Controversial Topic: Trump and the “Big Lie”

Controversial Topic: Trump and the “Big Lie”

The controversy over Trump and the “Big Lie” centers on the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn these results. This controversial topic emerged in the months leading up to the November election, when sitting President Donald Trump and his supporters and allies made widespread preemptive allegations that the outcome of the election would be rigged, and that a massive conspiracy was already underway involving crooked Democratic operatives, corrupt state voting commissions, preprogrammed voting machines, foreign Communist interference, and more. These claims gave foundation to this debate topic, which is also a popular subject for persuasive papers.

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On November 7th, Democratic challenger Joe Biden was projected by all major news networks to win the requisite 270 Electoral College votes needed to secure the presidency. Donald Trump immediately denounced the results as fraudulent, refused concession, and mounted a campaign which continues to this date aimed at undermining the results of the 2020 election. Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud and electoral irregularities gained support among Republican members of Congress, the majority of his voting base, and a broad cross-section of independent far-right organizations. Many Republicans, conservatives, and Trump supporters-both in office and among the general voting public-either believe, or outwardly claim, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Critics refer to this claim as “The Big Lie,” and point to what they view as the absence of evidence to confirm claims of voter fraud or electoral irregularity. Critics also point out that “The Big Lie” has proliferated widely through social media, conservative media, Republican seats of power, and segments of the general public, sowing distrust in the electoral process and undermining the strength of American democracy.

The controversial topic regarding the Big Lie has been played out both in the halls of Congress and in the media. If you’re not sure how to parse the often contradictory information coming from both sources, check out our tips for How Students Can Spot Fake News.

For a deeper look at the debate topic surrounding Trump and the Big Lie, read on...

What is the Big Lie?

The Big Lie is a phrase used by critics to refer to efforts by Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. The phrase is said to have originated in the infamous text Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. There, Hitler claimed that European Jewry had perpetuated the Big Lie that Germany was guilty of misconduct and deserving of its humiliating defeat in World War I. Ironically, historians instead came to adapt the phrase instead to refer to the propaganda and scapegoating aimed at European Jews by Hitler and the Nazi Party. Here, it is said that Germans used this Big Lie as a justification for the genocidal atrocities which followed.

As a consequence, The Big Lie came, thereafter, to refer to an audacious and sweeping campaign of disinformation propaganda aimed at creating far-reaching acceptance of non-truths. This definition inspired both critics of Donald Trump and those charged with defending the integrity of the existing electoral system to refer to efforts at undermining the election as part of a “Big Lie.”

What do critics of the Big Lie believe?

Critics of the Big Lie believe that claims of electoral irregularity or voter fraud in the 2020 election are probably false and are part of a concerted strategy to propagate disinformation, undermine the results of a free and fair election, and build a narrative that justifies future acts of voter suppression.

Critics of the Big Lie-a segment which includes Democratic members of Congress, representatives from the mainstream media, and voting rights advocacy groups-point to the complete absence of evidence to support most voter fraud claims, the universal judicial rejection of Trump’s legal challenges, the failure of attempted voting audits to yield proof of fraud, and Donald Trump’s own well-documented track record of disseminating proven falsehoods before, during, and after the 2020 election. Critics of the Big Lie also argue that the rally held by Donald Trump on January 6th, 2021, the subsequent storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the attempted insurgency there within, and the deadly violence which transpired there are all direct consequences of the Big Lie.

What do Donald Trump’s supporters believe?

Supporters of Donald Trump may either reject the notion of “The Big Lie” as conspiratorial or may alternatively argue, as Trump himself has done, that The Big Lie is actually the claim that Joe Biden won the presidency in a free and fair election. Those who believe or claim that the election was stolen-a population which includes a majority of Republican members of Congress, representatives from conservative media, and an array of militant grass roots organizations identifying with the “alt-right”-point to a massive conspiracy to deprive Trump of his second term.

Among the views espoused by Trump supporters are claims that: millions of ballots have been doctored to add Democratic votes; that voting machines have been manipulated to deliver Democratic votes; that Democratic stronghold cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh refused oversight from voting monitors; that the heightened use of mail-in ballots and dropboxes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic was actually a ruse designed to stuff Democratic votes; that Republican ballots went missing or where thrown out; that some states refused to verify voting signatures properly; that many states engaged in “surprise ballot dumps”; and more.

