Editor's note: The following op-ed is excerpted from the author's new book, "Rigged."
If questioning the results of a presidential election were a crime, as many have asserted in the wake of the controversial 2020 election and its aftermath, then much of the Democratic Party and media establishment should have been indicted for their behavior following the 2016 election. In fact, the last time Democrats fully accepted the legitimacy of a presidential election they lost was in 1988.
After the 2000 election, which hinged on the results of a recount in Florida, Democrats smeared President George W. Bush as "selected, not elected." When Bush won re-election against then senator John Kerry in 2004, many on the left claimed that voting machines in Ohio had been rigged to deliver fraudulent votes to Bush.
HBO even produced and aired the Emmy-nominated "Hacking Democracy," a documentary claiming to show that "votes can be stolen without a trace," adding fuel to the conspiracy theory fire that the results of the 2004 election were illegitimate. But nothing holds a candle to what happened in 2016 after Donald Trump’s surprising defeat of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Rather than accept that Trump won and Clinton lost fair and square, the political and media establishments desperately sought to explain away Trump’s victory. They settled on a destructive conspiracy theory that crippled the government, empowered America’s adversaries, and illegally targeted innocent private citizens whose only crime was not supporting Hillary Clinton.
The Russia collusion hoax had all the elements of an election conspiracy theory, including baseless claims of hacked voting totals, illegal voter suppression, and treasonous collaboration with a foreign power. Pundits and officials speculated openly that President Trump was a foreign asset and that members of his circle were under the thumb of the Kremlin.
But despite the patent absurdity of these claims, the belief that Trump stole the 2016 election had the support of the most powerful institutions, individuals, and even government agencies in the country. To question the legitimacy of the 2016 election wasn’t to undermine our
democracy; it was considered by some of our most elevated public figures a patriotic duty.
"You can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you," Clinton told her followers in 2019.
"I know he’s an illegitimate president," Clinton claimed of Trump a few months later. She even said during an interview with "CBS Sunday Morning" that "voter suppression and voter purging and hacking" were the reasons for her defeat.
Former president Jimmy Carter agreed. "[Trump] lost the election and was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf," he told NPR in 2019. "Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016."
Their view was shared by most prominent Democrats in Congress. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, for example, said he was skipping Trump’s inauguration in 2016 because he believed Trump was illegitimate: "[T]he Russians participated in helping this man get elected.... That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not an open democratic process." Lewis had also skipped the inauguration of President George W. Bush, claiming Bush, too, was an illegitimate president.
A few members of Congress joined him in 2001. By 2017, one out of three Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives boycotted Trump’s inauguration. Many said they refused to take part in the installation of an "illegitimate" president.
The corporate media didn’t condemn leading Democrats’ refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election. In fact, the media amplified the most speculative claims of how Trump and Russia had colluded to steal the election from Clinton. They dutifully regurgitated inaccurate leaks from corrupt intelligence officials suggesting Trump and his staff had committed treason. They ran stories arguing that Republicans who didn’t support their conspiracy theory were insufficiently loyal to the country or somehow compromised themselves.
It was all nonsense. Even Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who ran a multi-year and multi-million-dollar government investigation into claims that Trump personally colluded with Russian president Vladimir Putin to steal the election from Clinton, found no evidence to support the fevered accusations.
The reporters who pushed this conspiracy theory were never held accountable by their peers for peddling leaks and lies. They received raises and promotions, honors and awards, and the applause of their colleagues. Some were given Pulitzer Prizes for "reporting" that was closer to fan fiction than an accurate description of events.
From 2016 through 2020, the easiest way to achieve stardom on the political left was to loudly proclaim one’s belief that the 2016 election was illegitimate—stolen by the Russians on behalf of a corrupt traitor. Conspiracy-mongering, up to and including the assertion that the president of the United States was a secret Russian spy, was the highest form of patriotism.
And then 2020 happened.
At the drop of a hat, America’s electoral system went from irredeemably corrupt and broken in 2016 to unquestionably safe in 2020. Voting methods that were allegedly used to steal elections in 2004 and 2016 suddenly became sacrosanct and unquestionable in 2020. Whereas so-called election experts repeatedly warned pre-2020 about the pitfalls of electronic voting and widespread mail-in balloting, by November 2020 any discussion about the vulnerabilities of those methods was written off as the stuff of right-wing cranks and conspiracy-mongers.
Such dismissals required ignoring quite real problems with election integrity affecting hundreds of U.S. elections at the state and local levels, and even the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy won just 118,574 more votes than Richard Nixon. That Electoral College win hinged on victories in Illinois, where Chicago vote totals were suspiciously high for Kennedy, and Texas, a state where Kennedy’s running mate Lyndon B. Johnson had been known to exert control over election results. Official biographers and historians have claimed one or both states would have been won by Nixon in a fair election.
If concerns about election integrity were valid from at least 1960 through 2016, then surely those concerns were even more valid in 2020, an election year unlike any other in American history.
In the lead-up to the election, thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic that gripped the world, wide-ranging electoral reforms were implemented. Across the country at the state, local, and federal levels, political actors rammed through hundreds of structural changes to the manner and oversight of elections, resulting in what Time magazine would later call "a revolution in how people vote." Some of these changes were enacted by state legislatures, some by courts, and others by state and county election officials. Many changes, allegedly justified by the global pandemic, were broad reforms that Democrats had long desired. The crisis was their chance to sneak in contentious policies through the back door.
The bedrock of the American republic is that elections must be free, fair, accurate, and trusted. Election lawyers will tell you that fraud is almost impossible to conclusively find after the fact, and that to fight it, strong rules and regulations are needed on the front end. That’s why Democrats and Republicans fight so bitterly about the rules and regulations that govern the process.
What happened during the 2020 election must be investigated and discussed, not in spite of media and political opposition to an open inquiry, but because of that opposition. The American people deserve to know what happened.
They deserve answers, even if those answers are inconvenient. They deserve to know the effect flooding the system with tens of millions of mail-in ballots had on their vote.
They deserve to know how and why Big Tech and the corporate political media manipulated the news to support certain political narratives while censoring stories they now admit were true.
They deserve to know why courts were allowed to unilaterally rewrite the rules in the middle of the contest, often without the consent of the legislative bodies charged with writing election laws.