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Signs that influence of ‘the big lie’ about 2020 election is spreading beyond Republican base

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It is two years this week since the presidential election in the United States that was won by Joe Biden. His opponent, Donald Trump, has never accepted his defeat, and has insisted he was cheated out of a second term in the White House by various forms of electoral fraud.

None of the dozens of courts to which Trump and his allies brought cases have accepted these claims. However, for candidates seeking to prosper in a Republican Party still very much under the influence of the former president, fealty to Trump’s assertions about a stolen 2020 election has been the condition for his support.

In a significant speech this week on the threats to US democracy Biden said there were 300 deniers of the 2020 result running for various offices in midterm elections next week.

It is already clear that Trump’s claims about a stolen presidential election hold sway among many in the Republican Party. However, there were indications this week that the influence of Trump’s “big lie” – as his critics describe it – is beginning to spread.

A CNN/SSRS poll showed that 67 per cent of people accepted that Biden legitimately secured sufficient votes to win the presidency. Just under one third of those polled believed he did not.

Drilling down into the data a potentially more worrying picture emerges. Perhaps predictably, 66 per cent of Republicans who took part in the poll – as well as 5 per cent of Democrats – believed that Biden did not win legitimately. But notably 27 per cent of those who considered themselves to be independents did not view Biden as being legitimately elected to the White House.

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The implication appears to be that doubts sowed about Biden’s legitimacy as president – pushed from the start by Trump and his allies – are falling on some fertile ground outside the traditional right-wing Republican base.

This CNN poll finding did not appear to be an anomaly. Asked whether a candidate in the midterm elections who lost should be obliged to accept the result and concede, the vast majority – 82 per cent – believed they should. However, the figures also showed 25 per cent of Republicans and 19 per cent of independents believed a losing candidate did not have to accept that they lost.

This is one of the issues at the heart of Biden’s argument about the future of democracy being at risk in the United States. “You can’t love the country only when you win,” the president said in his speech.

The immediate question that springs from having a significant number of people who are not prepared to accept an election result is: what would they be prepared to do about it?

Biden’s message was that there was no place for political violence or intimidation, whether involving Republicans or Democrats. He said there was “an alarming rise in the number of our people in this country condoning political violence or simply remaining silent because silence is complicity”. He criticised a “pernicious tendency” to excuse political violence or at least to try to explain it away.

Biden’s speech was in some ways an unconventional way to essentially close out his campaign at national level for the midterm elections. Democratic candidates are fighting a tide of attacks over inflation, the cost of living and crime. The future of democracy has been an issue in the campaign but by no means a decisive one. However, the president appears to have been particularly affected by the violent assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who was hit over the head with a hammer in what authorities in California maintain was a politically-motivated attack.

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He also seems to be agitated at the reaction of some on the right who have either played down the attack on Pelosi, laughed at it or used it to generate even more conspiracy theories.

The heat of elections can generate strong feelings and passions may wane in their aftermath. But even after polling day on Tuesday, politics in the United States will quickly move on. A host of Republican politicians are already planning visits to Iowa, the starting gate for the 2024 presidential contest. Trump indicated this week that he is likely to throw his hat in the ring.

And then there is the huge question of whether Trump will face prosecution arising from any of the various investigations under way into his actions. What would happen then?

American democracy and attitudes to the rule of law may have further tests ahead.

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