‘Silence Is Complicity’: How Republican Leaders Helped an Election Lie Catch Fire
As midterm elections loom, a majority of Americans in both main political parties say democracy is “in danger of collapse.”
That’s where the agreement on the threat to democracy ends, with President Joe Biden taking to the airwaves to decry the “extremist ideology” of former President Donald Trump and the “MAGA” faction of the Republican party, and Trump and his allies continuing to promote the lie that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats.
The inside story of how the country reached this precarious and polarized moment is starkly revealed in FRONTLINE’s season premiere, Lies, Politics and Democracy — a two-hour investigation of political leaders and the choices they made over years, embracing rhetoric and spreading lies that stoked division and threats to American democracy.
“I never once talked to anybody that believed any of this garbage. Ninety nine point nine percent, almost, of congressmen and women in the Republican Party know that the election wasn’t stolen,” U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of only two Republicans on the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from the documentary. “They’re just too cowardly to say it and frankly, in a republic, that’s frightening.”
Over the course of two hours, the documentary, from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, traces how American democracy barreled towards this moment of crisis despite numerous warning signs over the years — starting from what happened after then-candidate Trump’s claim that his loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 Iowa presidential caucuses was “rigged.”
By the time of Trump’s unprecedented refusal to concede his 2020 election loss, the film finds, he had largely cleansed the Republican party of critics and remade it in his own image. The film charts a continuing pattern of accommodation stretching back years, and culminating with GOP leaders refusing to publicly counter Trump’s false claims of a “rigged election” in the critical days and weeks after Biden’s victory — fueling a lie that sparked an insurrection and further inflamed the country’s divisions.
Among those Republican leaders, the above excerpt from the film reports, was then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“The view, at this point, initially, is — look. This looks like it’s probably over, from our perspective,” Josh Holmes, then one of McConnell’s key advisors, tells FRONTLINE in the excerpt. “The margins are large enough where it’s not triggering automatic recounts in some of these places. It just, it felt off. It felt like it wasn’t going to be able to get to the, you know, victorious outcome for President Trump.”
But in what Jonathan Martin of The New York Times calls an effort to “placate Trump,” McConnell wouldn’t acknowledge Trump’s loss publicly. And according to Kinzinger, McConnell told others not to speak out: “I heard from a specific senator, who said, ‘Mitch has told us to stay quiet against the president in this period,’” Kinzinger says in the film. “And I think that led to a lot of what otherwise would be kind of influential senators at least countering the voice of Donald Trump being silent. And silence is complicity.”
Conservative columnist Mona Charen says McConnell’s decision was a serious mistake.
“He had seen enough, over the last five years, of what kind of a person Trump is, to know that this was a dangerous indulgence,” she says in the excerpt. “He should have been looking for an opportunity to defang Trump while he had the chance.”
“That decision keeps Mitch McConnell out of the crosshairs of Trump and Trump’s people,” says journalist and historian Jelani Cobb, a reporter on the Lies, Politics and Democracy film team. “But more perniciously, that gives a lead time for the most fantastic and outrageous conspiratorial ideas to really just start circulating.”
In addition to the then-president himself, right-wing media picked up and amplified those ideas. So did numerous Republicans in Congress — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Trump’s onetime-nemesis-turned-cheerleader Ted Cruz — and White House officials, saturating the airwaves with false claims.
“I have a lot of family who are die-hard Trump supporters,” says former White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah Griffin, who would leave Trump’s White House in December 2020 as his effort to overturn the election escalated. “It was frustrating to me to talk to my family who would be like: ‘Well, listen, no, I think it was stolen. He’s going to have another four years.’ And I’d be like: ‘Guys that’s not true. It was not stolen. He is not going to have another four years.’ But then you flip on the news, and some other senior White House official is lying to the public.”
Nearly two years later, and despite the violent Jan. 6 insurrection, those lies continue to find purchase, with most Republican voters believing the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
“Voters’ faith in our democratic system of elections is diminishing further by the day, practically,” says journalist Tim Alberta, a reporter on the Lies, Politics and Democracy film team. “The erosion of confidence in our elections is an existential crisis for the United States of America. There’s no other way to say it.”
Political scientists interviewed in the documentary also call this moment existential.
Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of the 2018 book How Democracies Die, says in the documentary, “a democracy can’t survive if politicians and political parties don’t know how to lose… Sometimes, people have even said democracy is for losers. It’s a system that allows losers to come back and fight another day. And so, if the losers deny that they’ve lost, the system can’t endure.”
The documentary, which premiered Sept. 6, 2022, is supported by Preserving Democracy, a public media initiative from The WNET Group. On Sept. 6, FRONTLINE published 28 interviews with sources from the making of Lies, Politics and Democracy as part of the series’ ongoing Transparency Project.
Lies, Politics and Democracy is a FRONTLINE production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Vanessa Fica. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporters are Vanessa Fica, Tim Alberta and Jelani Cobb. The editor-in-chief and executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
This story has been updated to include an embed of the full documentary.