Donald Trump and the Lie

Donald Trump and the Lie

By Kevin Arceneaux, Center for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris and Rory Truex, Princeton University

The legitimacy of democratically elected governments rests in part on widespread acceptance of the outcome of elections, especially among those who lost. This “losers’ consent” allows the winners to govern, and when the incumbent is the losing party, it allows for a peaceful transition of power. What happens in a democratic system when one side not only refuses to concede but also actively perpetuates lies about the outcome? This article studies the evolution of public opinion about Donald Trump’s “big lie” using a rolling cross-sectional daily tracking survey, yielding 40 days of polls and more than 20,000 responses from US voters from October 27, 2020, through January 29, 2021. We find that the lie is pervasive and sticky: the number of Republicans and independents saying that they believe the election was fraudulent is substantial, and this proportion did not change appreciably over time or shift after important political developments. Belief in the lie may have buoyed some of Trump supporters’ self-esteem. In reaction to the lie and the threat it brought to the transition of power, there was a significant rise in support for violent political activism among Democrats, which only waned after efforts to overturn the election clearly failed. Even if these findings merely reflect partisan cheerleading, we nonetheless find significant and potentially long-term consequences of the lie. A conjoint experiment shows that Republican voters reward politicians who perpetuate the lie, giving Republican candidates an incentive to continue to do so in the next electoral cycle. These findings raise concerns about the fragility of American democracy.


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