The Inside Joke That Became Trump’s Big Lie

Donald Trump’s so-called big lie is not big because of its brazen dishonesty or its widespread influence or its unyielding grip over the Republican Party. It is not even big because of its ambition — to delegitimize a presidency, disenfranchise millions of voters, clap back against reality. No, the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election has grown so powerful because it is yoked to an older deception, without which it could not survive: the idea that American politics is, in essence, a joke, and that it can be treated as such without consequence.

The big lie depends on the big joke. It was enabled by it. It was enhanced by it. It is sustained by it.

When politicians publicly defend positions they privately reject, they are telling the joke. When they give up on the challenge of governing the country for the rush of triggering the enemy, they are telling the joke. When they intone that they must address the very fears they have encouraged or manufactured among their constituents, they are telling the joke. When their off-the-record smirks signal that they don’t really mean what they just said or did, they are telling the joke. As the big lie spirals ever deeper into unreality, with the former president mixing election falsehoods with call-outs to violent, conspiratorial fantasies, the big joke has much to answer for.

Recent books like “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell” by a former Republican operative and campaign consultant, Tim Miller, and “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission” by The Atlantic’s Mark Leibovich place this long-running gag at the center of American politics. The big joke drains language of meaning, divorces action from responsibility and enables all manner of lies. “Getting the joke” means understanding that nothing you say need be true, that nobody expects it to be true — at least nobody in the know. “The truth of this scam, or ‘joke,’ was fully evident inside the club,” Leibovich writes. “We’re all friends here. Everyone knew the secret handshake, spoke the native language, and got the joke.”

Without the big joke, the big lie would not merit its adjective. Its challenge to democracy would be ephemeral, not existential.

The chroniclers of Donald Trump’s election lie typically seek out an origin story, a choose-your-own adventure that always leads to the Capitol steps on Jan. 6, 2021. In his book, “The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020,” Politico’s Jonathan Lemire pinpoints an August 2016 campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, during which Trump first suggested that the contest against Hillary Clinton would be rigged against him. This, Lemire writes, was when “the seeds of the big lie had been planted.”

Tim Alberta of The Atlantic starts six months earlier, when Trump accused Senator Ted Cruz of Texas of cheating in the Iowa caucuses. “That episode was a bright red, blinking light foreshadowing everything that was to come,” Alberta told PBS Frontline. In “The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party,” the Washington Post columnist (and my former colleague) Dana Milbank offers a far longer accumulation of lies from the right: The notion that Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved in the death of the White House lawyer Vince Foster, the illusions behind President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the birther concoctions, the death-panel ravings — all building toward the big one. “The G.O.P.’s quarter-century war on facts had come to this, a gargantuan fabrication aimed at discrediting democracy itself,” Milbank sums up. And Leibovich quotes Representative Adam Schiff’s view of how his House colleagues slowly submitted to Trump’s fantasies. “It’s one small lie, followed by a demand for a bigger lie and a bigger concession, a bigger moral lapse, until, you know, these folks that I admired and respected, because I believe that they believe what they were saying, had given themselves up so completely to Donald Trump.”

Such accounts reflect the common understanding that the big lie is really all the little lies we told along the way — a cycle of deceit and submission, culminating in a myth so powerful that it transcends belief and becomes a fully formed worldview. Lemire notes how Trump’s assertion that he had been wiretapped by President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign seemed like a pretty gargantuan lie at the time, one that Trump tweeted “without any evidence.” (Journalists love to note that the former president utters falsehoods “without evidence,” an adorable euphemism for “making stuff up.”) But even this one dissipates in the wake of the big lie. After “big,” the term “unprecedented” may be the election lie’s most common descriptor.

But it is not without precedent. After all, what was birtherism if not the same lie? Its underlying racism rendered the grotesque theory about Obama’s birthplace especially repugnant, but the basic assertion is familiar: that a president whom the American people lawfully chose is not legitimate, is something less than the real thing.

