They believe in Trump’s ‘Big Lie.’ Here’s why it’s been so hard to dispel

A mass of people with signs that say Trump and Trump Won.
Crowds arrive for the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One year after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when mobs stormed in trying to stop Congress from certifying the election of President Biden, “The Big Lie” that drove it all remains as widespread as it’s ever been.

Countless recounts, courts, commissions and private contractors — including Republicans — have all dismissed former President Donald Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. But a new NPR/Ipsos poll shows two-thirds of GOP voters, and just over one-third of all voters, still believe it.

It’s prompting both consternation and more creative efforts to reach those who remain adamant — despite all evidence to the contrary — that rampant fraud robbed Trump of the presidency.

“Of course!” exclaims one such believer from Wisconsin named Jerry. “There’s just there’s no way [Biden] got 81 million votes. It’s not possible.”

Jerry is a Republican and a fervent Trump supporter. He asked that his last name not be used because he says he doesn’t want to be targeted by what he calls “wacky” liberals.

His views, Jerry says, are based on reason. He assails mainstream media as “skewed,” opting instead for what he describes as “local conservative radio.” But he dismisses any suggestion that that might be slanted. “There’s not usually a spin to it,” he says. “It’s what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When he is confronted with evidence affirming the legitimacy of the election, he pushes back with broad-brush pronouncements such as “they found emails,” and vague, baseless references to ballot harvesting, big money and the “deep state.” He says nothing will ever convince him the election wasn’t stolen.

“It just won’t happen,” he says. “We all know the whole game is rigged.”

Family members are trying to figure out how to reach their loved ones

This kind of intractability, however, isn’t stopping people around the nation from continuing to try to get through to their loved ones. Many are filling up support groups for people struggling to reach family members who’ve fallen deep down the rabbit hole.

“I get frustrated and angry at my dad,” says one such woman, who goes by Rain. “I’ve always thought of him as so intelligent. But he’s being misled, and there’s no way to get him to see the light on that.”

In a meeting that’s run online by Antidote, a group that combats psychological manipulation, the stories are remarkably similar. Shannon, a 37-year-old from Colorado, explains how heartbroken she is that the “big lie” has come between her and her mother. The participants asked that their full names not be used to protect their family members from retribution and so as not to jeopardize their reconciliation.

Police with shield around a building.
Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a group of demonstrators away from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Shannon tells the group that her mother, who she says was at the Capitol during the insurrection, will barely listen when her daughter tries to bring her evidence that the election was not stolen.

“It’s a waste of my breath,” she sighs. “I brought up all kinds of information, and she dismisses it immediately. It’s blind allegiance. And I’ve seen it get worse.”

The lessons of escaping cults could come in handy

Others in the group nod in agreement, as the group leader, Diane Benscoter, offers empathy and then advice. As a former cult member, Benscoter says she understands the defense mechanisms that kick in when anyone tries to tell you you’ve been duped.

After decades of helping people get out of cults, she’s now making something of a second career helping families apply those same strategies to everyone from hard-core QAnon conspiracy theorists to more mainstream MAGA enthusiasts who believe the election was rigged.

She gently cautions Shannon that trying to prove her mom wrong will most likely backfire and cause her to dig her heels in further. Instead, Benscoter says, just keep her close, and watch for little cracks of doubt that might signal an opportunity to plant another seed.

But you need to tread lightly, Benscoter repeatedly warns, when trying to reach someone who’s so “all-in” on the falsehood about the election.

“As time goes by, what happens is it becomes not just your political view; it is your identity,” she explains. When family members confront a fervent believer and try to persuade them that what they believe is not true, Benscoter tells the group to remember that “what’s being threatened is their very identity.”

‘I don’t think there is any way to get through to them’

These days, identifying as Red or Blue, or as a die-hard Trumper or anti-Trumper, has become a kind of “mega identity,” as it’s been dubbed by Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University associate professor of political science. She says partisan identity has become so fully fused with cultural, religious, racial, gender, and geographical identity that it’s very high stakes for people to break with their party — or the party line.

Security fencing around a building.
Concertina wire tops a security fencing around U.S. Capitol last year on Jan. 16, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

“To feel that they are losing all [those aspects of themselves] wrapped together, that’s a devastating psychological harm,” says Mason. “And people tend to react to that with a lot of not only anger, but really defensive mechanisms.”

