Saturday, January 16, 2021
US Capitol riot: police have long history of aiding neo-Nazis and extremists
Experts were not surprised that officers were part of the mob, given the ties between some police and white supremacist groups in recent years
For years, domestic terrorism researchers have warned that there are police departments in every region of America counting white supremacist extremists and neo-Nazi sympathizers among their ranks.
To these experts, and the activists who have been targeted by law enforcement officers in past years, it came as no surprise that police officers were part of the mob that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. In fact, the acceptance of far-right beliefs among law enforcement, they say, helped lay the groundwork for the extraordinary attacks in the American capital.
“I’ve been trying to ring the alarm since before Donald Trump was elected,” said Cedric O’Bannon, a journalist and activist who was stabbed at a 2016 neo-Nazi rallyin Sacramento and was later targeted by the investigating officer. “It’s nothing new. We’ve seen it getting worse and worse. The law enforcement collusion with white nationalists is clear,” he said.
Last Wednesday, Trump encouraged his supporters and far-right groups to march to the Capitol where Congress was sitting. Soon, rioters and militants wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and white supremacist symbols toppled the flimsy barricades on the grounds, pushed past police and stormed the building.
In the days since the attack, which left five people dead and caused lawmakers to hide in fear for their lives, investigations have revealed that a wide range of US law enforcement personnel were represented in the crowd. News reports and other inquiries have identified roughly 30 sworn members of police agencies from more than 12 different states who were present at the Capitol, according to criminal justice news site, the Appeal.
So far, several on-duty Capitol police officers have been suspended for allegedly supporting rioters, and two off-duty Virginia officers were arrested after boasting on social media about breaching the Capitol. A Houston officer caught inside the building has since resigned, and the police departments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia and other cities are investigating whether their employees attended.
“These are people who we give guns to, who get specialized training, who have access to sensitive information,” said Vida B Johnson, Georgetown University law professor and expert on policing, “and they took part in a plan to undo the votes for the democratically elected president.”
When police protect neo-Nazis
Extremism experts and survivors of far-right violence have for years cried foul about the close ties between some police and white supremacist groups. These links have escalated under the Trump era, they’ve warned, with numerous examples of police openly protecting far-right organizers, including armed and violent ones.
In June 2016 in Sacramento at least ten people were stabbed and injured at a rally of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), a group that extremism experts have classified as neo-Nazis.
The subsequent investigation, led by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), focused on the anti-fascist counter-protesters injured in the stabbings, with records showing that police worked with white supremacists to identify leftist activists and pursue criminal charges against the stabbing victims.
The lead CHP investigator, Donovan Ayres, repeatedly stated in police records that he viewed the neo-Nazis as victims and the anti-fascists as suspects. In court, he repeatedly called TWP the “permitted party”, since it had a permit for a rally, and in a phone call with a TWP leader, he said, “We’re looking at you as a victim.”
Records show that Ayres formally recommended Cedric O’Bannon, a Black journalist who was filming the events and was stabbed during the demonstration, face criminal charges for conspiracy, rioting, assault and unlawful assembly noting he was “among the protesters”. The officer did not recommend anyone face charges for the stabbing. O’Bannon ultimately was not charged.
Reflecting on the case now, O’Bannon said there should be accountability for the way the officer treated him. “I always think about, has he treated other people in the same way? Is he still doing it now?” Without consequences, officers who sympathize with neo-Nazis are emboldened, he said.
“People of color know this and we’ve been knowing this,” said Mike Williams, a 60-year-old indigenous activist in Sacramento. He was one of three counter-protesterswho faced a criminal trial after Ayres pursued cases against them, alleging they violated the “free speech” rights of neo-Nazis.
The reports that Capitol officers may have enabled or supported the insurrectionists make clear that there are police across the country who are aligned with far-right views, he argued: “They feel like they are going to lose control. This is about keeping systemic racism in place.”
CHP declined to comment on the case, and said Ayres no longer works in the Sacramento region. Ayres did not respond to a request for comment.
In Berkeley, California, in 2017, police worked with a violent and armed pro-Trump demonstrator to prosecute leftist activists over an altercation during a protest. Activists saw the criminal trial as just one of many examples of US law enforcement aggressively targeting leftwing demonstrators and favoring members of the far-right after violent clashes.
Police often tolerate pro-Trump violence, said Jeff Armstrong, one of the activists who faced charges but was ultimately acquitted: “We knew we didn’t do anything wrong ... but they were trying to put us in prison,” he said.
