A year after Jan. 6, how Trump keeps pushing the 'big lie': ANALYSIS
ABC News spoke with political communication experts about the danger it poses.
Despite everything -- despite the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and everything revealed since -- Donald Trump has never stopped pushing the so-called "big lie" of a stolen presidential election.
Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion
A look at the days, events and conversations leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, from the eyes of anti-government groups, extremism experts and several ABC News correspondents who were at the Capitol that day.
"If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said then, stoking anger in the fired-up crowd on the Ellipse, telling them he would march with them to the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden's electoral vote win.
To mark the one-year anniversary, he announced, he would hold a news conference at Mar-a-Lago. "Until then, remember, the insurrection took place on November 3rd, it was the completely unarmed protest of the rigged election that took place on January 6th," he said in a release headlined, "Statement by Donald, J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America," suggesting he's still in office.
(Late Tuesday, in a similar release, he announced he was canceling that news conference, teasing he would "discuss many of those important topics at my rally on Saturday, January 15th, in Arizona—It will be a big crowd!")
As of Dec. 30, more than 700 accused rioters had been charged, and at least 165 have pleaded guilty.
Of the congressional effort to hold him and others accountable, Trump has said: “Why isn’t the Unselect Committee of highly partisan political hacks investigating the CAUSE of the January 6th protest, which was the rigged Presidential Election of 2020?”
His claims aimed at overturning the election were not only a rallying cry for the rioters on that dark day, many of his supporters, like Trump, have never wavered in the cause -- or their faith in his false narrative.
According to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll nearly one year since the attack, among Republicans, 71% sided with Trump's false claims that he was the rightful winner. In another recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 34% of Americans said violent action against the government is justified at times -- significantly higher than in past polls in the last two decades on the same topic. The survey found 40% of Republicans said violence is "sometimes justified."
The mob that attacked the Capitol are "patriots" being persecuted, he has said. They were justified in chanting "Hang Mike Pence," he told ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl in March (detailed in Karl's book "Betrayal"), defending their effort to stop Pence from counting the electoral votes as "common sense."
"The fact that he's still going with it, a year after the fact, keeps it salient, and other people in the Republican Party -- with Trump as their de facto leader -- have to play along," Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami with expertise in conspiracy theories, told ABC News.
"But they are pulling into their coalition people who want to tear down the system -- and a lot of those people who have those views also bring with them conflictual personalities, dark personality traits, and sometimes an acceptance of political violence," Uscinski said.
ABC News spoke with several experts in political rhetoric about why Trump keeps repeating the "big lie," how they say he's succeeding in making it "stick," and the danger they warn that poses for American democracy.
Exploiting confirmation bias
Trump undermines American democratic norms, the experts said, by exploiting the darkest parts of the human psyche.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe information that confirms or supports one's existing beliefs, and Trump, they say, took advantage of a large number of Americans who believed that the system was rigged against them, well in advance of Nov. 3.
In 2016, "political outsider" Trump pushed the idea of illegitimate elections and ran against what he called the "corrupt" system. So, when he repeatedly suggested last year that mail-in ballots could be falsified, even without evidence, they say, it wasn't hard for his base to believe it.
On Jan. 6, ABC News Live will provide all-day coverage of events marking one year since the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the continuing fallout for American democracy.
"What we saw on Jan. 6 was really the culmination of five years of rhetorical strategy from Donald Trump," Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M University with an expertise in political rhetoric, told ABC News. "For five years, he had been undermining the political system with his use of rhetoric, essentially attacking our public sphere."
"When political leaders use rhetoric to attack their opposition in a way that undermines legitimate political candidates and processes, it ends in war or it ends in civil war, so it's quite dangerous," she said.
Constant repetition reinforces his polarizing narrative with supporters, she said, no matter what the truth is.
"He knows how to strategically repeat things frequently enough that people will believe them. He knows how to use ambiguity strategically. He absolutely knows how to weaponize rhetoric in terms of conspiracy theory, in terms of making threats using ad hominem attacks. He's actually quite proficient at using rhetoric as a weapon," she said.
Peter Ditto, a professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine, said that Trump's repetition of "easy" phrases shows his understanding of partisan bias and exploitation of "us versus them" rhetoric and grievance. That, Ditto said, is "the evil genius part of him."
"The great power of the American experiment is we go sort of, evolutionarily, uphill and make it so that you have to respect the other side," Ditto added. "What Trump's done is recognize that it's much easier to make people dislike each other and to create group conflict than it to make them come together."
