In The Big Lie: Election Chaos, Political Opportunism, and the State of American Politics After 2020 (Flatiron, July), journalist Lemire examines the roots and repercussions of Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.
You trace the emergence of the “Big Lie” back to an August 2016 campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio. Why was what that moment so consequential, given that Trump had already cast doubt on the results of the Iowa caucuses?
You’re right to bring up the Iowa caucus. That was the first moment where he claimed the system was unfair, but it was a little bit of a different false claim. This moment in August is the first time he said that the election itself would be rigged. And he’d go on to suggest, in a presidential debate, not only that the election would not necessarily be fair, but that he wouldn’t necessarily honor it.
How did that come to resonate with so many voters?
I think there are a couple of things at play here. First of all, the Republican Party base had grown more populist. And the fervor was stoked by Fox News and other parts of conservative media. We’ve also seen at that point years and years of faith in the nation’s institutions really eroding. A lot of Americans felt that they had been left behind. They couldn’t trust the government anymore. Trump was viewed as someone outside of Washington that they felt could fix things and put things back the way they should be.
Has the media learned lessons from its initial coverage of the Trump campaign?
A lot of newspeople and cable executives acknowledge mistakes with the 2016 coverage, where Trump was given too much uncritical airtime and ate up all the oxygen in the room. I think coverage, from the print and broadcast side, got better while Trump was in office—whatever he would say would not just be repeated verbatim or uncritically. There was a lot more fact-checking. Now, will it matter? That remains to be seen because of just how siloed we all are right now, how polarized the country is, and how people tend to get their news from fellow travelers. It’s not clear, even if you do the best possible job fact-checking Donald Trump or any other candidate, whether it would get through to the other side.
You challenged Trump at the 2018 summit with Putin about U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Were you surprised by his response?
He went further than I anticipated. I thought he, at the very least, would try to equivocate and give some credence to what the Americans have said and some credence to Putin, who said, “I did not interfere.” I did not anticipate Trump’s throwing his lot entirely with Moscow in public, which is what he did.