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Why The 'Big Lie' Persists And How It's Shaping Politics

Members of the National Guard and the Washington, D.C., police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Members of the National Guard and the Washington, D.C., police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The claim of “Democrats cheating” is being made by Republicans in this fall’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia as well as the midterm Senate races in Nevada and Pennsylvania.

A recent CNN poll finds 36% of Americans say they still don’t think President Biden legitimately won the election. But what gives this lie such staying power?

Michael Bender, senior White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal, explores this question in his new book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.”

During the 2020 campaign, Bender embedded with some of the most dedicated super fans of former President Donald Trump called “Front Row Joes” — supporters who stand in line for hours or even camp out before Trump rallies to secure a spot by the stage. Bender says he needed to get to know these enthusiastic supporters in order to understand the movement behind Trump.

The author attended dozens of rallies while covering both of Trump’s campaigns. During Trump’s second year in the White House, Bender says he realized many supporters were attending rallies over and over again despite the former president putting on “the same show.”

In searching for what made people so loyal to Trump, Bender says he met Front Row Joes who attended 50 or 60 rallies over the years and created a community for themselves.

Many of these supporters were drawn to Trump’s celebrity, Bender says, in a way that also persuaded a lot of them to vote for former President Barack Obama in 2008. The community of Trump super fans is mostly middle-class or poor Americans and recent retirees with a lot of free time.

“In a way, Trump made their lives bigger, their world’s bigger, made their lives richer,” Bender says.”

The book encapsulates Trump’s last 14 months in office, from the first to second impeachment trials. After Jan. 6, Trump’s statements put many of his supporters in legal jeopardy, the author says. More than 600 people have been charged with crimes connected to the insurrection at the Capitol.

“You see how the person they put their faith in here, Donald Trump, effectively misleads them over the course of the year, whether it’s COVID and then ultimately the results of the 2020 election,” Bender says, “to fatal results in some instances.”

One Front Row Joe named Ben Hirschmann was among the first Americans to die of COVID-19, Bender says. The 24-year-old collapsed in the living room of his parent’s home in Michigan and died. Bender took part in a memorial for Hirschmann where other Trump fans told each other to stay safe and prayed for Americans living in COVID-19 hotspots.

But Trump went on to blame Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for locking down the state, prompting his supporters to turn against her and blame her for Hirschmann’s death, Bender says.

In the book, Bender dives into the case of Trump’s “,” Randall Thom.

“Randall gets so sick in 2020 but he will not go to the hospital. He’s convinced he has COVID, but he doesn’t want to add to the numbers on Trump’s watch,” Bender says. “I’m talking about even getting tested at all. This was the kind of loyalty that Trump inspired.”

Despite the ramifications of Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, the former president continues to draw thousands out to rallies in places like Ohio and Alabama. Tens of thousands of supporters came out to a rally in Florida in July, Bender says.

Understanding why people have such a strong allegiance to Trump “is not just a pressing question for Republicans heading into the midterms here, but for the rest of the country,” Bender says.

“These are some of the first people who identified the resonance of Trump’s political message,” Bender says. “They were right. And the rest of us were wrong.”

In 2020, Trump changed his supporters’ lives again when he turned on Fox News for calling the election, Bender says. The author spent time with a woman named Saundra Kiczenski, who turned off Fox after years of constant watching as soon as Trump turned on the network.

Kiczenski then started getting information primarily from Facebook and turned on former Vice President Mike Pence to maintain her loyalty to Trump, Bender says. That’s how the narrative that Biden isn’t the legitimate president endures, he says.

“Leaders in the Republican Party know Trump did not win the election in 2020,” Bender says. “But they think he’s onto something by using election security as a way to motivate the base heading into 2022.”

The book explores the human side of people’s loyalty to Trump in a way that’s akin to sports fans.

“I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. I cannot explain why I watched almost every game a few years ago when they lost all 16 games they played,” Bender says. “Whether it’s a sports allegiance or I’ve had people describe similarities to, like the following for Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead, it’s more about the person or the players.”

A self-sustaining community forms around these unexplainable loyalties, he says. Bender wanted his book to explain the human reasons why Americans are sleeping on the pavement outside arenas to get into the front row of a free political rally.

Whether these Trump loyalists can continue to influence politics going forward is the million-dollar question, Bender says.

Trump’s team started the paperwork for his reflection campaign on Inauguration Day in 2017 and the former president restarted his campaign-style rallies within days of entering the White House, Bender says.

“He spent four years running for reelection by talking about a victory in 2016 and he lost,” Bender says. “So how does the party expect to win by talking about a defeat for the next two years or potentially the next four?”

Republican candidates will need to answer this question in 2022, he says. Candidates are offering different versions of Trumpism to appeal to his base and explaining his loss in different ways.

“[Candidates are] going to have to figure out a way to offer some sort of forward-looking vision,” he says, “but at the same time, not running afoul of the most influential Republican in the party who is insisting that the 2020 election fraud is the single most important issue heading into the midterms.”


