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The question of why a Republican majority believes that the 2020 presidential election was compromised by voter fraud, and that Joe Biden’s Presidency is illegitimate, has captured the attention of political commentators. Their preoccupation is hardly surprising. The continuing inquiry into insurrection on January 6, 2021, the Republican National Committee’s categorization of that violent event as “legitimate political discourse,” and Donald Trump’s unprecedented refusal to concede fed a misperception that will surely have long-term, if as yet unknown, consequences for American political life.
Few of these commentators, however, explore the nature of belief and its relationship to truth. Belief is a category of both thought and feeling. What we believe overlaps, but is not identical with what we know to be true. Truths are understandings that we hold in common with others, including those not at all like us, whereas beliefs are often more grounded in particular experiences and worldviews. Truths are those ideas that we accept as factual but about which we are ultimately indifferent; beliefs are ideas we endorse that have a personal bearing on our lives, the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and our place in larger social systems.
Truths can be verified, but beliefs cannot. If a truth cannot be verified by some form of empirical analysis, it is almost by definition, not true. In contrast, belief does not demand verification. Beliefs are conjectural because they are abstract. As importantly, beliefs often flourish where verifiable claims are absent. People do not believe in God because evidence of a divine being can be empirically proven, but their beliefs powerfully shape their interpretations of the world. For example, one person may see a face in the bark of a tree, and another may not, but when the person who sees the face determines that it is the face of Jesus, their interpretive faculties have been given over to belief.
Ironically, however, empiricism can undermine truth when it produces insufficient, or even inaccurate, evidence. In the Manuscript Notebook for A Vision of the Last Judgement, the great English Romantic poet William Blake mocked faith in empiricism. “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?” he wrote. “O no, no, I see an unnumerable company of the heavenly host crying, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Who was to say, Blake implied, that the religious visionary had less insight into the sun than the naked eye of the empiricist? Yet here, belief also plays a role. We might recall the member of the Heaven’s Gate cult who, in the 1990s, bought a telescope to discern a spaceship in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet by which devotees were promised transportation to heaven after a mass suicide. When the cult member did not see the spaceship, he returned it to the store for a refund.
Belief keeps close company with faith, which serves as an imaginative bridge between things as they are and as they might one day be. This cult member’s religious belief was, if perhaps delusional, hopeful, as many beliefs are. When fans believe in a sports team, they express hope that the team will win, a belief that can fly in the face of statistical facts compiled during the season.
Like imagination, the ability to believe—in people, institutions, ideas, gods—seems to be hardwired in humans. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders an elderly female pawn broker for reasons that seem to have less to do with her money—Raskolnikov never even opens the purse of rubles that he steals after killing her—than his desire to confirm a belief that extraordinary people such as himself are not bound by the moral laws that govern the rest of humanity. And his failure does not dim his reliance on belief. Raskolnikov ultimately confesses because he recognizes that only penance will allow him to clear his conscience, renouncing his original Nietzschean amoralism for a Christian ethos, and exchanging one set of beliefs for another.
Dostoyevsky suggests in this way that a life free of beliefs is ultimately impossible, but we also might observe that beliefs that are widely held are more powerful and actionable than others. When our own beliefs are also shared by others, it can deepen our personal relationship to them. As René Girard articulated in his theory of mimetic desire, belief can also be mimetic: we believe in what we believe that others believe, especially those who are a part of our clan, community, or social network. Strongly held beliefs—religious, political, moral—are also often inherited. We honor our ancestors, not by elevating facts about them, but by adopting their beliefs.
So how do we use these ideas to untangle the power of the “rigged” election narrative over the Republican mind?
Any attempt to address this question must first note its mimetic nature. Donald Trump declared, before election day, that illegal voting was occurring even before he declared the election to be “a fraud on the American public.” Because Trump told his base weeks in advance that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” a pronouncement that proliferated on social media, his supporters would have been surprised had Trump not cried foul after Joseph Biden was declared the winner.
Republican voters were also predisposed to accept these claims because of a larger system of belief: their intense skepticism about government and mainstream media “elites,” fueled by an over-hyped investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. Republican skeptics may have also recalled that many of these news organizations had also confidently predicted that Hillary Clinton would win in 2016, a prediction that turned out to be factually untrue.
Long before the election, these beliefs—that the government is corrupt, the media politically biased, and voter fraud is rampant—became intertwined, and reinforced, by other agents of mimesis: conservative media outlets and other Republican politicians. For example, that Trump could only be beaten in a compromised election was a form of faith that the Republican National Committee legitimated by remaining silent when, without any evidence, Trump accused Texas Senator Ted Cruz of cheating after he won the 2016 Iowa Caucus. Trump’s unrestrained, and unrebuked, personal attacks on judges who ruled against him in legal proceedings also undermined Republican voters’ trust in the judicial system that would go on to dismiss all of his post-2020 election lawsuits as frivolous and without merit.