And in 2019, Rob Mathis, a Black resident of Muskegon, Michigan, exposed a white police officer who had a framed KKK application and Confederate flags in his home. Mathis, 54, discovered the items while touring the home with a real estate agent. The officer was eventually fired, but ultimately won his pension and retiree health insurance.
Mathis said when police initially brought him in to ask about his viral Facebook post showing the KKK form, it felt as if the department was “interrogating” him or treating him like a suspect. Officials told him he should’ve filed an internal complaint and not gone public, he recalled. “They got rid of him because of optics, because of social media.” The officer claimed he was not a KKK member and said he collected memorabilia.
It was happenstance that Mathis uncovered this officer, and he said he worries that police across the country don’t get caught and continue abusing people of color in their communities: “This system is made for white people and by white people. It is about protecting those people and their jobs.”
Muskegon and Berkeley officials did not respond to an inquiry.
‘White nationalists hide in plain sight’
The number of white supremacist extremists within US police forces is unknown, but even relying solely on cases that have been publicized shows the problem is widespread.
Johnson, the Georgetown expert, testified in Congress last year about white supremacist infiltration of police. She found that since 2009, more than 100 police departments in 49 states have faced scandals involving officers making overtly racist statements. In Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana and elsewhere, active police officers have been outed as members of organized hate groups, including the KKK, she found.
And this is likely the “tip of the iceberg”, she said, adding that polls showing that 10% of Americans believe it’s acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views, and that 12% supported the Capitol attack. Those rates are likely higher for police officers, she said, given that officers are disproportionately white and male.
Among the reasons behind the prevalence of white supremacy in police forces is that, according to the repeated warnings of the FBI since 2006, there are members of organized white supremacist groups who have worked to “infiltrate” police agencies. The FBI has said white supremacists are the greatest domestic terror threat, and that the groups often have “active links” to police.
Because of the way policing works in America, it also attracts people with explicitly racist views – giving them a professional license to patrol Black neighborhoods and allowing them to join a system that stops, searches, arrests and prosecutes people of color at disproportionately high rates, experts say.
“It’s very easy for people with white nationalist commitments to hide in policing, to find a place in policing,” said Nikki Jones, professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. American police departments, Jones said, have in many ways stayed true to their roots of protecting white people: “The way policing is structured, presented and performed allows white nationalists to hide in plain sight.”
Despite the clear evidence of explicit racism within policing, the US has not prioritized investigating white supremacists in law enforcement. This is particularly true under Trump, whose administration has focused its efforts to combat domestic terrorism on targeting Black activists and other leftist groups.
In addition to the federal government’s failures to proactively investigate and weed out white supremacist officers, local laws often make it very difficult to terminate officers, who are backed by powerful unions. Terminated officers are frequently rehired in other departments.
Michelle Monterrosa, a 25-year-old California resident whose brother was killed by police last year, said she was worried about the officers who traveled to the Capitol and who will likely face no consequences.
“These officers participated in this insurrection and participated in this hate,” said Monterrosa, who was recently arrested when she engaged in a peaceful protest. “It’s very scary to know they returned home and put their badge on.”
Capitol Police intelligence report warned three days before attack that ‘Congress itself’ could be targeted
Capitol Police intelligence report warned three days before attack that ‘Congress itself’ could be targeted
“In a 12-page report on Jan. 3, the intelligence unit of the congressional police force described how thousands of enraged protesters, egged on by Trump and flanked by white supremacists and extreme militia groups, were likely to stream into Washington armed for battle.
This time, the focus of their ire would be members of Congress, the report said.
“Supporters of the current president see January 6, 2021, as the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election,” according to the memo, portions of which were obtained by The Washington Post. “This sense of desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent. Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th.”
The internal report — which does not appear to have been shared widely with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI — was among a number of flags that security experts say should have alerted officials to the high security risks on Jan. 6.
A day before the attack, an FBI office in Virginia issued an explicit warning that some extremists were preparing to travel to Washington and threatening to commit violence and “war.” And dozens of people on a terrorist watch list were in D.C. the day of the riot, including many suspected white supremacists, as The Post previously reported.
On Friday, the inspectors general of four federal agencies announced that they will investigate how security officials prepared for and responded to the pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol.
Two people familiar with the Capitol Police intelligence memo, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe security preparations, said the report was conveyed to all Capitol Police command staff by the intelligence unit’s director, Jack Donohue. Another law enforcement official said the report prompted the Capitol Police chief to seek the emergency activation of the National Guard and led the department to place its perimeter barricades farther from the Capitol than during past events.
Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki declined to comment on the intelligence report’s contents or how it was used to plan security for the protests that day.
