The 2020 election is long over, but the Big Lie that it was illegitimate appears to be on a comeback tour — with federal, state and local leaders, including ex-President Donald Trump, perpetuating this falsehood over the past week. This lie fueled the events of Jan. 6; as such we must treat its repetition as nothing short of an ongoing incitement. We must use criminal, civil and regulatory tools to quash it before there is another eruption of anti-democratic violence.
Trump emerged this week on fringe right-wing television outlets like Newsmax and One America News Network to baselessly assert he had won the election — making the same false claims that led to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise stopped by ABC News’ “This Week” to dodge questions and make the unfounded claim that states “did not follow their own state legislatively set laws.”
In Michigan, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey referred to the storming of the U.S. Capitol as “all staged,” and the Republican incorrectly said during an appearance on conservative radio that “dead people voted.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to push falsehoods about election security in unveiling his proposed voting restrictions. And in over two dozen states, lawmakers have introduced more than 100 bills to limit access to the ballot box.
The lies that have spurred violence
The repetition of the core falsehood that led to the deadly insurrection is not to be taken lightly. Trump used the lies about his election loss to fuel the rage of his followers for months — culminating in the deadly attack on the Capitol. If Trump and his ilk successfully co-opt the bona fide patriotism felt by their millions of followers, turning a love of country into a potent anti-democratic force, they will very likely stimulate more violence. They are also breaking the bedrock of our democracy: faith in our free and fair elections.
This ongoing campaign of lies must be stopped with an aggressive legal campaign.
First and foremost, all civil remedies for the ongoing peddling of the Big Lie need to be pursued. We welcome Democratic Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson’s lawsuit with the NAACP alleging that Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the far-right groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers conspired to incite the violence during the Electoral College vote.
Thompson alleges that all of these defendants violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 — a law created during Reconstruction and aptly deployed here — to “prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat,” any office holder from performing their duties.
As demonstrated during the impeachment trial this month (and agreed upon by a bipartisan group of 57 senators in voting to convict), Trump played an active role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot. Even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnel admitted as much in his post-trial remarks.
While the Thompson case is focused on the events leading up to and including Jan. 6, it will undoubtedly come to encompass Trump’s more recent comments as proof of his bad faith. If successful, the suit will help deter further perpetuation of the Big Lie.
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Second, accountability should go beyond the civil case docket. There is a long tradition of members of Congress holding their fellow members accountable — and it is fair to say Congressman Scalise should face ethics consequences under House Rule XXIII for his statements this past weekend. The House just stripped Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., of her committee assignments for her dangerous promotion of conspiracy and lies. Scalise knows the danger of people believing falsehoods — and so do his fellow members of the House. They lived it on Jan. 6. An ethics investigation into Scalise is one way to push our federal elected officials to be honest with their supporters and all of us.
If you are committed to truth, fight the lies
Third, the civil and regulatory avenues must be complemented by criminal investigations into the misconduct that is part of this still-ongoing pattern of wrongdoing. Trump, Giuliani and others are under investigation in Georgia by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for attempting to influence the outcome of the election.Willis is specifically looking into Trump for his infamous call asking Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.”
Trump is not letting up, and neither should Willis. Statements like those he made this week should factor into the criminal investigation. They show his total lack of remorse for his actions, which ought to help her evaluate his criminal intent. If indicted and charged, Trump’s perpetuation of lies long before and after Jan. 6 will play into his potential conviction and sentence.
But litigation is not enough. We must also address the lies in the court of public opinion through swift corrections of misinformation and, where indicated, measures such as deplatforming. No person or platform should give any further oxygen to these lies. Scalise should not be given another opportunity to spread misinformation on television and should be cut off if he does. Similarly, outlets should truncate the feed to Trump’s upcoming speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference should he rehash the election lies — or perhaps, consider not carrying it at all, given his history.
Twitter has permanently banned him for that reason. His continued propensity for lying should bear upon the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision about whether to uphold that platform’s decision to keep him deplatformed permanently.
Convict Trump:Banish the 45th president from American democracy
Finally, all of us who believe in the truth must be more committed to it than those sustaining the lie. It is tempting to take a breather after making it through the post-election turmoil and the past four years. But we can’t, which is why we at the Voter Protection Program put together a report that takes down every lie about the 2020 election. Continued vigorous action is called for by all the groups and individuals that worked so hard to ensure the will of the American people was heard and that the 2020 election was safe, secure and accurate. The Big Lie is clearly not going away, so we need even louder and more persistent truths to defeat it.
Norman Eisen (@NormEisen), a former ambassador to the Czech Republic and ethics czar to President Barack Obama, was special impeachment counsel to House Judiciary Committee Democrats in 2019-20. Lizzie Ulmer (@LizziUlmer) is the communications director for the nonpartisan Voter Protection Program (@Protect_Voters). Katherine Reisner (@katiereisner) was counselor to the secretary and deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, and is a Truman National Security Project Fellow.