The Big Lie, as it quickly became known, was that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. He’s still out there peddling this nonsense, and a lot of people still believe it, though thankfully, they constitute a clear minority of voters.
But now there’s a new lie being peddled. Call it Big Lie Two. Trump has been hawking this one for a while too, but it has been, to my mind, oddly little remarked-upon. That needs to change: Big Lie Two is more insidious and dangerous than Big Lie One, for two reasons. First, it has nothing to do with the settled past, but rather with the unsettled present and future. And second, unlike Big Lie One, a majority of Americans believe it.
The lie is that the indictments against Trump represent a collective effort to stop him from running for president. Trump talks of this all the time; “election interference” is the phrase he often uses. They can’t stop me legitimately, he says—they know I won in 2020, and they know I’ll win again, so this is how they’re trying to block me.
It’s not true. What’s true is this. Credible evidence has emerged on a number of fronts that Trump may have broken the law: that he absconded with boxes of sensitive, classified documents to Florida; that he approved a hush-money payment to a woman with whom he’d had sexual relations; that he tried to influence officials in Georgia to rig the 2020 election; and that he led or directed an insurrection against the government of the United States.
He is presumed innocent until proven guilty in all these matters. Yet in each of them, there is ample enough evidence of guilt on these fronts for prosecutions to proceed, and a lot of that evidence is, as Orwell might put it, right in front of our noses. We’ve seen the photographs of the boxes of classified documents, and we’ve heard that audio tape of him admitting that, contrary to his public statements, he knew that as an ex-president he could not declassify them. We have the testimony of his former attorney that Trump ordered him (Michael Cohen) to cut the check to Stormy Daniels. We have the tape of him badgering Brad Raffensberger to find him 11,780 votes. And we have video evidence, as well as congressional testimony from former aides, speaking to the idea that Trump encouraged the January 6 violence and was enjoying it—and even, from Cassidy Hutchinson, that he so desperately wanted to go to the Capitol while the rioting was taking place that he reached for the steering wheel and lunged at the Secret Service man who blocked him.
What prosecutor would not bring charges in these cases? Of the four, the Daniels payoff, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is generally considered the most tenuous, from a legal standpoint; bringing these charges was arguably a judgment call. Bragg was criticized when he levied the indictment because he didn’t name the underlying potential other violations of law that would elevate falsifying business records from a misdemeanor to a felony. He did so a couple months later, citing various campaign finance laws. Is violating campaign finance laws murder? No, but it’s a serious crime, including penalties of up to five years’ prison time, heavy fines, and getting barred from ever engaging in campaign activity again.
Time will tell whether Bragg’s judgment call bears fruit. In the other three, the alleged crimes are profoundly serious and much more urgent, and the evidence—or at least some significant portion of it—is right there for all the world to see. Trump is being prosecuted in these cases because there is very good reason to believe he broke the law. Period.
But most people don’t believe it. A CBS/YouGov poll from about a month ago asked respondents if they believed the indictments were “an attempt to stop Trump’s 2024 campaign.” And 59 percent said yes, to 41 percent saying no. Among independents—the group whose views matter most, because it’s a small sliver of them who’ll decide whether Trump returns to the White House—it was 63–37. There was a little good news in the poll. By 57–43, respondents also believed the indictments were an attempt to uphold the rule of law. And by a narrow 52–48, they agreed that the indictments were handed out to defend democracy. On those two questions, independents were, respectively, 52–48 and 47–53. (Not a lot of “no opinions” when it comes to Donald Trump.)
But the depressing reality is that three out of five Americans apparently believe that these indictments are politically motivated. About half of those, probably a little more, believe every word Trump says. I suspect some portion are Democrats—31 percent of whom agreed with the overall majority—who think they’re political and simply don’t disapprove. But a lot of them are jaded, cynical people who think everyone’s corrupt.
This is going to be a key question in next year’s election. Maybe the key question. I wrote two weeks ago that Trump’s upcoming trials aren’t a distraction from his campaign; they are his campaign. If that proves to be correct, then whether swing voters see these prosecutions as legitimate or politically motivated may go a long way toward determining the outcome.
How the trials unfold will obviously be crucial here. Will Jack Smith and Fani Willis present dramatic new evidence? Will someone like Mark Meadows testify against Trump, offering damning new accounts? And, of course, will Trump be convicted? Seems to me these prosecutors have to bat .500 for any of this to stick politically. And if they go four-for-four, I would think Trump is cooked.
We’ll see what we see. But for now, it’s tragic from a democratic perspective that so many people believe something that isn’t merely untrue but is the opposite of the truth. Trump is being prosecuted because of what he did, not because of what he is doing today or might do tomorrow.
The full Orwell quote, by the way, is: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” It comes from a 1946 essay ruminating over the problem of “plain, unmistakable facts being shirked by people who in another part of their mind are aware to those facts.” If people can’t see this utterly lawless man for who he is, or if they allow their cynicism about the system to overpower their distrust of him, then we will wake up next November 6 counting our brittle democracy’s numbered days.