Former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, who resigned in the wake of the siege, said in an interview Friday that it would be inappropriate to publicly discuss an internal intelligence memo, given its sensitive nature and the risk of revealing sources and methods. But he said he was familiar with the department’s intelligence reports, which he said guided security planning.
Sund previously told The Post in an interview Sunday that in the days immediately preceding the attack, he grew concerned that additional security measures were needed. He asked top congressional security officials for permission to declare an emergency and activate the National Guard, a request he said they rebuffed.
“We looked at the intelligence,” he said. “We knew we would have large crowds, the potential for some violent altercations. I had nothing indicating we would have a large mob seize the Capitol.”
Nevertheless, the Jan. 3 intelligence report produced by his former agency includes chilling descriptions of the ferocity of the combat that activists appeared to be planning on forums where white supremacists and followers of the alt-right movement gather — presaging the mayhem days later.
The report said organizers were urging Trump supporters to come armed with guns and to bring specialized combat gear — including gas masks and military-style bulletproof vests called “plate carriers” — to Washington on Jan. 6.
The memo concluded that Jan. 6 was shaping up to potentially be a perfect storm of danger because of the size of the expected crowds, the urgency of the group’s mission, the call for demonstrators to bring lethal weapons, the location of the two largest protests in proximity to the Capitol grounds and the fact that “both have been promoted by President Trump himself.”
“The Stop the Steal protest in particular does not have a permit, but several high profile speakers, including Members of Congress are expected to speak at the event,” the document stated. “This combined with Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.”
Two people familiar with the report said it was not shared widely outside the police force.
An FBI official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the agency has a policy of not discussing internal intelligence products, said, “At this time, it does not appear such a product was ever shared with the FBI through the normal intelligence sharing channels.”
A D.C. police official did not immediately respond to questions Friday about whether the agency was aware of the report.
On Jan. 4, the day after the intelligence unit shared its warning and conclusions with more than a dozen Capitol Police command staff members, Sund said he asked the Senate and House sergeants at arms for permission to put the National Guard on emergency standby.
Sund said House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger rejected that idea and suggested he instead informally seek out his Guard contacts, asking them to “lean forward” and be on alert in case Capitol Police needed help.
Irving has not responded to requests for comment, and Stenger has declined to comment.
On the day of the attack, Sund said, he urgently renewed the request for emergency National Guard support after a mob broke through the Capitol barricades around 1 p.m. The minutes ticked by as the sergeants at arms sought approval from congressional leadership. The initial wave of the military reinforcements would not arrive for more than four hours — at 5:40 p.m.
The Capitol Police intelligence report was a collaborative product of its intelligence division, led by Donohue, a national expert on the rise of radicalization and violence among extremist groups and domestic terrorists who was recently hired by the department.
Donohue did not respond to requests for comment.
He took over in November as head of the Capitol Police’s Intelligence and Information Coordination Division, just as the force was preparing for a string of pro-Trump rallies. He previously worked for five years as a chief at the New York Police Department, helping oversee the force’s intelligence bureau, whose detectives and analysts deploy intelligence to disrupt criminal and terrorist plots. After 32 years with the NYPD, Donohue worked briefly as a private consultant.
In July 2020, Donohue testified before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism about how social media was being used to radicalize and foment violence in right-wing and left-wing extremist groups. He warned about the increasingly incendiary nature of events billed as free-speech protests and extremists’ attempts to harm government officials and police in their calls for insurrection.
When “protesters arrive intent on violence or occupation and are carrying semiautomatic weapons, the stakes grow exponentially,” Donohue told the committee, adding, “Law enforcement must remain vigilant in identifying before they act, but the time frame may be remarkably short.”
Mary McCord, former acting assistant attorney general for national security, said the lack of more robust security around the Capitol on Jan. 6 has been “a complete mystery to me,” but she said the Capitol Police’s handling of its own intelligence was even more disturbing.
“It needs to be investigated,” said McCord, who is a fellow in a George Washington University program on extremism and a leader of Georgetown’s center on constitutional law. “It could be those who received the report were under pressure to handle this a certain way. It could mean that there were inherent biases, where people discounted this, and just didn’t think a large group of White conservatives who generally ally with the police and the GOP lawmakers, who were also present there that day, would be violent.”
One law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation of the security failures, said the report was viewed internally as predicting something the Capitol Police had already experienced at smaller pro-Trump rallies in November and December: some militia members interspersed among the protesters, and the likelihood of a few violent skirmishes breaking out. It did not signal a thousands-strong army storming the Capitol doors, the official said.
Meanwhile, an FBI internal report prepared the day before the attack by a field office in Norfolk described an online thread indicating that extremists were planning to travel to D.C. for “war.”
