It was a simple idea, so seductive and dangerous that it became known as “The Big Lie” in the days, weeks, months and now years since November 2020: Donald Trump’s denial of the presidential election result, and his willingness to upend more than two centuries of American democracy in an attempt to overturn that result and stay in power. The lie quickly reached its apex on Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. The result was chaos and death, as well as a badly fractured country.
In the years since, Trump has kept up the lie despite the overwhelming facts that have refuted every claim — about ballot counting, about voting machines and dozens of other unhinged theories — that he and his supporters have made. The simple fact is that the 2020 presidential election was fairly conducted and decisive, in terms of both the popular vote total and the electoral college tally, and the result was a win for Joe Biden.
A distressing number of political hopefuls have themselves cast doubt on the 2020 election result; for instance, in Alaska’s U.S. House race, only Mary Peltola answered the question, “Yes or no, do you believe Joe Biden won the presidential election in 2020?” with “Yes.” The same was true in states across the country — and many of those candidates won their races, sending troubling signals about what might happen if another election-denial scenario takes place in the future.
Notably, the 2020 election deniers who lost their own races this year have largely accepted the result. But there are dangerous exceptions — including right here in Alaska. In an interview with the disheveled and convicted former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon a few days ago, Kelly Tshibaka made fact-free assertions of “shenanigans” in the election process, asking listeners for donations for court battles to overturn what will in all likelihood be a clear victory by Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Those who aren’t familiar with Alaska’s electoral process might see Tshibaka’s warning of “recounts and lawsuits” as standard practice for an extremely close race; after all, in ballot counts so far, Tshibaka and Murkowski are neck and neck, with Tshibaka hanging onto a slim lead. But neither will reach a majority, which will mean that voters who chose a write-in candidate or Democrat Pat Chesbro will have their votes reallocated to their second choice. The 9.5% who voted for Chesbro are highly likely to have supported Murkowski as their second choice, as she is the more moderate of the two Republicans, and the result will likely be a fairly decisive win for Murkowski. By making these claims, Tshibaka made clear the true nature of her character for all Alaskans to see.
Tshibaka knows the election’s likely outcome; she is a smart person and a canny politician. She gave no specifics about misbehavior that she insinuated has taken place or will in the future (but she did ask for donations nevertheless). And yet she is spinning what can only be called lies about the need for recounts and lawsuits. This is a dangerous tack to take, elevating ego and personal ambition over the health of our democracy.
It’s particularly dangerous because although Tshibaka knows that she has no reasonable grounds on which to challenge the outcome of election, much less prevail, her supporters are inclined to believe that she’s telling the truth — that there really were irregularities, and that shadowy figures are somehow conspiring to thwart the true will of the people.
As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, that’s a path that leads directly to violence. Flirting with that outcome, whatever Tshibaka’s intent — to entice donations, energize her base or maintain her relevance among the inner circle of Trump-supported election deniers — is manifestly irresponsible, and Alaskans should see it for the cynical move that it is.
In another post-election move that flew in the face of reality, Sarah Palin bizarrely announced her appointment of a chief of staff in what looked like a poorly thought-out victory declaration. Palin would only prevail if nearly all of Nick Begich III’s supporters made her their second choice, something we know is exceedingly unlikely given the result of the special U.S. House election in August where the same scenario played out. With Palin, it’s not as clear whether she too is laying the groundwork for a denial of the election outcome, or if she sincerely believes Begich voters will rank her second despite her relentless attacks on their preferred candidate. But if her goal is to position herself as the presumptive winner in advance of the result proving otherwise, she should reconsider, for the sake of our country — and, if that’s not sufficient motivation, her own legacy.
We can’t afford for election denial to become one more weapon in politicians’ arsenals, deployed strategically to damage voters’ faith in democracy and deepen their personal loyalty to candidates. Our nation’s system of government rests on the bedrock belief that election results represent the will of the people and that those who lose will accept the results. Here in Alaska, we know what happens if your foundation is shaky when the next bad earthquake comes along.