Many other allegations of voter fraud proliferated on social media, especially through the efforts of far-right conservative figures and groups like QAnon, the Oath Keepers, and the Stop the Steal movement sponsored from within the Republican Party. This large collection of narratives ultimately contributes to the shared view among many Trump supporters that the election was stolen through a far-reaching, multifaceted assault on the electoral process and democracy at large.

A Brief History of the Big Lie

CNN notes that the phrase was first invoked in reference to Trump’s efforts at overturning the 2020 election when historian Timothy Snyder, author of ‘On Tyranny,’ used it in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. ’The idea that Mr. Biden didn’t win the election is a big lie...It’s a big lie because you have to disbelieve all kinds of evidence to believe in it. It’s a big lie because you have to believe in a huge conspiracy in order to believe it. And it’s a big lie because, if you believe it, it demands you take radical action. So this is one way we have really moved forwards towards authoritarianism and away from democracy. It’s coming to a peak right now.

However, critics of Donald Trump argue that his efforts at casting doubt on electoral results have historical precedent.

Trump’s History of Undermining the Electoral Process

A timeline of events demonstrates that Donald Trump has long been critical of the electoral process, dating back to both his opposition to Barack Obama’s election and his claim that, in spite of his Electoral College victory over challenger Hillary Clinton in 2016, she only secured the majority of the popular vote because millions of illegal ballots had been cast in her favor. In many ways, this latter claim helped Trump to build the groundwork for his broader objections to the 2020 election, both as it approached, and in its aftermath.

Refusal to Commit to a Peaceful Transfer of Power

Trump’s criticism of the electoral process grew more constant and concentrated as the 2020 presidential election neared. When Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked him, during a July 2020 interview, if he would accept the results of an election in which he lost, Trump told the host, I have to see...I’m not just going to say yes.

Two months later, speaking to reporters at the White House, the president said, in response to a similar question, We’re going to have to see what happens...You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.

As the Trump Administration sowed doubt in the upcoming electoral process, local Republican state legislatures undertook numerous efforts aimed at limiting what they argued were forms of voting with higher vulnerability to voter fraud including mail-in and dropbox ballots. Efforts were also undertaken to limit the number of available voting polls in districts that Republicans argued were most vulnerable to fraud. The Brennan Center indicates that neighborhoods predominantly populated by people of color were targeted disproportionately by these restrictions.

Election Night

On November 3rd, 2020, Americans voted in the general election. However, because of the risks implicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of voters had cast their ballots in advance using mail-in ballots and drop boxes. Pew notes that Democrats were significantly more likely to use these alternative methods of voting due to pandemic-related health concerns.

This impacted the sequence of vote-counting in many states, where mail-in and dropbox ballots were counted after voting booth returns. As a result, Trump jumped out to an early lead in several swing states but late-night and early morning returns ultimately turned the tide in favor of Joe Biden. With slim margins in several swing states, major networks withheld from declaring Biden’s victory until November 7th. Joe Biden ultimately secured a 306-232 victory in the Electoral College. Under direct pressure from then President Donald Trump, General Services Administration administrator Emily Murphy delayed the traditional period of presidential transition by 16 days.

The Campaign to Overturn a Biden Victory

Immediately following the declaration of Biden’s victory, President Trump and his allies began a multifaceted campaign aimed at overturning the results of the presidential election. Steps taken to prevent the transition of power included:

  • Delegating U.S. Attorney General William Barr to deploy the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of fraud;
  • Terminating administration personnel who claimed the election had been fair, including outspoken Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Chris Krebs;
  • Filing 63 unsuccessful lawsuits in state and federal courts staking claims of voter fraud;
  • Pressuring sitting Republican office-holders to refute Biden’s electoral victory;
  • Explicitly pressuring state officials to reverse certified electoral outcomes on Trump’s behalf;
  • Instructing state officials to produce alternate certificates of ascertainment claiming victory on Trump’s behalf.

Critics argue that none of these efforts was effective in either proving fraud or persuading those with authority to overturn the results of the election.

The January 6th Insurrection

As these efforts fell short of producing the outcomes Trump and his supporters desired, emerging reports indicate that additional strategies were considered in conversation between President Trump, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and other members of the president’s inner circle. Among these strategies, Trump considered military intervention to prevent the transfer of power, as well as seizing voting machines, and challenging the final step in the electoral process-Congressional counting of votes and consequent certification.

