by 2.5% or 117,000 votes with only 7% left. They’re never going to catch us. They can’t catch us. . . .
So we won by 107,000 votes with 81% of the vote. That’s Michigan. So when you take those three states in particular and you take all of the others, I mean, we have so many… We had such a big night. You just take a look at all of these states that we’ve won tonight, and then you take a look at the kind of margins that we’ve won it by, and all of a sudden, it’s not like we’re up 12 votes and we have 60% left. We won states. . . .
This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election.
What you see here is Trump claiming as facts suppositions that he could not possibly have known to be true.
He was not saying, “Things are very tight, they look good for us and I’m confident.” He claimed “we did win” even as votes were still being counted.
That is a premeditated lie. First-degree lying, if you will.
Since that night, the vast majority of elected Republicans have testified to this lie, over and over. They have echoed Trump’s charge that the results were fraudulent even as the specific claims of fraud were proven false, one by one. Republicans have been so committed to the lie that even after Trump incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the majority of party’s congressional delegation voted to overturn the Electoral College results in service to this lie.
And if this lie remains in American politics, there will be no peace or comity.
Think about it from the perspective of the person who believes the lie: They have been told by the president of the United States that the election was fraudulent. The vast majority of the president’s party has testified to the truth of this story. The only reasonable conclusion of this tale is that America is currently undergoing a coup. That the incoming government is not only illegitimate, but is an occupying, authoritarian force.
If you believe that—if you really, truly believe it—then how could you acquiesce in anything that is happening? How could you pay taxes? Why would you obey laws? Why wouldn’t you storm the Capitol? Because if you believe this lie—really, truly believe it—then you are trying to save our democratic republic.
If you believe the lie that Democrats have ousted the duly-elected president of the United States in a bloodless junta, then what could President Joe Biden possibly do to bring about unity?
Nothing. Because he would be—literally—a tyrant.
There is always election fraud. (Though by all accounts such fraud has radically diminished since the days of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall and was barely measurable in 2020.)
There are always people who believe elections are fraudulent and that the government of the United States is illegitimate. (See Timothy McVeigh and the long history of American militias.)
What is different today is that at no point in living memory has the defeated president of the United States, along with the majority of his party, proclaimed that a national election was fraudulent and that the incoming president is illegitimate. In all prior instances, they did exactly the opposite: They testified to the legitimacy of the new government in an effort to tamp down the conspiratorial falsehoods which always exist in small numbers.
Today, the president and his party are the wellspring of these falsehoods.
And here is the point which you must understand:
Nothing can get better in American politics until this lie is repudiated by the main body of the Republican party in the public square, with enough force and repetition that the majority of Republican voters cease to believe it.
Even if armed insurrection is not a weekly occurrence, a government cannot function when a third of the citizens believe it is literally, not rhetorically, illegitimate. It is not be possible to legislate or build consensus or even enforce the laws when you begin with a substantial minority who literally believe that the government is the product of a coup.
What the Republican party has done over the last two months is akin to having dropped polonium into America’s political groundwater.
And the radiation from their lie has poisoned everything.
Hey: Go set yourself an alarm for the livestream tonight. Right now. I’ll wait.
And if you join Bulwark+ now, you’ll get an email invite tonight before we go live.
2. Civil War
A couple months ago I linked to a bracing Mike Giglio story about militias in America. He has another great one and I want to talk about it. Here’s his lede:
I spent the last year talking with people from militant groups on the American right and always driving toward the same question: And then what? You’re armed and trained and linked up with your outfit. And then what? You’re ready to stand up to the leftist mob or defend Donald Trump from the inevitable attempt to steal the election. And then what? You’ll fight if you have to. OK, and then what?
I keep pushing down this path because in the end, it leads to war and I want to have a discussion about what that means. Because I hope that behind all the prepping and posturing from that side — and the level 11 hysteria that pervades America generally — we all realize that we’re comfortable and fat and free, and that real war means your house will get wrecked and your kids or your neighbor or the cashier you trade hellos with at your fully stocked supermarket will die. My fear is not that some people somewhere will start a real conflict intentionally, having first grappled with the consequences of that and thought it all through, but that they’ll keep taking that next step toward one without ever understanding what they’re really asking for.
