The 2024 elections are more than a year away, but former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is already deploying disinformation about voter fraud and claiming that Democrats are trying “steal” the election, setting the stage for players in the right-wing cottage industry known as the “election denial industrial complex” to once again profit from riling up voters and casting doubt on any result that is not favorable to Trump and the GOP.
Senior advisers to the Trump campaign posted a statement to social media on Monday calling on the Republican National Committee (RNC) to essentially shut down the ongoing GOP primary race so the party can preemptively nominate Trump and “refocus its manpower and money on preventing Democrats’ efforts to steal the 2024 election.”
The RNC should cancel all the upcoming debates between Republican presidential contenders, the advisers said, including next month’s debate in Miami, Florida, which Trump already announced he would not attend. Holding further debates, they said, would be “an admission to the grassroots that their concerns about voter integrity are not taken seriously” and that the Republican Party will not work to ensure “a safe and secure election.”
The campaign advisers are following a playbook that Trump and his allies have used since Trump lost the 2020 election. The first step is convincing voters that the election (if not the nation itself) was stolen from them by fraudster Democrats, and once grassroots passions are enflamed, claim that Republicans in office must act on their constituents’ demands.
Trump has substantial lead in the polls and already refused to attend two GOP debates held by Fox News, and observers were alarmed to see that his campaign is already accusing Democrats of cheating. Few in the Republican Party are willing to criticize this strategy, which has eroded public confidence in elections while forcing poll workers and other civil servants to deal with intense harassment and death threats from MAGA extremists and conspiracy theory believers.
Trump played the same card ahead of the elections in 2016 and 2020, filling the airwaves with unsupported claims about undocumented immigrants casting votes and conspiracy theories about mail-in voting (which Trump is known to use himself) during the COVID-19 pandemic. After President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Trump doubled down and refused to concede, filing baseless lawsuits that were thrown out of courts across the country but succeeded in injecting Trump’s fraud claims into the right-wing headlines.
Trump’s subsequent effort to overturn his loss to Biden sparked the deadly January 6 riot at the Capitol and led to a long list of state and federal indictments against the former president and his loyalist allies, but like many of Trump’s political schemes, it was also extremely lucrative. The Trump campaign raised $250 million from supporters for a bogus “election defense fund” in a matter of months, including with disinformation-laden fundraising emails that stoked partisan anger with conspiracy theories and fascist-style rhetoric.
Major players in the right-wing media’s ecosystem of pundits, podcasts, conspiracy theory blogs, think tanks and major outlets such as Newsmax and One America News jumped at the chance to grow their audience and boost their ratings with coverage of the latest election conspiracy theories, further cementing the idea of a stolen election in the minds of frustrated voters. Fox News viewers filled their homes with MyPillow brand pillows as the company’s Trump-obsessed owner, Mike Lindell, ran TV ads and funded a quixotic quest for proof of a stolen election that was never found.
Trump lost the election, but the plan to undermine confidence in the results was working. Poll after poll found that large majorities of Republican voters did not accept Biden’s win. Manufacturing the “Stop the Steal” movement left Trump as the top fundraiser in the GOP even after his defeat, and the 2022 midterms saw a long list of Trump-approved candidates who fundraised and campaigned on election denial. While many of them were rejected by voters, there was plenty of media attention and money to go around.
“Rightwing partisan influencers, politicians, and activists alike used the popularity of election denial to build audiences and profit off of lies about voting and elections,” reads a detailed report on election disinformation during the 2022 midterms recently published by the pro-democracy group Common Cause.
The problem was magnified by profit incentives and competition for consumer eyeballs that pushed tech companies and social media firms to further relax “already inadequate” standards for moderating election disinformation online. Looking ahead to 2024, the report concludes that election disinformation is now “essentially obligatory for nearly all Republican primary candidates and opportunists seeking financial benefit.”
There are multiple revenue streams an election denier can tap into, and the political reform group Issue One recently uncovered an entire network of political consultants that profited from working with election-denying Republicans running for secretary of state in 2022. Failed gubernatorial candidate and election denier Kari Lake raised at least $2.5 million after her loss in Arizona during the midterms. According to the Common Cause report, pro-Trump groups such as True the Vote fundraise through social media posts and by holding events that promise evidence of widespread election fraud:
Many social media influencers who spread disinformation start with election denial and use that to build an audience before moving on to spreading disinformation about other issues, such as COVID-19 denial and climate change denial. They are then able to use the audience they have cultivated to promote more and more false claims. Meanwhile, a cottage industry of election-denying influencers, activists, and fake analysts has benefited from online election disinformation.
Indeed, most of Trump’s competition in the GOP primary refuse to push back on his claims of a stolen election for fear of angering the MAGA base, which can apparently put a politician and her family in danger of vigilante violence. With Trump leading the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence by 30 to 40 points in the polls, it’s no wonder that his campaign is arguing that more televised debates would simply be a waste of time.
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