A study conducted soon after the November 3 election by Monmouth University revealed that 77% of Trump backers believed that the president lost due to fraud.¹ This despite any evidence or even one court decision to suggest that the outcome of the election was manipulated. The implication is that upwards of 57 million Trump voters likely believe the election was rigged. Regardless of the exact number, the results indicate that millions of people are angry, most feeling robbed.
I get being disappointed, even angry, following an election. I can empathize, given the number of losing presidential candidates I have supported over the years. What I find curious and, frankly, compelling, is why so many of the president’s supporters believe in their heart that the election was intentionally dishonest so as to prevent a second term. Accepting loss is one thing; clinging to the notion that planned and orchestrated malevolence was involved is quite another.
Why do so many people deny the outcome of the election? Are they aware that it has been called the “most secure in American history” by Christopher Krebs, director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of Homeland Security, a Trump appointee?² (Krebs was promptly fired by the president following his statement.) Do they know that Krebs’ pronouncement was supported by U.S. Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland, another Trump appointee? The commission he heads is responsible for testing and certifying voting machines and works closely with election officials throughout the country. He told CNN’s Erin Burnett last week that “those 80 million votes President-elect Biden has have been confirmed. They have been confirmed by the men and women who run our elections across the country.”³ By the way, many of those men and women are Republican.
Why do so many Trump supporters cling to the notion that their guy was denied a second term unjustly, despite dozens of Republicans winning down-ballot races throughout the country? Do they realize that the winning Republicans were on the same ballot as the president, even in states he lost?
Why do his supporters maintain a fervent belief in a rigged election when the courts have repeatedly rejected the president’s many lawsuits? Do they know that a recent loss, among more than 30, came last Friday in Pennsylvania? There, Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee, wrote, “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”⁴ Do they know that this was the third unsuccessful attempt by the Trump campaign to reverse the outcome of the Pennsylvania election? In its previous filing, Judge Matthew W. Brann, a Republican, wrote a scathing rebuke of the Trump campaign that it should have come to court “armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof” and should not have attempted “to haphazardly stitch together allegations like Frankenstein’s monster.”⁵ Do they also know that late last Saturday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a Republican-led attempt to invalidate mail-in ballots and prevent the certification of the state’s election outcome? The vote against the lawsuit was 7–0.⁶
Lastly, why do his supporters not trust Republicans and other officials Trump himself appointed to conduct fair elections? Krebs and Judge Bibas are Trump appointees. Judge Brann is a Republican. Georgia governor Brian Kemp and his Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, are both Republicans. What motivation might they have had to manipulate the vote in Biden’s favor in their state?
Does it matter to the president’s fans that no evidence of systematic wrong-doing has been presented? That no judge has been willing to grant the Trump campaign a day in court, given that their lawsuits offer no proof? That Republican officials have verified the efficacy of elections throughout the country?
Despite all of the information supporting the fairness of the recent election, and it is a lot, millions of Trump supporters remain passionate in their strongly-held belief that the election was rigged and that the president was wrongly denied a deserved win.
The question is why. Given the complexities and mysteries of human emotion and behavior, there is not likely one simple explanation. Even so, some possibilities include:
Many are unaware, uninformed. It takes time and energy to be a political wonk. It is not for everyone. It is possible that many supporters of the president who believe the election was stolen are simply uninformed of the many Trump appointees and Republicans involved in conducting the election and the absolute dearth of evidence to support claims of a rigged election.
Many believe the president and sympathetic members of the media. The president has been quite clear and consistent in his belief that the election was ‘stolen.’ He has yet to concede. Fox News, OAN, Rush Limbaugh and others have actively supported him. The lack of pushback from Republican elected officials in Washington and throughout the country adds credence to the president’s position.
Both possibilities are plausible explanations and may account for why a significant portion of the president’s base believes the election was rigged. Even so, a more likely psychologically-based hypothesis exists, one that may complete the puzzle.
Many may need to believe that evil was at play. Angry people need a reason to be angry. The more specific, the more personal, the better, as anger requires a great deal of energy. It is difficult to sustain the emotion long-term without good reason.
Let’s assume that millions were angry about the state of their lives and the state of the country before Trump came along. Let’s assume that this anger came from a powerlessness, a sense of having less than others, having been over-controlled and/or ripped off by the government, having things in their lives go from good to fair to poor to unacceptable. And a sense that the odds were purposefully stacked against them, explaining their lack of success, their unhappiness and their inability to change direction. Think loss. Think futility.
Let’s also assume that Trump was able to tap effectively into that anger and powerlessness — and magnify and strengthen it, given his penchant for fueling division. The president has a life-long history of pouring gasoline on small fires and building them to his advantage. He is a master arsonist. And millions of Americans were ready and eager to have the anger and powerlessness they harbor built into a bonfire. He gave them reasons to be angry. His actions validated their beliefs, possibly even their lives. Fox News and others did the same masterfully. Together, they gave purpose and focus to the anger and frustration millions feel.
Given this mindset, this orientation to life, it is not surprising that many channeled their anger and sense of powerlessness into the belief that the election was stolen. Of course it was!, they might think. We’ve been screwed before and we’re being screwed again. That’s what happens to people like us, people overlooked or forgotten. People who have worked a lifetime and have gotten nowhere. Proud people, people who have made this country great. We can’t continue to let them take our lives, this country and our president away from us. Enough! Or something to that effect.
Because here’s the real deal: feeling anger about being ripped off is often empowering. It gives strength and purpose to those who might otherwise feel powerless. Screaming about a rigged election, no doubt, feels good, feels empowering, is validating. It also protects one from the difficult truth that my guy, the president, lost. And I with him. For many, anger — fed by a belief, whether true or not, that the election was stolen — is a better option. Anything beats feeling powerless.
If the hypothesis is valid, facts will not matter. The number of Trump appointees and Republicans supporting the outcome of the election will not matter. The president could matter, but likely will not, since accepting the results of the election and conceding are not in his repertoire. What will matter is a fundamental shift in our approach to governing, one that is more inclusive, sensitive and responsive to the fears and frustrations millions in this country feel. Only then will we begin to dispel the anger caused by a long-held sense of powerlessness. Only then will we be able to begin to heal.