Okay. So far, so bad. But then things take a turn for the even worse:
Not long after Kelly Loeffler announced on the Senate floor that, thanks to the riot, she’d changed her mind about challenging the election result, I received a flurry of texts about it from a Georgia militia leader named Justin Thayer. He’d run “security” at a Loeffler rally over the summer as the Senate’s wealthiest member pandered to pro-gun hard-liners during her failed campaign, but told me defiantly that he’d no longer be backing her.
He was at the Capitol but hadn’t gone inside because of the lack of planning; he said it could easily have turned into “a kill box.”
“So what’s next?”
“Pray and prepare for the 20th.”
“Any plans or just watching the inauguration on TV?”
“We will be there.” . . .
In October, I was talking with a longtime member of the militant movement who says he’s a veteran of the elite special operations community. This is an older but still formidable man has always been genial with me. We were talking about the upcoming election and his conviction that there would be massive fraud when he changed his tone and veered off into a very dark place. “What ultimately happens is some people stand with Trump and some people stand against the country. Some people stand with the coup, some people stand against the coup, and nobody stands with the law or morality at that point, and that’s where the war begins,” he said. “When we actually get involved, we’re going to kill Democrats, liberals, and communists at a rate that will defy anything that’s occurred in history, and when that happens, we’re going to make sure that it’s done so thoroughly that we don’t ever have to have this argument again. … It’s going to be so ugly and ruthless. … We’re going to go to the homes of the tank operators [who would be called in to put down an insurrection] and kill their wives and their children and nail them to the walls.”
I told him I didn’t believe him. I still don’t believe him. But I’ve been thinking about what he said. And I’ve been calling him since the election with no answer.
This is why the lie is what matters. These militias have been told—not just by Alex Jones, but by the president of the United States, and the Republican minority leader in the House, and hundreds of other “responsible” mainstream figures—that they are the good guys trying to preserve American democracy from an illegal coup.
3. Matt Levine
I don’t want to begrudge a man paternity leave, but I missed Matt Levine’s newsletter something fierce for all these months. Yesterday he gave us an instant classic, about people who have lost their Bitcoin passwords:
Here is a fact about me: I did not mine Bitcoin in the early days, so I do not now have thousands of Bitcoin that are now worth tens of millions of dollars, so I do not, for instance, own a $25 million plot of oceanfront land in Barbados, as one person in this article does (even after losing some of his Bitcoins). I admit that I occasionally envy the people who bought Bitcoin early for nothing and are now billionaires and retired. One thing that soothes this envy is reading about people who bought Bitcoin early for nothing and are now theoretical centimillionaires but lost their private keys and can’t access the money. I may have no Bitcoins, but at least I haven’t misplaced a fortune in Bitcoins. . . .
In recent years, as institutional investors have gotten more into cryptocurrency, a lot more attention has been paid to custody. This past December, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission put out a statement on custody of digital assets, laying out how broker-dealers should act when they are custodians of digital assets (like Bitcoin) for their customers. The guidance talks about things like deciding if the digital asset is a security and examining the asset’s blockchain to make sure it works well, but there is also a long paragraph about not losing the password. It’s a very important part of cryptocurrency custody, not losing the password.
The institutionalBitcoin market is moving in the direction of SEC-regulated custodians keeping track of funds’ Bitcoins for them. The retail Bitcoin market also involves a lot of trusted and increasingly regulated intermediaries; if you buy Bitcoin on Robinhood the thing to remember is your Robinhood password, not the private key to your Bitcoin wallet, which Robinhood holds for you. Of course there are Bitcoin futures and trusts, which are ways to get economic exposure to Bitcoin while letting someone else—hopefully someone responsible and regulated—remember the password for you. And there are proposals to go further, to issue depository receipts on Bitcoin that will essentially allow it to function like the current system for stocks: A big central financial intermediary can hold all the Bitcoins, and everyone can open an account with the intermediary, which will keep track of their Bitcoins for them.
The basic tension in Bitcoin is:
Bitcoin is at its core about rejecting the traditional financial system and replacing it with something different, something trustless and disintermediated. Instead of relying on banks to hold and transfer your money for you, your money lives on a blockchain and you have direct access to it.
But most of what actually happens with Bitcoin is about rediscovering financial history and re-creating the traditional financial system from scratch.