As presidential deceits go, even Richard Nixon's Watergate denials and George W. Bush's WMDs are like amateur hour compared to the Big Lie

click to enlarge As presidential deceits go, even Richard Nixon's Watergate denials and George W. Bush's WMDs are like amateur hour compared to the Big Lie
Despite being called the "the most secure" election in American history by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, many still mistakenly believed the 2020 election was rigged.

Marlene Bourne said her thoughts were "wackadoodle." Most of her strange musings were benign such as, "The wind tells me I'm a ghost." But on Nov. 7, 2020, four days after the presidential election, she sent a bizarre email to Fox News host Lou Dobbs and attorney Sidney Powell, who forwarded it to Maria Bartiromo, according to court filings. It was on Fox News the next day.

Bourne claimed that malicious software corrupted voting machines so that 3% of votes for Trump automatically switched to Biden. She told journalists she possessed a "sixth sense" enabling her to "connect the dots. I am able to connect things that don't seem to connect," she said. "I see things that other people don't." Thus the "Bourne Conspiracy" gestated into the distorted progeny of the Big Lie, the Doublethink of two-thirds of Republicans that the 2020 presidential election was a heist.

Even before Election Day 2020, Trump was sowing doubts about voting. "The only way we're going to lose this election is if it is rigged," he said.

And in both the 2020 and 2016 campaigns, Vladimir Putin was polluting our politics. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin sycophant and later commander of the savage mercenary Wagner Group that staged an aborted coup against Putin in 2023, directed an aggressive online disinformation assault in 2016 infecting social media accounts with fake posts to manipulate American voters to the advantage of Trump and to the detriment of Hillary Clinton. Among the Russian posts: "Obama founded ISIS" and an ad depicting Jesus arm wrestling Satan, suggesting that Satan supported Clinton, while Jesus was all in for Trump. Such propaganda is red meat for America's alt-right info black hole.

Tens of thousands of such fabrications — a "firehose of falsehoods" — flooded the internet during the 2016 campaign, the bipartisan 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee verified.

In July 2018 at a U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki, Trump was asked about conclusive CIA evidence that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. To the shock of the European diplomatic audience and his State Department entourage, Trump replied, "President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be."

Putin could not conceal his smug smirk. Trump's reality TV roles had reversed: It was horrifyingly apparent that Putin was the calculating boss, Trump the supplicant apprentice.

The same virulent messages with which Putin was infecting Russians — America's purported dysfunctional democracy, fraudulent elections and a decadent civilization — were weaponized, targeting U.S. internet domains during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Not coincidentally, this is the cynical script of Trump and his MAGA acolytes. Yet, as Anne Applebaum observed in the June Atlantic: "The entity that becomes the most persistent in alleging that American elections are fraudulent turns out to be the president [Trump]."

And during this current presidential campaign, "Russia remains the most active foreign threat to our elections," according to the U.S. director of intelligence. With more sophisticated AI capabilities, Russia's Doppelgänger is swarming the internet with disinformation. A State Department agency, the Global Engagement Center, is poised to inoculate us from foreign fake information, but its mission is circumscribed by Republicans to focus only on propaganda outside the U.S. Its budget is $60 million compared to the billions the Russians have devoted to disinformation. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "We are actually less prepared today than we were four years ago."

American elections are tainted, but it's not due to corrupted mail-in balloting, voter fraud or rigged voting machines. Rather, it's foreign interference and gerrymandering, voter suppression, the doxing and terrorizing of election officials, and a system awash in dark money — money from anonymous political donors — that advantages those with deep pockets. If America is to be great again, start by overturning Citizens United, we need to enact substantive campaign finance reform and shorten the time presidential candidates can campaign with an abbreviated primary schedule.

So by the time Marlene Bourne sent her delusional email, the MAGA mindscape was tinder, parched by Russian duplicity and Trump's screeds. But it was Fox News that ignited the still fierce conflagration. And for the Trump faithful, Fox is gospel. (See Brian Stelter's book: Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.)

On Nov. 7, Fox journalists formally declared Biden the winner of the 2020 election. Rupert Murdoch ordered Fox hosts to stop the baseless "stolen election" noise. Fox viewers were enraged by its Biden election call. On Nov. 8, Maria Bartiromo defied her boss on her Fox program. Murdoch said nothing. (Less than two months later, Jan. 6 happened.)

Bartiromo's guest that day was Sidney Powell, recipient of Bourne's email and a member of Trump's legal team. Armed with Bourne's uncorroborated "evidence" and with Bartiromo an obliging midwife, Powell birthed the Big Lie Hydra, stating that Dominion Voting Systems had inserted software sabotaging voting machines. The Fox PR guy called the interview "crazy." Even Tucker Carlson conceded privately that Powell's "software shit" was "absurd." Yet Murdoch was silent.

The deceit was unleashed. Soon the Big Lie was feral, amplified by agitprop meisters such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, and Fox host and Trump Minister of Newspeak Sean Hannity. Bannon's tactic in his own words: "Flood the zone with shit." In 2023 Dominion was vindicated in a $787.5 million defamation lawsuit against Fox. (Their legal filings revealed Marlene Bourne to be the original source of the Big Lie.) In righteous denial, Trump filed 62 lawsuits challenging the election's legitimacy. Sixty-one were found to have no merit.

As presidential deceits go, the Big Lie eclipses LBJ's "hostile actions" in the Tonkin Gulf, Nixon's Watergate denials, Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman" and George W. Bush's WMD's in Iraq. The Big Lie is the most egregious in our history because it desecrates the foundation of democracy — fair elections.

Considering the Supreme Court's Trump v. U.S. and Fischer decisions last week, if the Big Lie is not extinguished, losing candidates — including Democrats — have precedent and legal protection to incite future insurrections with impunity. ♦

John Hagney taught high school and college history for 45 years. He was a U.S. Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher. His oral history of Gorbachev's reforms has been translated into six languages.

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