Since his election in 2016 Trump has been pushing false claims about voter fraud. After decisively losing the 2020 election, Trump and his supporters claimed widespread voter/election fraud and his legal team headed to court. While Fox News provided some support for the fraud claims, the network earned the ire of Trump and his supporters for not going all in and for some factual reporting. Fortunately for Trump, the right-wing media has been generally supportive of the unsupported claims of fraud.
Out of respect for Trump supporters I took their claims seriously and assumed they were honest in their claims and had laudable moral motivations. That is, they believed their claims of fraud and were motivated by a desire to ensure that the election was fair and secure. As such, I did what I would do when any professional colleague makes claims that seem implausible: I give them a reasonable chance to provide supporting evidence and endeavor to be objective and patient. In return, they do the same with my implausible claims.
As I write this, no evidence of widespread voter/election fraud has been provided. While Trump’s legal team has filed about 36 lawsuits, at least 25 have been denied, dismissed, settled or withdrawn. Interestingly, while Trump’s team makes claims about fraud in public, they do not make this claim in court. The reason is, of course, that they can lie in public but lies told in court come with consequences. As many others have noted, Trump’s legal team has had ample opportunity to present evidence in court—and have simply not done so. What remains of his team have made the claim that they do have amazing evidence, but they keep refusing to provide it. Even Tucker Carlson has grown frustrated with the promises to provide evidence tomorrow for claims made today. While Trump’s legal team has been publicly advancing unsupported conspiracy theories about election fraud, even they proved to have some limits. After Trump legal team member Sidney Powell started advancing a masterpiece of conspiracy that involved the CIA and the governor of Georgia working with Venezuelan communists to commit election fraud, she was officially disavowed.
While, as this is being written, Trump has not officially acknowledged Biden’s victory, the GSA has acknowledged the election results and the transition process has commenced. As such, Trump’s fight seems to be winding down as it began—without any evidence. So, what about Trump’s supporters?
Thanks to Hume’s problem of induction and the ancient skeptics one can endlessly doubt the results of the election—because one can endlessly doubt anything. But I suspect that few of his supporters will continue their doubt on these philosophical grounds—but the option is certainly there.
While some Republicans have acknowledged that the election is legitimate, many of Trump’s supporters are persisting in their unsupported claims about fraud. According to one poll, 88% of Trump supporters claim that Biden did not legitimately win the election. Another poll shows that 77% of Trump supporters profess to believe that Trump lost because of fraud. The general narrative is that there is “no way in hell” that Trump lost. In terms of where they go from here, history might afford some guidance.
During the Second Great Awakening William Miller, a Baptist preacher, predicted that Jesus would return, and the world would end in 1843 or 1844. Samuel Snow, one of his followers, calculated the date of Jesus’ return as October 22, 1844. Putting their faith in Miller, 50,000 Millerites awaited the arrival of Jesus—and many had given away their possessions. Jesus obviously did not arrive on that day and the world (such as it is) continued. Appropriately enough, this failure was dubbed the Great Disappointment. Miller was discredited and many of his followers left the movement. The same might happen with the election fraud movement—if no evidence is ever forthcoming for the alleged fraud and Trump leaves office, then Trump’s supporters might suffer from a Great Disappointment. In this case, many of them would stop professing belief in the claim about widespread voter fraud and they would move on, perhaps to some other conspiracy or perhaps into the mainstream. But there are alternatives.
While many religions do predict the end of days, clever clerics never specific a date. Miller’s error (made worse by Snow) was committing to a specific time and, worst of all, one not in the distant future. Those professing belief in widespread election fraud can (and are) avoiding this mistake by never promising a specific date on which their alleged evidence will be revealed—they want people to believe today based on evidence to be given tomorrow. And the evidence will always be given tomorrow. A problem with this approach is that the faithful can begin, as Tucker Carlsen has, to ask for the evidence. It then becomes a matter of how long the faithful will believe in the face of an inability to provide evidence that Trump and his team claim (in public) to have in abundance. While new conspiracy theories can be spun, the fabric must grow ever thinner and ever crazier. As the Powell case shows, there are limits even for Trump’s legal team.
When Trump leaves office it will be difficult for people to profess belief in widespread fraud. They will need to weave or accept a conspiracy theory that reconciles the claim that Trump and his team have conclusive proof of fraud and Trump leaving the White House. Presumably a conspiracy theory will be woven that explains this by claiming Trump is making a brilliant strategic move in which he leaves to plan his inevitable return—presumably bringing the Storm on his way back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This will allow the story to continue. If Trump eventually dies without returning to the White House, the story will presumably change to predict that his children will retake the White House and bring the Storm on the way. And so on. It might even become a new religion. Or perhaps it already is.