That’s why Mason says no recount or court case is going to be convincing to Trump supporters who are clinging to the myth that their side didn’t actually lose.

“At this point, over one year out, I don’t think there is any way to get through to them,” Mason says. “They’ve had this entire fever dream, where Trump is really stoking these ideas of ‘No matter what anybody else tells you, I’m telling you you’re a winner.’ And that feels great. That’s just like the most primitive human instincts to follow the good feelings, not the bad feelings.”

Experts say it’s also all-too-human to dig in on a position that’s seen as a moral one, as today’s partisan divide seems to have become. The NPR/Ipsos poll shows 70% of Americans believe the nation is in crisis and at risk of failing. What used to be partisan quarrels about topics such as tax policy have morphed into what many see as an existential fight between good and evil, with each side believing they’re saving democracy, or saving America.

Mason’s research shows the level of loathing. She says a clear majority of Republicans now see Democrats as not only a serious threat to the nation, but also “downright evil.” Democrats also feel that way about Republicans to a slightly lesser degree, Mason says, but they’re catching up.

A vicious cycle, and a political system that rewards inflammatory behavior

“We’ve now got to the point where you dislike the other party more than you like your party,” says Joshua Tucker, a New York University politics professor and co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics. He calls it “political sectarianism,” and says such intense animus makes partisans impervious to facts and averse to compromise.

Tucker says candidates such as Trump feed into — and off of — that polarization for political gain, and have little political incentive to stop. The more inflammatory they are, the more rewarded they are.

“There’s a kind of vicious cycle here, which in itself is fed by the nature of the electoral system in a lot of the United States,” says Tucker.

Politicians would have different incentives, he says, if presidents were chosen by popular vote instead of the electoral college system, for example, or if legislative districts were less gerrymandered and more competitive. But such major reforms are unlikely anytime soon.

So, instead of waiting for politicians to change their tune, many moderate Republicans are pinning their hopes for change on the wide swatch of centrist voters who are exasperated by extremists.

“Sometimes you have to be willing to admit that the person from the party that you vote for most of the time may not be what’s best for the country,” says Rev. Franklin Ruff of the First Baptist Church of Stilwell Kansas.

As a “pragmatic conservative” and life-long Republican who supports most of the party’s principles, Ruff is not interested in trashing the GOP. For him, it’s about rescuing the party from the grip of pro-Trump extremists.

To do that, Ruff says, millions of voters must be “willing to go against their own party in order to say ‘Hey, could you give me better choices!'”

It’s exactly what Ruff did when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020; he voted for neither party.

And in the 2018 gubernatorial race, he voted for the Democrat, Laura Kelly, over Republican Kris Kobach. “Because I felt she was best candidate for the state, and the person running against her was basically a mini-Trump,” he says. “Too far right for me.”

Some Republican politicians are calling on fellow party members to team up with Democrats

To many, that kind of crossover may be the best hope for snuffing out disinformation about the election. For example, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Department of Homeland Security official Miles Taylor have implored the “rational remnants of the Republican Party” to join forces with Democrats to defeat those who’ve “turned belief in conspiracy theories and lies about stolen elections into a litmus test for membership and running for office.” They’re part of a larger group of conservatives called the Renew American Movement calling for what they’ve dubbed “coalition campaigning.”

People talk to each other inside, looking concerned.
Miles Taylor (center) departs after the Republican Caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington in March 2019. Miles Taylor is among a group of conservatives imploring the “rational remnants of the Republican Party” to join forces with Democrats to defeat those who’ve “turned belief in conspiracy theories and lies about stolen elections into a litmus test for membership and running for office.”
(Alex Brandon/AP)

If “concerned conservatives” and “patriotic progressives” team up together to support a centrist who is not the dream candidate of either side, Whitman and Taylor propose, they could beat back the “extremist insurgency” that “seek[s] to tear down our Republic’s guardrails.”

They’re aiming to win the support of voters such as Joe Horcher, a life-long Republican from Kentucky, who’s also had it with the “big lie” and the GOP.

“The Republican party changed,” Horcher says. “There are a number of times I thought about tearing up my card and sending to Sen. Mitch McConnell, and telling him to stuff it.”

Ultimately, if more voters feel that way, more politicians may have second thoughts about peddling disinformation about the election. And less peddling of the “big lie” may be what finally creates those little “cracks” of doubt in all those voters who’ve been buying it.

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