The 2020 election lie is not bigger than birtherism. History should not remember the effort to delegitimize Obama’s presidency as just another rung on the ladder toward the big lie. The lies are akin even in their power of persuasion. Leibovich recalls how in 2016, 72 percent of Republicans said they believed Trump’s lies about Obama’s background. This figure is comparable with the 71 percent of Republicans who said in late 2021 that they believed President Biden was not a fully legitimate president. And much as support for the 2020 election lie provides a loyalty test in the Trumpified Republican Party, a willingness to believe the worst of Obama was a near-requirement in the party during his presidency. “A testing ground for Republican squishiness was how strongly, and how bitterly, one opposed Obama,” the historian Nicole Hemmer recalls in her new book, “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” on the rise of the post-Reagan right. “To match the response of the party’s base, politicians would need to reflect the emotions gripping it.” And they did.

For Hemmer, the Republican Party’s evolution from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump began with Pat Buchanan, the White House aide, television pundit and authoritarian-curious presidential candidate who “fashioned grievance politics into an agenda,” she writes — a program that emphasized identity, immigration and race as its battlegrounds. For Milbank, it was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and the “savage politics he pioneered” in advance of the Republican Revolution of 1994. “There was nobody better at attacking, destroying, and undermining those in power,” Milbank writes. Gingrich made compromise a thought crime and labeled his opponents as sick and traitorous, tactics that should also sound familiar.

You needn’t pick between Buchanan and Gingrich — it’s enough to say that Buchanan gave the modern Republican Party its substance and Gingrich provided its style. (I imagine they’d both be honored by the distinctions.) When Trump dispatched his supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6, telling them to “fight like hell,” urging them to preserve a country that was slipping away, calling them patriots who could take back an election stolen by the radical left, he was channeling both men. The big lie is part of their legacy, too.

In his j’accuse-y yet semi-confessional “Why We Did It,” Miller, now a writer at large for the anti-Trump conservative forum The Bulwark, tries to grasp why his old colleagues followed Trump all the way to his rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6. “I needed to figure out where our parting had started,” he writes. Miller grasps the futility of seeking a single origin story — “I’m sure a student of history might be able to trace it back to the Southern Strategy or Lee Atwater or, hell, maybe even Mark Hanna (give him a Google),” Miller writes — but he does hazard some explanations. He points to Republicans’ ability to compartmentalize concerns about Trump. Their unquenchable compulsion to be in the mix. Their self-serving belief that they could channel dark arts for noble purposes. Their desire to make money. (Miller acknowledges his own paid work helping the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, a stint that makes Miller more of a Barely Trumper than a Never Trumper.) Most of all, his old colleagues succumbed to Trump because they believed they were playing “some big game devoid of real-world consequences.”

Miller lingers on this game — the amoral world of tactics, messaging and opposition research, the realm of politics where facts matter less than cleverness and nothing matters more than results. He once thought of it as winning the race, being a killer, just a dishonest buck for a dishonest day’s work. “Practitioners of politics could easily dismiss moralistic or technical concerns just by throwing down their trump card: ‘It’s all part of the Game,’” Miller writes. He has a nickname for the comrades so immersed in the game that they are oblivious to its consequences: the LOL Nothing Matters Republicans. “The LOLNMRs had decided that if someone like Trump could win, then everything that everyone does in politics is meaningless.”

The big lie thrives on LOL Nothing Matters.

What Miller calls “the game” becomes “the joke” in Leibovich’s book, the depressing tale of the high-level supplicants who surrounded Trump during his presidency and continue to grovel in what they hope will be an interregnum. If the purely transactional nature of Washington power was the subject of Leibovich’s 2013 best seller, “This Town,” the mix of mendacity and subservience behind every transaction is the theme of his latest work. Reince Priebus, during his incarnation as Republican National Committee chairman before his six-month sojourn as Trump’s White House chief of staff, explained to Leibovich that of course, he got the joke. “This was his way of reassuring me that he understood what was really happening beyond his surface niceties about unity, tolerance, grace, or the idea that Trump could ever ‘pivot,’” Leibovich writes. In other words, don’t take his words seriously. “He got the joke and knew that I did, too.”

