Written by Zack Linly
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Jan. 10, 2023
I’m not sure we talk enough about the sheer ridiculousness of what Donald Trump tried to pull off at the end of the “South Park” outtake episode that was his abysmal presidency. I mean, we talk about how criminal it was, and how shameful, but I don’t know if we’ve ever collectively sat down to appreciate the absurdity of it all.
Think about it: In the 21st century, a sitting president of the United States responded to losing his bid for reelection by throwing an extended and very public temper tantrum and embarking on possibly the most transparent propaganda campaign in modern politics.
The idea that the election had been rigged — that voting machines had been programmed to abracadabra Trump votes into Biden votes; that dead people were being registered to vote blue in masses the size of zombie herds from “The Walking Dead” — was allowed to persevere despite the fact that it had no validity.
Dozens of judges across lower courts, appellate courts and the Supreme Court joined the former head of election cybersecurity, Trump’s own attorney general and the Department of Justice in saying clearly and unmistakably that there was no evidence of a rigged election.
Trump put forward not just a lie, but a stupid and obvious lie, a silly lie that should have been dismissed as easily as though a toddler were trying to convince his mother that his father said he could have an extra cookie. (In fact, that serves as a fairly close analogy for what Trump actually tried to do.)
And yet, at least 253 key political leaders across red-state America believed or pretended to believe the lie, and 147 Republican legislators voted to overturn a legal election based on the lie. White conservatives rioted at the U.S. Capitol over that lie (and then tried to lie and say antifa did it).
Understand: If a Black Lives Matter protester, or a member of an Islamic organization, did so much as park in a “no parking” zone half a block away from a street that was slightly adjacent to the street the U.S. Capitol is on while Trump votes were being certified, MAGA America would’ve been ready to declare war against foreign invaders and/or domestic terrorism. No one attacks a government building during a national exercise of democracy unless they hate America, right?
Yet in January 2021, hundreds, maybe thousands of so-called patriots abandoned that principle and instead became insurrectionists, all because they wanted their orangey-white nationalist cult leader to be able to continue getting his rotten tangelo-flavored honey Cheetos-dust all over the Oval Office furniture.
The “big lie” pushed by the president of the United States inspired a domestic attack at the U.S. Capitol. It didn’t work; Trump’s lie didn’t earn him a second term. But it does appear to be one of a number of events that have normalized the political practice of repeating a lie enough times to obfuscate an obvious truth.
And now, Republicans have gone full-scheme-ahead in spreading GOPropaganda, having seen that they can repeat any old lie over and over until it’s at least widely entertained as true.
Do we really ever challenge Republican legislators and elected officials to offer proof that “critical race theory” is teaching white kids to hate themselves, hate America and take personal responsibility for the transatlantic slave trade? Oh, we’ll call them all kinds of racists, white supremacists and Diet KKK members for it, but are these officials ever seriously asked to buckle down and cite more than anecdotal evidence that this approach to historical scholarship is even being taught idly in K-12 schools?
In October, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got into a political dust-up against Democratic gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist. During a debate, DeSantis, as usual, pretended CRT was a demogorgon from “Stranger Things” sent to pull white children into the reverse-racism Upside Down.
“I’m proud of our history. I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country,” DeSantis said. “I don’t want to teach kids to hate each other — and the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
DeSantis went on to claim there were programs “around the country” where “they will take a student, look at their race, say ‘OK, you’re white, you’re an oppressor...’”
A few people in the audience jeered at him, but DeSantis was comfortable making that preposterous claim, because he knows he’ll never really be compelled to cite a single example of a school that’s running “Scared Straight” episodes for white kids who may or may not have the ghosts of enslaved people hanging from the branches of their family trees. And none of this stopped DeSantis from handily beating Crist for a second term.
During his run for U.S. senator from Georgia, Herschel Walker was able to whip out a police badge that looks like it was purchased with Chuck E. Cheese arcade tickets. So of course DeSantis can claim white students across America are being persecuted by woke supremacists without having to substantiate the claim with evidence, let alone proof.
White conservatives are seething reading this, wanting desperately to claim that progressives have also repeated lies and pushed propaganda regarding systemic racism and white supremacy in America. But those “narratives” are supported by data.
It’s statistically true that the average Black American family’s net worth is about 10% of that of the average white American family. It’s statistically true that Black men are given 20% longer sentences than white men who commit the same crime and have the same criminal history. It’s statistically true that White Americans use and sell drugs more often than Black Americans, but Black people are arrested on drug charges at far higher rates than our white counterparts. It’s statistically true that the average non-white school district receives $2,226 less per student than a majority-white school district. Data shows that Black people are more likely to be stopped by police. Data shows evidence of racial segregation in homeownership. Data shows that white people account for about 60% of America’s population but make up at least 77% of Congress. Data shows that every single state legislature in America is disproportionately white.
These are just a few examples that support the concepts of white supremacy and systemic racism. And if you think it’s simply a huge coincidence that the group of people who stay on the losing end of virtually all racial disparities just so happen to be the same racial group who suffered slavery followed by Reconstruction followed by decades of legally sanctioned segregation and hatred — then an inability to see through an often-repeated lie isn’t really your core issue. Your problem is much simpler than that. You’re just racist.
Meanwhile, there is no unimpeachable data that shows evidence of widespread voter fraud. Instead, virtually every study has shown that voter fraud in America is extremely rare. Yet Republican legislators across the country are proposing and passing voter suppression laws under the pretext of securing elections they haven’t proven need securing.
There’s also no statistical evidence to suggest that the world of K-12 education has become DeSantis’ dystopian nightmare, where critical race theory is lining white kids up against a wall and bopping them upside the head with a giant foam finger that reads “YOU’RE AN OPPRESSOR!” And yet Republican legislators keep pushing anti-CRT laws without demonstrating that they know the first thing about CRT.
Remember when Barack Obama felt compelled to show two forms of his birth certificate to combat lies that he was ineligible to be president? The birther lie was obviously based on racist nonsense that had more to do with him being a brown person with a foreign-sounding name than anything else. But enough people believed it, and as a sitting president, he felt he had to address it.
Meanwhile, not enough people were asking the much simpler question: Is the electoral process of the so-called best country in the world so flawed that there aren’t safeguards to ensure the person elected president is actually eligible to be president?
Obama wasn’t just the first Black president. He was the first president who was obligated to prove he was president, even after he was sworn in as president.
And to think, the fiercest cheerleader for the birther lie became president after Obama, and he spent four years lying incessantly while shouting “fake news” from every mountaintop he could find — with the entire right-wing world serving as his eternal echo.
We legitimize dishonesty when we treat demonstrable lies like they’re worthy of the same consideration as the demonstrable truth. It’s arguable that the very future of democracy hinges on the answer to a simple question:
What happened to the truth?
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Herschel Walker ran for Georgia governor. He ran for U.S. Senate.