The Made-Up Conspiracy

A Republican bid to deny Biden's victory is another worrying Trumpist disinformation ploy

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is leading a group of 11 Republicans who want to stop certification of the presidential results. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

When Republican senators attempt to block congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential victory this week, they will not succeed in reversing the outcome of the election. What they will achieve, however, is no mere stunt.

For four years, President Trump has made Russian-style “firehose of falsehood” disinformation tactics a staple of his governance. After the election, he and his allies have taken those tactics to a new level, deploying lies and lawsuits to convince tens of millions of Americans, and half of all Republicans, that the election was rigged. Having turned courts into propaganda channels, they will do the same to Congress on Wednesday, using the final stage of the presidential-selection process—the heart of America’s constitutional order—as a disinformation platform.

The electoral-vote count is normally just a ritual. But, as rituals go, it is an important one. By confirming the results, federal elected officials of both parties join in bestowing legitimacy on the incoming president. In 2001, Al Gore—in the vice president’s constitutional role as president of the Senate—presided over certification of his own loss to George W. Bush. In 2017, Vice President Biden gaveled down Democrats’ objections to Trump’s victory. “It is over,” he declared. In both cases, they signaled to the country that the election had been decided, and the result was authoritative.

For an objection to the election results to succeed, both houses of Congress must vote to uphold it. In 2021, there is no chance that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will overturn Biden’s decisive electoral-college victory, flout his 7-million-vote margin, trample the considered judgments of state and local officials of both parties, nullify dozens of court rulings, and disenfranchise the people of multiple states. Biden’s ascent to the presidency is assured.

So why would some Republicans lead a kamikaze mission against U.S. democracy?

Some congressional Republicans may actually believe that Biden somehow stole the election, with the help of a sprawling and secretive conspiracy involving many Republican and Democratic officials in multiple states, plus state courts and federal courts and the Supreme Court and voting machines and possibly a dead Venezuelan dictator. More likely, Republican politicians are pandering to pressure from their base and conservative media.

Above all, the Republicans’ challenge is part of an information-warfare campaign. They are using a classic propaganda tactic that might be called “conspiracy bootstrapping.” First, you introduce a false idea, spreading it by every available means. Then, once people are talking about it, and some believe it, you cite its prevalence as evidence that it might be true—an epistemic sleight-of-hand by which propaganda validates itself.

This tactic is evident in a statement that 11 Republican senators issued Saturday, explaining why they intended to reject the electoral college counts of several states that Biden won, and to demand an “Electoral Commission to conduct an emergency 10-day audit.” The senators did not, and could not, point to any allegations of fraud that were credible, were large enough to affect the election outcome, and had not already been aired, examined and rejected by the proper authorities. In other words, the senators could not justify their actions by saying that the allegations were true. Instead they relied on the claim that the allegations were widespread.

The political scholars Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum describe this approach in their important 2019 book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Traditional conspiracy theories—claims about staged moon landings or silent mind control—tend to be grand and elaborate, sometimes comically so, weaving tangled narratives that purport to explain everything. The new conspiracism, by contrast, offers no proofs, evidence or theory.

It “dispenses with the burden of explanation,” write Muirhead and Rosenblum, and it does not necessarily try to be convincing. Rather, it foments confusion, disorientation, cynicism and division. It levels accusations, observes which get traction, then uses their popularity to justify the claim that they might be true. It thus “substitutes social validation for scientific validation: If a lot of people are saying it, to use Trump’s signature phrase, then it is true enough.”

Trump is a master of this tactic. The “birther” conspiracy theory, which held that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and thus was not legally the president, was Trump’s route into national politics. Once in office, he repeated and amplified conspiracy theories, no matter how ludicrous or vicious. If many people entertained a notion, he suggested, it should be looked into because—who knows?—it might be true, it probably is true, and anyway you can’t disprove it.

That is the technique that the 11 senators are deploying in their demand that Congress reconsider the election results. “By any measure, the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election exceed any in our lifetimes,” they write. “They are widespread.” Note the words that I italicized. People are repeating allegations, many believe them, so they might be true.

Lies are thus self-validating, and there is no end to the hall of mirrors. If Congress’s “emergency audit” were to occur and find no fraud, Trump would claim that it, too, had been rigged. His supporters would repeat and amplify his claim, and this would be cited as evidence of its credibility. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The senators assure us piously that, by calling for a special investigation, they are acting “to do everything we can to restore faith in our Democracy.” They are doing nothing of the kind. The new conspiracism has no interest in establishing the truth. “Its product is delegitimation,” Muirhead and Rosenblum write. The real message is that everyone who acknowledges Trump’s defeat is untrustworthy, unreliable and fraudulent: the media, the courts, the experts, the states, Congress, the Democrats and, for that matter, many Republicans.

For Trump and his allies in Congress, bootstrapping propaganda into a demand for investigation will not change the election’s result. But it may serve the overriding purpose of reducing institutional and public resistance to their future political machinations, whatever those might be.

Disinformation tactics like “conspiracy bootstrapping” have been in common use by demagogues and dictators for a long time because they work. They are challenging for democracies to counter. Our system relies on elected officials to buffer disinformation, not amplify it—especially when they are conducting their most solemn and important constitutional duty. This week, many influential Republicans seem set on taking another unprecedented step toward normalizing the use of Russian-style disinformation in U.S. politics. In that lamentable respect, we are all Russians now.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, comes out in June.