Scoff. That’s what we did years ago when we each first heard about Holocaust denial, as a Holocaust historian and the child of a survivor, respectively. Dismissing it as the historical equivalent of flat-Earth theory, we reassured ourselves that the Holocaust has the painful distinction of being the best–documented genocide in the world. Who could claim it did not happen? But we soon discovered we were wrong to laugh at it, as the falsehood crept into classrooms, books and even international relations. We have learned — the hard way — to take it seriously.
That is why in recent weeks we have watched with alarm the birth of another powerful disinformation mythology: the false conviction pushed by President Trump and his enablers that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen.
We had wondered whether the definitive vote of the electoral college and the declaration by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that Joe Biden was the president-elect might provide a final end to Trump’s electoral fraud fantasies. But he has instead redoubled his dangerous disinformation crusade, reportedly even probing the use of the military to further his bizarre theory that the election was stolen.
Call it democracy denial.
As students of history, we do not make this comparison lightly: No lie could be as bad as denying the reality of a genocide. But democracy denial is bad enough.
Like Holocaust denial, there is an unmistakable racial tinge to Trump’s democracy denial. He and his cohort are openly targeting strongly minority jurisdictions with their false claims, in particular cities with large Black populations — Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta. Here’s how Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, put it: “You knew if you lived in Philadelphia. Unless you’re stunod — that’s an Italian expression for stupid — unless you’re stupid, you knew that a lot of people were coming over from Camden to vote,” he said. “And it’s allowed to happen because it’s a Democrat, corrupt city, and has been for years.”
As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) has noted, “Really the themes that we see [from Trump] … are this: Black people are corrupt, Black people are incompetent and Black people can’t be trusted.”
Also like the denial of the Holocaust, the sheer scale of Trump’s electoral falsehoods is staggering: Millions of votes supposedly stolen. An alleged global conspiracy to tamper with election equipment. Purportedly widespread official complicity, including by officials such as Govs. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Doug Ducey of Arizona, who are both Republicans and Trump supporters. Even Venezuela’s long-dead Hugo Chávez is somehow involved. It makes no sense, as judge after judge has repeatedly determined.
But the same can be said of Holocaust denial.
Trump is not, of course, Adolf Hitler, and we unequivocally reject the comparison. But he has adopted the propaganda technique of the big lie. “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily,” Hitler wrote. “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
Democracy denial also has a third — and most menacing — point of comparison to Holocaust denial. Denying the results of elections serves anti-democratic political ends, whether it is used by ultraconservative European politicians to rehabilitate the fascist tradition or by haters of Israeli democracy, like many within the current Iranian regime.
So, too, does democracy denial strike at the very heart of American governance. Voting is how the American people express their political will. It underlies the legitimacy of our government — and so of our nation. The president’s attacks on our democracy began long before his recent attempt to sow doubts about a legitimate election, including his assaults on the judiciary and the media that unmistakably echoed efforts by the illiberal regimes of the last century. But Trump has reached a new low with his post-election attacks on voting, the foundation of our democracy, when in fact we just had one of the safest, best and most participatory elections in our history. It is hard to imagine a more destabilizing assault from within on our nation. Now Trump is reportedly probing extreme steps to attempt to support his democracy denial.
But the point of making this painful comparison is what it can teach us about how to fight back against democracy denial. And there are lessons that can be learned from the active campaign to combat Holocaust denial.
The first is that we must attack Trump’s big lie before it takes further hold. For years, some — ourselves included — viewed Holocaust denial as a fringe phenomenon and chose not to refute it. Then we found it creeping more and more into mainstream discourse, where we were forced to tackle it after it had spread. It’s too late by that point, though.
We cannot make that mistake here. We must refute the falsehoods that the president is purveying, which tens of millions of Americans believe, according to opinion polls. And we need to do it now, before it takes further hold, instead of just dismissing the problem. These lies won’t change the outcome of the election. But they don’t just undermine the legitimacy of the new administration — they serve as an illiberal rallying cry in future election cycles and erode the faith that undergirds our democracy.
Second, we have learned that the most effective way to fight a giant falsehood is to broadcast an even larger truth — backed by facts and evidence. That means not just rebutting false claims defensively, but spreading the truth far and wide. We need to celebrate the election officials, poll workers and voters of both parties who made this the most successful election ever, and we need to affirmatively tell the story of how our democracy works. A bipartisan civil society commission might be able to make those points and put the lies to rest — definitively.
Finally, the purveyors of the “big lie” about the 2020 election must be denied respectable platforms in polite national society. We would not allow a Holocaust denier to speak on evening news programs or have free rein on social media. There are limits. Democracy denial — in its racism, its utter falsity and its deep danger — is well beyond them. Old and new media alike should no longer give a platform to these dissimulations, starting with Trump’s. We were pleased by the announcement that YouTube will remove false claims of election illegitimacy, and others should follow suit.
Democracy denial poses a profound threat to our nation, and we must treat it accordingly. If we allow it to fester, we will come to regret it.