Weaponizing political rhetoric
Democrats and "Never Trumpers" called him out throughout his four years as president for weaponizing political rhetoric, warning it could spur violence.
After weeks of teasing the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington -- "it will be wild," he tweeted -- Trump riled up supporters on Jan. 6 by painting the presidential election as an "egregious assault on our democracy."
"You'll never take back our country with weakness," he told the crowd. Not long after, some of the rioters have said, they did what they thought Trump had told them to do.
"If Trump had been willing to accept the election results, none of this would have happened. If Trump had not used war rhetoric on Jan. 6, none of this would have happened," Mercieca said. "He brought in those people with his messages over months of conspiracy, and so he is responsible for what happened on Jan. 6."
When a leader like Trump repeats loaded phrases such as "hoax," "stolen" or "witch hunt," they effectively set off a "fight or flight response" in supporters, Mercieca said, triggering an emotional response that overwhelms the brain's ability to think critically in a phenomenon that's been termed "amygdala hijacking" -- which she said the former president has mastered.
"He's very effective at using slogans, at using repetition, and at using words that attract your attention," Mercieca told ABC News. "And those tend to be polarizing words, emotive words, that signal again the 'in group' versus the 'out-group,' and confirm the conspiracy theory that he's told."
While other presidents have used rhetoric to rally the nation for war, "What we don't see presidents do is cast doubt on the democratic process," she added. "That had always been held sacrosanct."
Whitewashing the narrative
While Trump portrays the other side as corrupt and against his base, he also paints repeatedly paints his supporters as the good guys.
The former president used language sympathetic to Capitol rioters even as the attack was underway, telling them "We love you," in a one-minute video released hours after the attack began, calling on his supporters to go home but not condemning the violence.
He has attempted to whitewash history since, calling the crowd "loving" and as "hugging and kissing" Capitol Police and downplaying what took place.
"Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly," Trump said in a September statement as prosecutions of rioters ramped up.
"He says out loud the things that create this conflict," said Ditto, who specializes in psychological science, "this belief that 'my side's good and your side's bad' and that's a real comfortable place for humans to be in."
'Pretender to the presidency'
Instead of retreating from public life, as have past presidents, Trump has been relentless in making conspiratorial comments in paper statements, or with friendly conservative TV hosts.
Mercieca described this as Trump acting as a "pretender to the presidency," comparing him to a deposed king who believes that they will be returned to their rightful place on the throne someday.
"He is someone who acts as though he is still the rightful leader. He gives all of the trappings of office in his messaging and has not retreated from the public sphere, in the way that a typical former president would do," she said. "We've never seen anything in the history of the United States of someone not accepting the election results, and then pretending that they were still president during the next president's term."
Despite being out of office, Trump has claimed executive privilege to keep key documents away from the Jan. 6 committee investigating the Capitol attack and tried to prevent key players like former chief of staff Mark Meadows and former adviser Steve Bannon from testifying.
But Trump isn't the only one carrying his agenda, even without him speaking from the presidential bully pulpit he used to enjoy.
"Political leaders like the president have a lot of sway in this country, particularly with those that follow them. And when they come out and lie, people will believe them," said Uscinski. "So, if we're going to blame anything here, it needs to be the former president of the United States, his allies in Congress and the conservative media that have pushed this lie -- and that's it."
Refusal to retreat
Trump, refusing to concede he lost, continues to double down.
"What happened on Jan. 6 was a protest against a rigged election, that's what it was," he told an enthusiastic crowd in Dallas on a tour with former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly last month. "This wasn't an insurrection."
The experts ABC News spoke with said Trump's pushing the "big lie" is unprecedented in American history.
"He just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing these particular grievances and pushing them without respect for truth or plausibility," Ditto said. "Nobody's challenged an election like this."
Even as Jan. 6 continues to divide the nation and shake the foundations of American democracy, Trump, he said, is on track to make his false claim of a "stolen" election his campaign message should he run in 2024.
"When we even fight about little things, divisions happen, and Trump just takes those and he just pokes and prods them and uses them to motivate people," Ditto said.
"Some shared sense of facts is crucial," he warned, "and once you lose that, if people won't back down or if there's no adherence to the truth -- somebody just doesn't want to act on that norm that you have to believe something that's plausible right in front of your face, then -- then the whole system falls apart."
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