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Opinion | The Inside Joke That Became Trump’s Big Lie

The 2020 election lie is not bigger than birtherism. History should not remember the effort to delegitimize Obama’s presidency as just another rung on the ladder toward the big lie. The lies are akin even in their power of persuasion. Leibovich recalls how in 2016, 72 percent of Republicans said they believed Trump’s lies about Obama’s background. This figure is comparable with the 71 percent of Republicans who said in late 2021 that they believed President Biden was not a fully legitimate president. And much as support for the 2020 election lie provides a loyalty test in the Trumpified Republican Party, a willingness to believe the worst of Obama was a near-requirement in the party during his presidency. “A testing ground for Republican squishiness was how strongly, and how bitterly, one opposed Obama,” the historian Nicole Hemmer recalls in her new book, “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” on the rise of the post-Reagan right. “To match the response of the party’s base, politicians would need to reflect the emotions gripping it.” And they did.

For Hemmer, the Republican Party’s evolution from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump began with Pat Buchanan, the White House aide, television pundit and authoritarian-curious presidential candidate who “fashioned grievance politics into an agenda,” she writes — a program that emphasized identity, immigration and race as its battlegrounds. For Milbank, it was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and the “savage politics he pioneered” in advance of the Republican Revolution of 1994. “There was nobody better at attacking, destroying, and undermining those in power,” Milbank writes. Gingrich made compromise a thought crime and labeled his opponents as sick and traitorous, tactics that should also sound familiar.

You needn’t pick between Buchanan and Gingrich — it’s enough to say that Buchanan gave the modern Republican Party its substance and Gingrich provided its style. (I imagine they’d both be honored by the distinctions.) When Trump dispatched his supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6, telling them to “fight like hell,” urging them to preserve a country that was slipping away, calling them patriots who could take back an election stolen by the radical left, he was channeling both men. The big lie is part of their legacy, too.

In his j’accuse-y yet semi-confessional “Why We Did It,” Miller, now a writer at large for the anti-Trump conservative forum The Bulwark, tries to grasp why his old colleagues followed Trump all the way to his rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6. “I needed to figure out where our parting had started,” he writes. Miller grasps the futility of seeking a single origin story — “I’m sure a student of history might be able to trace it back to the Southern Strategy or Lee Atwater or, hell, maybe even Mark Hanna (give him a Google),” Miller writes — but he does hazard some explanations. He points to Republicans’ ability to compartmentalize concerns about Trump. Their unquenchable compulsion to be in the mix. Their self-serving belief that they could channel dark arts for noble purposes. Their desire to make money. (Miller acknowledges his own paid work helping the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, a stint that makes Miller more of a Barely Trumper than a Never Trumper.) Most of all, his old colleagues succumbed to Trump because they believed they were playing “some big game devoid of real-world consequences.”

Miller lingers on this game — the amoral world of tactics, messaging and opposition research, the realm of politics where facts matter less than cleverness and nothing matters more than results. He once thought of it as winning the race, being a killer, just a dishonest buck for a dishonest day’s work. “Practitioners of politics could easily dismiss moralistic or technical concerns just by throwing down their trump card: ‘It’s all part of the Game,’” Miller writes. He has a nickname for the comrades so immersed in the game that they are oblivious to its consequences: the LOL Nothing Matters Republicans. “The LOLNMRs had decided that if someone like Trump could win, then everything that everyone does in politics is meaningless.”

The big lie thrives on LOL Nothing Matters.

What Miller calls “the game” becomes “the joke” in Leibovich’s book, the depressing tale of the high-level supplicants who surrounded Trump during his presidency and continue to grovel in what they hope will be an interregnum. If the purely transactional nature of Washington power was the subject of Leibovich’s 2013 best seller, “This Town,” the mix of mendacity and subservience behind every transaction is the theme of his latest work. Reince Priebus, during his incarnation as Republican National Committee chairman before his six-month sojourn as Trump’s White House chief of staff, explained to Leibovich that of course, he got the joke. “This was his way of reassuring me that he understood what was really happening beyond his surface niceties about unity, tolerance, grace, or the idea that Trump could ever ‘pivot,’” Leibovich writes. In other words, don’t take his words seriously. “He got the joke and knew that I did, too.”

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