The counting of votes has historically been a formality in which the results of the election are certified according to the outcome of the Electoral College. With the approach of the certification date—January 6th 2020—Trump and his allies deployed several additional strategies to prevent the transfer of power. Among them:

  • Republican officials urged state delegates to act as “faithless electors” by casting votes contrary to those dictated by state certified votes.
  • A number of Republican members of Congress indicated that they would voice objection to the counting of votes, prompting Congressional debate and, at a minimum, forestalling the outcome of the process.
  • Donald Trump publicly pressured Vice President Mike Pence to refuse his ceremonial duty, as President of the Senate, of signing the certified vote into law.

Most notably, Donald Trump’s allies organized a movement that they called “Stop the Steal”. The Stop the Steal movement coalesced in a January 6th rally, headlined by Donald Trump, and held at the Ellipse in Washington DC. Trump encouraged his supporters-a cross-section of traditional Republican voters and extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers-to march toward the Capitol building to “fight” against what he characterized as electoral theft.

Supporters responded by marching on the Capitol, laying siege to the building, clashing with Capitol police officers, disrupting the Congressional counting of votes, ransacking the halls of Congress, and construction gallows designed for the reported purpose of publicly executing the Vice President. The deadly violence resulted in five fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and numerous subsequent arrests. Though the attempted insurrection temporarily disrupted the certification of votes, Congress convened later that night to complete certification of the vote, and initiate the transition of power to Joe Biden.

The Current State of Debate

Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States and Donald Trump continues to argue that the 2020 election was stolen. Americans are sharply divided over the matter. The result of these differing views is a deepening rift between Americans who identify as Trump supporters and those who recognize Joe Biden as the rightful winner of the 2020 election. The Big Lie is, today, a lightning rod in the American culture wars, with political affiliation playing a major role in the version of events which each of us recognizes as accurate.

But the stakes are higher than mere political division for several reasons. First and foremost, the claims of voter fraud underlying what critics call “The Big Lie” are currently being leveraged in Republican and swing states to justify various voter suppression tactics. According to FiveThirtyEight, we are currently experiencing a large-scale Republican push to restrict voting access this spring and summer - the policy byproduct of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. At this point in the year, most state legislatures are now out of session, so we are close to being able to close the book on our tracking of these restrictions for 2021. Based on data from the Brennan Center for Justice and the Voting Rights Lab as well as our own research, we now count 52 new voting restrictions that have been enacted this year in 21 different states. And 41 of the 52 were sponsored primarily or entirely by Republicans.

The 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 Presidential election-which may well feature a rematch of the 2020 election-will likely be directly impacted by widespread skepticism in the integrity of the electoral process and by various new laws designed to limit voter access, especially as Democrats have faltered at passing new voter rights acts in Congress.

There is another dimension of this controversy that will keep it directly in the public eye for the immediate and foreseeable future. The events of January 6th implicated countless Trump supporters and activists in crimes ranging from destruction of public property and unlawful entry to attempted insurrection and domestic terrorism. The Justice Department continues to seek and gain indictments against offenders even as the Congressional Select Committee to Investigate January 6th works to uncover the role, and determine the responsibility, of Republican Congressional leaders, members of the Trump Administration, and Trump himself, in instigating the violence that occurred on that day.

To Trump’s critics, the violence on January 6th underscores the inherent danger of The Big Lie and highlights the threat that its continued perpetuation will instigate further violence and unrest. To Trump’s supporters, the events of January 6th were part of a patriotic effort to retake a presidency stolen through corruption, fraud, and conspiracy.

Who Supports Trump’s Efforts to Overturn the Election?

The following is a list of influencers who have gained prominence for their public connection to efforts aimed at overturning the results of the 2020 election on behalf of Donald Trump:

