The year the Big Lie went global
Close your eyes, for a moment, and imagine the evening of November 7, 2012.
Barack Obama had just won reelection in a hard-fought presidential race and the celebrity host of “The Apprentice” was stewing. Back then, Donald Trump was a mere reality TV star and a staunch proponent of the birther conspiracy, the baseless claim that Obama was born abroad, and therefore ineligible to serve as president of the United States. Those were also the days when Trump was still on Twitter, and he took to the bird app to voice his dismay with the U.S. electoral college system. “This election is a total sham and a travesty,” he declared, in a series of now belligerently familiar tweets. “We are not a democracy!”
Fast-forward a decade. That Twitter tantrum that generated a few eye-rolls from coastal media in 2012 now reads like foreshadowing to the kaleidoscope of election fraud myths that have metastasized since the 2020 election and proven ever more resilient. Some 60% of Republicans believe that the last presidential election was stolen.
This “Big Lie” – the meritless claim that the election was hijacked by voter fraud and President Joe Biden was its illegitimate victor – has had tangible policy consequences, leading to the introduction of a slew of state house bills in the U.S. that would restrict voter access, and inspiring Trump acolytes in swing states to run for offices that oversee elections, a development one Democratic secretary of state characterized as a “five-alarm fire.”
The Big Lie reshaping America’s electoral landscape is also providing fertile ground for politicians abroad, who are adopting the rhetoric of widespread voter fraud over the inconvenient realities of legitimate electoral loss. From Brazil to Israel, accusations of rigged elections are gaining momentum, animating conspiracists, and undermining faith in the democratic process. Here are four examples:
Trump fanboy and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro defended Trump’s allegations of voter fraud the day after the disastrous January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. “What was the problem that caused that whole crisis, basically? Lack of trust in the election,” he hypothesized. “There were people who voted three, four times. Dead people voted. It was a free-for-all.” It’s not just the U.S. electoral system Bolsonaro railed against. For months, the Brazilian president has been leveling fraud claims against Brazil’s electronic voting system and already questioning the legitimacy of the country’s upcoming 2022 presidential race – but only if he loses, naturally.
Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazil’s electoral system come as polls consistently show him trailing the candidate most likely to run against him, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Recognizing the importance of the upcoming election, Trump allies – including former Trump strategist Steve Bannon – have thrown their weight behind Bolsonaro and are faithfully propping up his voter fraud allegations. According to the New York Times, Bannon argued Bolsonaro “will only lose if ‘the machines’ steal the election.” Bolsonaro, too, has preempted a loss to Lula by declaring fraud as the only possible explanation for his defeat, and has suggested he won’t concede the election if that happens. “I have three alternatives for my future,” Bolsonaro explained of his electoral prospects in August. “Being arrested, killed, or victory.”
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded downright Trumpy in June as a coalition of opposition lawmakers were poised to remove him from office. “We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country,” he declared, arguing the coalition that later succeeded in ousting him was in league with the “deep state” and the journalists covering the news were “taking part in a propaganda machine enlisted in favor of the left.” The rhetoric became so heated in the country’s online spaces in the lead-up to Netanyhau’s ouster that the directory of the country’s security agency, the Shin Bet, released an exceedingly rare statement warning of “ a serious rise and radicalization in violent and inciting discourse” that could lead to political violence, drawing comparisons to the warnings that preceded the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Although Netanyahu did eventually step aside for his replacement and the country was spared from the alarming prospect of an Israeli version of the QAnon Shaman, the former prime minister has yet to walk back his earlier allegations of election fraud.
Even Germany hasn’t been spared from the abyss of election conspiracies. As Coda reported in the fall, the Big Lie found an eager audience among a number of leaders within the country’s far-right movement, who have amplified Trump-inspired false claims about the security of voting by mail in the run-up to the country’s 2021 parliamentary elections. Unsurprisingly, some of the conspiracies were well outside reality. While the country doesn’t use voting machines, one researcher found U.S-originated conspiracies about rigged voting machines circulating through the country’s right-wing social media outlets over the summer. “These alternative realities that are created in the United States, and are really popular there, have a huge impact on countries that the U.S. is allied with,” he explained. At a campaign event in eastern Germany, a politician with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party urged supporters to vote in person rather than by mail, citing the possibility of election fraud and warning them to “stay alert.” The election, a voter told Schultheis, “is going to be manipulated.”
Keiko Fujimori promotes the election fraud myth that just wouldn’t quit. In June, Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, lost the country’s presidential election to leftist rival Pedro Castillo, and then refused to concede the race, leveling unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and demanding tens of thousands of ballots be thrown out, leading to massive pro-Fujimori rallies in which supporters donned bullet-proof vests and prophesied about civil war.
Though Washington and the European Union called the election fair and international observers found no evidence of fraud, the claims delayed the country’s election certification process by a nail-biting six weeks. Castillo was eventually declared the winner, but experts worry Fujimori’s Big Lie amplification has deeply damaged faith in the country’s democratic institutions and radicalized elements of the country’s right. Consider this disturbing New York Times dispatch a month after the election:
“In the crowd at one recent Fujimori rally, a group of young men wearing bulletproof vests and helmets marched with makeshift shields painted with the Cross of Burgundy, a symbol of the Spanish empire popular among those who celebrate their European heritage. One man flashed what looked like a Nazi salute.
Ms. Fujimori, the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants, part of a larger Peruvian-Japanese community, has allied herself closely with the country’s often European-descended elite, just as her father eventually did.
A number of her supporters have talked casually about their hope that the military will intervene.
“Just for a moment, until the military can say: ‘You know what? New elections,’” said Marco Antonio Centeno, 54, a school administrator. “The alternative is totalitarianism.”
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