But how have Republican office holders ignored a crucial contradiction of fact: that they ran, and won, on the same 2020 ballot, including in states where Biden was declared the winner?
Again, we can look to the power of belief: extremist politicians on the political right see any election won by a Democrat as invalid because by definition Democrats lack the legitimacy to hold public office, and thus, their voters lack legitimacy too. Significantly, Republican accusations of wide-scale voter fraud also accrue almost exclusively around black and brown populations, whose votes have historically been portrayed as a fraud committed against (white) America. Here we see the lingering ghost of a fact: the three fifths compromise, which allowed slaves to be fractionally counted as citizens for the purposes of taxation and representation in Congress, written into the original US Constitution.
This too is mimetic. Today, Republicans continue to target legitimately elected representatives of Black and brown constituencies as interlopers and imposters. When pro-Trump Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert suggested that Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar was a terrorist, she labeled Omar not just a political adversary, but an enemy of the state. From the perspective of those who believe in the pluralistic nature of our democratic society, this belief is outlandish, but to those who reject that order, or who never believed in it in the first place, it is easily believable. Similarly, it is no surprise that voters who coalesced around Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama’s American birth—and thus his legitimacy as President—also doubt the legitimacy of a President whose running mate was a Black woman.
Some social scientists caution against putting too much faith in surveys that document Republicans’ belief that the 2020 Presidential election was compromised. After all, many eccentric beliefs widely circulate among our populace: e.g., UFOs, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, and the death of Little Mikey from simultaneously consuming Pop Rocks and Coke. Doubts expressed to pollsters about the integrity of the election, they argue, are not real beliefs but gaslighting by Trump’s supporters that signals solidarity rather than delusion.
But isn’t this a false distinction? Expressing a belief in solidarity does not necessarily invalidate that belief or mitigate its mimetic power. Much like the red MAGA hat or the slogan “Go Brandon,” a euphemism for “fuck Biden” that originated among NASCAR fans, questioning President Biden’s legitimacy binds the community of Trump supporters together and denigrates outsiders. Publicly performing this chant suggests that the belief in a stolen election has passed beyond a truth regime and into the more powerful realm of myth and ritual in which facts no longer matter.
Obsessively repeated, the belief that the 2020 election was illegitimate has also passed beyond the realm of fact to become the defining myth of MAGA nation’s political, ethnic, and spiritual identity. The perpetuation of what historically minded observers, recalling German denialism about the true causes of defeat in World War I, have deemed the “big lie,” now includes the belief that those who participated in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were patriots defending democracy rather than insurrectionists overturning it.
Many Republican office holders know that Trump lost the election fair and square, yet they cynically perpetuate the stolen election myth owing to its power to motivate the Trump base and raise campaign funds. Perhaps, among Republican elites, only the former president actually believes that the election was “rigged.” Yet this grandiose self-image was also mimetic in its origins, reinforced by the flattery of Fox News, which Trump watched compulsively during his Presidency, and before that, the tabloid press. How could he be defeated by a “loser” like Biden except by fraud?
Trump’s supporters came to know and believe in him through these stories as he knew and believed in himself: as the supposedly successful business titan in “The Apprentice,” a show that neglected to inform its viewers that Trump had inherited most of his wealth and undergone numerous bankruptcies. Even without knowing these things, an observant viewer should have perceived “The Apprentice” as capitalist camp. But many didn’t, and the ease with which so many Republicans suspended disbelief about Trump in 2016 speaks volumes about their need to believe in something. Representing himself as having descended from on high—the escalator of Trump Tower—Trump claimed not to look down on his followers. In this symbiotic belief system, Trump supporters lived vicariously through his absolute power and freedom, and he reflected their resentment of the elites.
The widespread belief in a stolen election among Republicans is, in some sense, only an extension of a continued belief in Trump himself that has become a kind of faith, with hope for a restoration dangled before them. Because of this, we should not expect it to wane anytime soon.
Furthermore, whether it takes the form of a cult or a religion, faith demands sacrifice: the insurrection on January 6 represents the first chapter of that, but not the last. How MAGA nation responds should they, once more, be called upon to rise up against elites should be a matter of serious concern, particularly as Trump appears is increasingly threatened by criminal and civil litigation connected to his attempt to steal the election. Recently, Trump told his supporters that he wanted them to gather against prosecutors in New York and Atlanta in “the biggest protests we have ever had.” But will they? When cult leader Jim Jones commanded his followers to commit “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide, many did. But others didn’t; they hid under their beds or in ditches and knew in their hearts that some beliefs are simply . . . beyond belief.
Peter Nohrnberg is a poet and a scholar of literary modernism. His poem “Pantoum After a School Shooting” won second place in the 2020 Morton Marr Poetry Prize competition and appears in the most recent issue of Southwest Review.