  1. Roger Stone is an American conservative political consultant and lobbyist who has worked on the campaigns of Republican politicians, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. As a staunch Trump ally, he played a major role in advancing the Stop the Steal Movement.
  2. Ali Alexander is an American far-right activist, social media personality, and conspiracy theorist who was a lead organizer of the Stop the Steal campaign and key organizer of one of several rallies that preceded the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol.
  3. Ron Watkins is an American conspiracy theorist and site administrator of the imageboard website 8chan who played a major role in spreading the discredited far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, has shared baseless conspiracy theories that widespread election fraud led to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and is believed by some journalists to be “Q”, the person behind QAnon.
  4. Mark Meadows is an American politician who served as the 29th White House chief of staff from 2020 to 2021, chaired the House Freedom Caucus from 2017, and played a major support role in President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
  5. Amy Kremer is an American political activist known for her roles in the Tea Party movement, and following Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election she supported attempts to overturn the election result, particularly through her group, Women for America First.
  6. Rudy Giuliani is an American politician and attorney who served as the 107th Mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001 and who more recently served as the lead counselor in the legal team deployed by Trump to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election.
  7. Sidney Powell is an American attorney and former federal prosecutor, best known for her promotion of conspiracy theories and attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election.
  8. Jenna Ellis is an American lawyer, known for her work as a member of Donald Trump’s legal team who, in 2015, self-published The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution, a book arguing that the Constitution of the United States can only be interpreted in accordance with the Bible.
  9. Michael Lindell also known as the My Pillow Guy, is an American businessman, conservative political activist, and conspiracy theorist. Originally best-known as the founder and CEO of My Pillow, Inc., a pillow, bedding, and slipper manufacturing company, he has gained increased public attention for his support of Donald Trump and widespread claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
  10. Jake Angeli, also known as the “QAnon Shaman,” is a Trump supporter, QAnon proponent and conspiracy theorist who gained notoriety for his highly visible participation in the 2021 United States Capitol attack, his trademark buffalo horn headgear, and his subsequent incarceration.

Who Argues That Trump’s Electoral Claims Constitute a Big Lie?

A number of progressive critics, journalists, academics, members of Congressrs of Congress, and voting rights advocates have been critical of Trump and his allies for propagating The Big Lie:

  • Leah Greenberg is an American political activist, co-founder of the progressive non-profit organization, Indivisible, and co-author of We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump, published in 2019.
  • Ezra Levin is an American political activist, co-founder of the progressive non-profit organization, Indivisible, and co-author of We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump who, along with Indivisible co-founder, Leah Greenberg, was named by Time in 2019 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
  • Stuart Stevens is an American travel writer and political consultant who joined The Lincoln Project, a Republican Never Trump group that actively campaigned against Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
  • Tara Setmayer is a former CNN political commentator, contributor to ABC News and former GOP Communications Director on Capitol Hill who, in January 2020, joined anti-Trump group, The Lincoln Project as a senior advisor.
  • Elizabeth Cheney is an American attorney and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where she chaired the House Republican Conference and consequently held the third-highest position in House Republican leadership, from 2019 to 2021. Cheney has more recently earned the ire of fellow Republicans for aggressively refuting Trump’s electoral claims.
  • Bennie Thompson is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representative who has been the chair of the Committee on Homeland Security since 2019 (and previously from 2007 to 2011). Thompson is also the Chairman overseeing the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
  • Brad Raffensperger is an American politician, businessman, and civil engineer from the state of Georgia who made headlines, and received death threats, during the 2020 election by resisting pressure from Trump to overturn his state’s electoral outcome.
  • Chris Krebs is an American attorney who served as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the United States Department of Homeland Security from November 2018 to November 2020 but was fired for vocally refuting Trump’s claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
  • Jamie Raskin is an American lawyer and politician serving as the U.S. representative for Maryland’s 8th congressional district since 2017 and served as the lead prosecutor in Trump’s second impeachment trial, relating to the January 6th insurrection.
  • Timothy Snyder is an American author and historian specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust who is credited by some for applying the phrase The Big Lie to Trump’s efforts at overturning the election.

Most Influential Books About the Big Lie

Through our own independent research, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books published on the topic of the Big Lie in the U.S. between 2020 and 2022. This list is composed of historical texts which have formed the basis for the concept of “The Big Lie,” texts which have informed the philosophical impetus for the modern Republican establishment that serves as Donald Trump’s base of influence, texts which have helped lay the foundation for many of the persistent conspiracy theories giving rise to Trump’s base of support, and texts which have been critical of Trump, his supporters, and/or his rhetoric in relation to the results of the 2020 presidential election.

  1. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening by WWG1WGA
  2. The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson
  3. Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America by Dick Cheney and Elizabeth Cheney
  4. Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us by Donald Trump Jr
  5. The Tyranny of Big Tech by Josh Hawley
  6. How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
  7. Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
  8. The Right Nation by John Micklethwait
  9. A Warning by Anonymous
  10. The Trump Prophecies: The Astonishing True Story of the Man Who Saw Tomorrow...and What He Says Is Coming Next by Mark Taylor

Key Groups in the the Big Lie Debate

Supporters of the Big Lie:

Opponents of the Big Lie:

The Current State of Debate

Related Controversies:

For more hot-button issues, check out The Most Controversial Topics Today.

And if you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the 2020 presidential election and the January 6th siege on the U.S. capitol building, consider pursuing a degree in an area such as political science or legal studies.

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