The Big Rip-Off and the Failed Coup
How fundraising contributed to violence
Trump knew in advance that he was likely to lose, and he made plans. One of them was to fundraise from defeat. Rather than conceding, the idea was to tell his supporters that Democrats were "trying to steal" the election. Everything went as expected and planned: Trump lost; he claimed that he had won; and the fundraising began immediately with the pre-approved slogan about stopping the steal. The goals were two: to get a lot of money for nothing, and to build support for extra-legal action to keep Trump in the presidency.
This emerges from a fascinating annex buried deep inside the January 6 committee's report, entitled the "Big Rip-Off." As the committee nicely summarizes: "President Trump and his Campaign ripped off supporters by raising more than $250 million by claiming they wanted to fight fraud they knew did not exist and to challenge an election they knew he lost." The scam raised that quarter of a billion dollars, mostly from from small donations, between election day and the storming of the Capitol. The small donations mean commitment from a large number of people.
The Trump Campaign and the Republican National Committee were working together on this messaging. Their representatives spread falsehoods, day after day, in order to scam their own voters for money. As the committee concludes, "President Trump’s claims were treated as true and blasted to millions of people with little to no scrutiny by those tasked with ensuring accuracy. This process was a fertile ground for the Big Lie to spread through hundreds of emails and text messages." The Big Lie was being communicated by a team of competent propagandists with great skill, and in a flurry of activity, all-caps and exclamation marks meant to suggest an actual crisis.
The claim that an election has been stolen appeals to fundamental emotions. In order to give money, people had to believe the Big Lie, and belief means emotional involvement. The hundreds of emails were crafted to echo Trump's style and substance, to generate such engagement, to motivate people to action.
And giving money is an action, a commitment. You don't give money to people you think are scamming you. And once you have given the money, it becomes almost unthinkable that you have been scammed. Once Trump’s supporters made a contribution, they had bought in to the Big Lie. And once they had done something on that basis, they were probably more likely to do something else -- like storm the Capitol, or, later on, vote for Big Liars in the 2022 elections.
In those chaotic weeks of late 2020, it might have seemed that Trump was improvising. In retrospect, that does not seem to be the case. He seems to have been executing a plan. Two things were happening at once, both of which Trump presumably wanted to happen. First, he was getting control of vast sums of money. He was raising more funds faster than he did before the election, under auspices that would allow him to do almost anything with the money. Second, millions of people were internalizing the Big Lie and getting angry. The Trump campaign and the RNC were following Hitler's advice: tell a lie so big that your public would not believe that you would deceive them on such a scale. It is not surprising that Americans reading an email claiming to be on behalf of an "Official Election Defense Fund" from a presidential campaign and a major political party would believe it. In fact, there never was an "Official Election Defense Fund."
And so, between early November and early January, the Big Rip-Off created two important emotional investments, one on the part of the scammers, another on the part of the scammed. The Trump campaign was making so much money from defeat that it naturally wanted the propaganda machine to crank on for as long as possible. Meanwhile, the victims of the scam continued to receive the same kinds of energizing emails and texts long after the election results were absolutely clear, furthering separating them from reality, solidifying their conviction that their cause must be righteous. The endless stream of emails and texts, echoing what Trump said in public and tweeted, were an essential element of the alternative reality Trump sought to create.
The results of this became clear on January 6th, 2021. On that day, the communication channel used for fundraising, which had already gotten people invested in the Big Lie, became a direct instrument of the violent coup attempt. As Trump was speaking at the rally, the campaign sent emails summoning supporters to "fight back" and maintain "our last line of defense." Another email that day called for supporters to prevent Congress from certifying the election results: "TODAY will be a historic day in our Nation’s history. Congress will either certify, or object to, the Election results. Every single Patriot from across the Country must step up RIGHT NOW if we’re going to successfully DEFEND the integrity of this Election." Yet another proclaimed: "TODAY. This is our LAST CHANCE... The stakes have NEVER been higher. President Trump needs YOU to make a statement and publicly stand with him and FIGHT BACK." Half an hour after that email, Trump's supports broke into the Capitol.
Needless to say, the money did not go towards investigating the election. The Trump people knew that they had lost, and that there was nothing to investigate. In any event, there are limits on how much can be spent on such investigations, which were surpassed to a ludicrous extent by the fundraising. What happened instead was that much of the money was transferred to Trump's new PAC, Save America. By law the PAC could have spent $5000 on investigating the election; in fact it spent nothing. Instead, as the committee reports, "millions have been paid to companies that are known affiliates of President Trump, or payments to entities associated with former Trump administration officials."
The detailed summary of PAC payments in the report reads like the script of a comedy about corruption in a banana republic, but sadly the scam was all too real, and all too American. I will give just one example: the Save America PAC has paid nearly $100,000 to Hervé Pierre, the fashion designer who dresses Melania Trump. It doesn't get any better after that. In fact, it gets worse. Much of the spending amounts to this: Trump lied about an election, raised money from the lie, and is now using that money to propagate the lie and defend those who told it along with him.
How did we end up here? It mattered a lot that Trump told a Big Lie. But it also mattered a lot that Republicans chose not to correct him (or just mock him) when it mattered. What people said and did in those first 24, 48, or 72 hours after Trump declared victory had tremendous importance, and too many people who mattered did nothing. Much of what is wrong with this country now began just then. In the first few days after the election, too few prominent Republican politicians did the right thing. Had more such people spoken up right then, the Big Lie would never have gotten off the ground. As the report makes clear, though, it was not just the absence of Republican voices that mattered. It was also the presence of the Republican National Committee as propaganda partner in the Big Rip-Off. Had the Republican National Committee dissented from Trump rather than cooperating in sending out two months of mendacious emails, we would probably not be where we are today.
That is a familiar story: a tiny bit of courage, a tiny bit of truth, can change history. Unfortunately, this time around, that tiny bit of courage and that tiny bit of truth were utterly lacking. With some honorable exceptions, the people who needed to take a stand did not do so. The result was a coup attempt, the anchoring of the Big Lie in American public opinion, a polarization of Americans grounded in a durable fiction, and the disorder in the Republican Party on display right now.
Thinking about... is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.