 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 


Book Excerpt: ‘Frankly, We Did Win This Election’

By Michael Bender

Introduction

Armed Secret Service agents guarded the secret hideaway inside the U.S. Capitol, where the vice president sheltered with his wife and eldest daughter. A swarm of rioters just outside the room had smashed windows and busted through doors, and now prowled across the waxed sandstone floors beneath the iconic cast-iron dome. It was January 6, 2021, and the symbolic heart of the world’s longest-standing democracy was under siege for the first time since the War of 1812. But instead of British troops in red coats, the insurrection was led by an American mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters— and they wanted his running mate’s head.

Vice President Mike Pence’s offense: He had dared to defy Trump’s order to violate the U.S. Constitution in an attempt to overturn the results of the November election. The frenzied crowd had already overrun the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department. Now, Pence’s life— and the safety of just about everyone else in the Capitol that day— rested in the hands of the National Guard.

“I want them down here— and I want them down here now,” Pence firmly instructed during a private phone call with the nation’s top military and defense officials gathered at the Pentagon.

As this book chronicles, the storming of the Capitol was the culmination of one of the nation’s most intense and unnerving election cycles, one that tested the foundation of our democratic principles. I initially set out to write a traditional campaign book that would tell the story of how Trump marketed himself to a second term, or how the same traits that lifted him to victory in 2016 imperiled his reelection just four years later. I envisioned this as a deep look at cutting-edge electioneering techniques heading into the quarter mark of the twenty- first century. I anticipated explaining what those tactics told us about the cultural and socioeconomic dynamics that coursed through our politics. I wanted to document the political phenomenon of the Trump mega- rally— from the behind-the-scenes staging to the campaign’s collection of personal data from attendees to the motivations of the president’s supporters who waited for days outside arenas until he arrived.

But like nearly everything with Trump, there was nothing traditional about this campaign— and the story that revealed itself was far more chaotic and complicated. Without warning, a once-in-a-century pandemic forced millions of Americans to stop commuting to work, log into Zoom, and stay away from shops, restaurants, and even extended family members to avoid a mysterious and uncharted contagion. The electoral kinetics shifted just as quickly and significantly. Trump’s reelection bid suddenly hinged more on his response from inside the White House to a complex global health crisis than on how his top political operatives would promote his past successes from campaign headquarters across the Potomac River. My expectations changed, too. Instead of spending the year on the campaign trail with the candidate I’d covered for five years, attending rallies produced by members of his team I’d known for just as long, I only occasionally left my house once pandemic lock-downs started in March 2020.

The result is the story of the final year of Trump’s presidency, which opens with his historic first impeachment in December 2019 and extends just beyond his unprecedented second impeachment fourteen months later. It’s informed by hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 150 members of Trump’s White House, Cabinet, and campaign, as well as friends and outside advisers— and also by my own occasional run-ins, phone calls, and one-on-one interviews with Trump. I traveled to Florida twice after the election, where Trump welcomed me to his Mar-a-Lago resort for a pair of lengthy discussions about the campaign.

Together these accounts reveal the calculations behind the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic; explain why top lieutenants in Trump World remained in a constant revolving door between exile and repatriation; offer inside-the-room details of the intense battles between Trump and his military advisers over whether to unleash soldiers on civil rights protests in the streets of American cities; and show how Trump spent more than twice as much money on a losing campaign as he had on a winning one. I also spent time with an eclectic group of Trump superfans who regularly slept outside for days to secure their place in the front row of his mega- rallies, and whose stories of how Trump changed their lives help explain his enduring appeal to his base.

The heart of the story, of course, is President Trump himself, whom I covered for the Wall Street Journal during the 2016 election, during all four years at the White House, and during the 2020 campaign. As part of my job for the newspaper, I’ve interviewed Trump inside his corporate office in Trump Tower, on Air Force One, and one-on-one in the Oval Office. Trump has praised my wavy hair as being worthy of a job in his administration. And he has complained about my reporting to my elementary-school-age daughter.

Many of my Trump World sources shared their firsthand accounts, internal campaign documents, text messages, emails, and calendars to help recon-struct critical moments during the campaign. Some spoke for the opportunity to share what they had witnessed from their front-row seat to history. Others spoke for protective purposes, concerned that if they didn’t tell their story, someone else would. And others still spoke for cathartic and almost therapeutic reasons, eager to try to process the surreal whirlwind through which they had just lived. Many spoke only on the condition of deep background, an agreement that meant I could share their stories without direct attribution.

I agreed to those conditions because my motivation to write this book was the same that compelled many of my sources to speak with me. I have had a remarkable opportunity to watch an astonishing chapter of our history unfurl, and I’ve been humbled by the chance I’ve had to speak regularly with the people who shaped it— and were shaped by it. I hope this book adds to our understanding of the people and events that have forever impacted our lives.


Excerpted from FRANKLY WE DID WIN THIS ELECTION: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost ©2021 Michael C. Bender and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.