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The big news this week was a series of interviews that former attorney general William Barr did with Jonathan D. Karl of The Atlantic: Barr emphasized that former president Donald Trump’s claims that he had won the 2020 election were “bullshit.”
What is interesting about this is not the idea that Barr opposed Trump’s claim that he had won the election. In fact, shortly afterwards, Barr fed the Big Lie. A week after the 2020 election, he overturned Justice Department policy in order to investigate “substantial allegations” of vote irregularities that “could potentially impact the outcome” of the election.
Now he is saying that he took this unusual action because he knew Trump would ask him about allegations of fraud and he wanted to be able to say he had looked into them. But his stance fed the idea that Trump had been cheated of victory.
That Barr is trying to spin the past now is a good indicator of current politics. While we are still in a dangerous moment, the former president is losing ground, even with those who have supported him.
Trump’s Big Lie has a number of elements that echo the argument behind the emergence of the Confederate States of America (CSA) in 1861. Like the Confederacy, the Big Lie inspired followers by calling for them not to destroy the United States, but defend it. The insurrectionists of January 6, and those who continue to insist the election was stolen, do not think of themselves as domestic terrorists, but as patriots in the mold of Samuel Adams.
Look at what they said: “Today is 1776,” Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted on January 6.
The Confederates, too, believed they were defending America. In February 1861, even before Republican President Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, lawmakers for the CSA wrote their own constitution. It was remarkably similar to the United States Constitution—copied from it verbatim, in fact—except for three key changes that they believed made the original constitution better. These changes defended state’s rights, denied that the government could promote internal improvements, and prohibited any law that denied or impaired “the right of property in negro slaves.”
Confederate leaders convinced ordinary white men in thirteen southern states that defending the expansion of human enslavement would also defend the nation against the “radicals” who valued the principles of equality outlined in the Declaration of independence.
On the basis of that powerful patriotic spirit, Confederate leaders took their states out of the Union shortly after Lincoln was elected president, hurrying to secede while tempers were hot.
But once these politicians declared an insurrection, they found it hard to keep up enthusiasm for it. Confederate leaders approved the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 in part because popular interest in creating a new nation was fading. What had seemed exciting and inspiring in the holiday gatherings after the election seemed a little silly in the spring, when attention turned to planting. Sparking a crisis made sure that southern whites did not abandon the Confederacy. And, once the war had begun, white southerners were committed.
Wars are far easier to start than to stop.
Trump’s insurrection seems to be facing the same waning enthusiasm that Confederate leaders faced. Saturday night, at his first large rally since January 6, the former president spoke at Wellington, Ohio, about 35 miles west of Cleveland. While attendees responded to his complaints about the election, many left early. Today Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “there’s a growing recognition that this is a bit like [professional wrestling]. That it’s entertaining, but it’s not real. And I know people want to say, yeah, they believe in the ‘Big Lie’ in some cases, but I think people recognize that it’s a lot of show and bombast. But it’s going nowhere. The election is over. It was fair….let’s move on.”
Rather than inspiring continued resistance, Trump increasingly looks like President Richard M. Nixon, whose support eroded as more and more sordid information about his White House came to light. Exposés of the Trump White House recently have shown his cavalier approach to the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, and exposed his willingness to employ force against peaceful protesters in summer 2020.
Last week, news broke that the Manhattan district attorney is considering criminal charges against the Trump Organization—news that will likely hurt the organization’s ability to borrow money. Prosecutors have gave the Trump Organization’s lawyers until Monday afternoon to finish their arguments about why the organization should not be charged: reports the following day suggest that they failed, although Trump himself will not be indicted.
Yet. We know a special grand jury is set to meet three times a week until November, suggesting that more information may be forthcoming.
And the ground seems to be giving way under the Big Lie, as well. Last week, the Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee threw out claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election and reiterated the fact that President Joe Biden won fairly. A Georgia judge threw out most of the lawsuit calling for another inspection of ballots from Fulton County. And a New York court suspended Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guiliani from practicing law after it concluded that Giuliani made “demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection in 2020.”
As the idea that the January 6 insurrectionists were not terrorists but patriots has become more and more far-fetched, the radical right has become more and more outrageous. Last week, for example, a contributor to the right-wing conspiracy network OAN repeated the lie that “voter fraud” undermined the 2020 election, and then suggested that those “involved in these efforts to undermine the election” deserve “execution.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that the House will be organizing a select committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection, and trials for the January 6 insurrectionists will be starting soon. Those trials will likely highlight the belief of the rioters that they were following the lead of then-president Trump to protect the country.
But, rather than looking like heroic patriots, Trump followers increasingly look like dupes. Barr’s effort to rewrite his actions is a good indication of which way he thinks the wind is blowing. When he left office shortly before the election, he wrote a glowing letter to his former boss promising to update him “on the Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued,” and promoting the rhetoric of those pushing the Big Lie: “At a time when the country is so deeply divided, it is incumbent on all levels of government, and all agencies acting within their purview, to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome.”
Today’s article told a different story: “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.