The platonic ideal of the big joke was immortalized in The Washington Post the week after the 2020 election, uttered by an anonymous senior Republican official reflecting on Trump’s election claims. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change. He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20.” It was wrong in so many ways — the downside would prove enormous, the believers would become legion, the plotting was underway.

The big lie is that the election was stolen; the big joke is that you can prolong that lie without consequence. The former is a quest for undeserved power; the latter is an evasion of well-deserved responsibility.

Other renditions of the big joke were more subtle. A few days after the election, a reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if the State Department was preparing to work with the Biden team to facilitate a “smooth transition” of power. “There will be a smooth transition,” Pompeo responded, making the slightest of pauses before adding, “to a second Trump administration.” He then chuckled, a possible signal that he was aware of the truth, and that he“hoped that perhaps everyone understood his position,” Leibovich writes.

Pompeo got the big joke about the big lie. Yet the man charged with representing American values to the world still felt he had to tell both.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 Republican House members to vote in favor of Trump’s second impeachment, says the joke is well understood among his party colleagues. “For all but a handful of members, if you put them on truth serum, they knew that the election was fully legitimate and that Donald Trump was a joke,” Kinzinger told Leibovich. “The vast majority of people get the joke. I think Kevin McCarthy gets the joke. Lindsey gets the joke. The problem is that the joke isn’t even funny anymore.” Humoring Trump has grown humorless.

There was a time when even Trump grappled with the truth. Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as communications director in the Trump White House, told PBS’s “Frontline” that the president admitted defeat in the days after the election was called for Biden. “There was one moment where in this period he was watching Joe Biden on TV and says, ‘Can you believe I lost to this (blank) guy?’”

But what once may have sounded like a rhetorical lament — canyou believe I lost? — now seems like a challenge to anyone questioning the big lie. Can you believe I lost? There is only one acceptable answer. In his rally last weekend in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump reiterated his commitment to the lie. “I ran twice. I won twice,” he declared. For a moment, when bragging about how many more votes he won in 2020 than in 2016, the veil almost fell. “We got 12 million more and we lost,” Trump said, before recovering. “We didn’t lose,” he continued. “We lost in their imagination.” It was a classic Trumpian projection: The lie is true and the truth is fake.

The big lie appeared to crescendo on Jan. 6, 2021. The big joke, however, was retold during the early hours of Jan. 7, when the election results were certified, with 147 Republican lawmakers — more than half of the total — having voted to overturn them. As Milbank puts it, “once you’ve unhitched yourself from the truth wagon, there’s no limit to the places you can visit.” You can use exaggerated warnings of voter fraud to justify state-level initiatives tightening ballot access. (Lemire warns that the big lie has “metastasized” from a rallying cry into the “cold, methodical process of legislation.”) You can select election deniers to carry the party banner in midterm contests. And yes, you can visit the Capitol on the day the voters’ will is being affirmed, trash the place and tell yourself, as the Republican National Committee suggested, that you’re engaging in “legitimate political discourse.”

The R.N.C.’s statement, part of a resolution censuring Kinzinger and Representative Liz Cheney for participating in the House’s Jan. 6 investigation, seemed to rebrand the assault as an exercise in civic virtue. The R.N.C. soon backtracked, professing that the resolution had not endorsed the violence at the Capitol.

In a perverse sense, though, the R.N.C. was right. Not about the rioters, but about the discourse. Political debate has become so degraded that it includes every kind of offense, be it anonymous officials humoring the former president, QAnon conspiracists exalting him or frenzied die-hards perpetrating violence on his behalf. Together, the big joke and the big lie have turned the nation’s political life into a dark comedy, one staged for the benefit of aggrieved supporters who, imagining that the performance is real and acting on that belief, become its only punchline.

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