That document was shared with the field office in Washington, which — within 40 minutes — briefed officials in a command post there set up to respond to possible problems stemming from the rally, said FBI Assistant Director in Charge Steven M. D’Antuono. It was also shared through a Joint Terrorism Task Force that includes representatives from the Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies, D’Antuono said, though precisely who saw it remains unclear.
Officials said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen were not briefed on the document in particular because it was considered a raw intelligence product, and investigators had not identified those responsible for the posts. But, the officials said, Wray was briefed in advance more broadly regarding online chatter about violence, as well as information from the FBI’s sources about possible extremists intending to travel to the Capitol.
Officials have said FBI agents visited some of those extremists to discourage them from traveling. But the bureau did not take other steps — such as issuing a formal threat assessment to law enforcement — that might have raised the level of alarm.
FBI officials have said it is difficult to distinguish cheap talk from actual threats online, where the volume of incendiary posts is astronomical. “One of the real challenges in this space is trying to distinguish what’s aspirational vs. what’s intentional,” Wray said at a briefing Thursday.
Matt Zapotosky, Peter Hermann and Julie Tate contributed to this report.“
The Filmmaker as Historian: Sam Pollard and ‘MLK/FBI’
“Whether working on his own projects or others like “Eyes on the Prize II” and “4 Little Girls,” the multihyphenate artist has built a monumental career examining America.
Midway through the new documentary “MLK/FBI,” we get glimpses of a Martin Luther King Jr. not often seen in the usual montages of the civil rights movement. The 1963 March on Washington has taken place and he has accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. This King is under myriad strains from the burdens of leadership, budding concerns about Vietnam, political and mortal threats, and round-the-clock surveillance by his own country’s chief law enforcement agency.
Showing the interior life of a historical figure is not easy. But at certain points, “MLK/FBI,” directed by Sam Pollard, dwells on seemingly throwaway shots of the Rev. Dr. King on the road — composed as ever, yet worried, the world on his mind. These are subtle images, but they speak to the filmmaker’s talent for insight and nuance in portraying American history and culture.
“Here’s a man that was dealing with lots of things on his shoulders, and you see it etched in his face,” Pollard said in an interview that happened to take place on another momentous day for the country, when news shows shifted from Georgia’s Senate election results to the rampaging on Capitol Hill.
“MLK/FBI,” which opened Friday in theaters and on demand, is the latest chapter in a quietly monumental filmmaking career. Pollard’s documentary work alone, whether as director, editor or producer, includes “Eyes on the Prize II,” “4 Little Girls” (on the 1963 Birmingham bombings), several “American Masters” entries, and the symphonic “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” The 70-year-old filmmaker’s work has garnered Peabodys, Emmys, and an Academy Award nomination; on Saturday, the International Documentary Association is set to give him a career achievement award.
“When I think about his documentaries, they add up to a corpus — a way of telling African-American history in its various dimensions,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard University scholar and producer of two of Pollard’s films.
You might call this oeuvre “Sam Pollard’s America,” finding the individuality in even familiar historical and cultural figures, with depth, drama and an editor’s fresh eyes. His subjects range from Sammy Davis Jr. to Barack Obama, John Ford and John Wayne. But he has also covered the early-20th-century editor and activist William Monroe Trotter and Black life under the ravages of Reconstruction.
“I’m trying to look at the complexity in human life from different perspectives,” said Pollard, who invoked the varied dynamics in the music of Charles Mingus.
The breadth of his work reflects two tendencies that feed one another: an evident curiosity and an ability to collaborate effectively whether directing, editing or producing. That goes for fiction as well as nonfiction: a well-known chapter in Pollard’s career involved editing a string of films directed by Spike Lee, including features like “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Bamboozled,” and the documentaries “4 Little Girls,” “When the Levees Broke” and “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” (which he also co-produced).
“Samuel Pollard is a master filmmaker,” Spike Lee said, with finality. “If you say he’s just an editor or just a director, that’s not the whole story.”
“MLK/FBI,” which Pollard undertook with the writer Benjamin Hedin as producer, has already received plaudits. In The Times, A.O. Scott said the film “balances the prose of historical discourse with cinematic poetry.” In The Hollywood Reporter, Jourdain Searles called it “searing” in its portrayal of King’s harassment by the establishment.
The film’s genesis lies in documents released by the National Archives in 2017 and 2018 that the historian David J. Garrow wrote about in his book “The F.B.I. and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which stirred controversy by delving into the bureau’s inflammatory allegations about King’s personal life. The documentary details J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless pursuit of King, whom he viewed as a national threat, and deepens our understanding of the leader and the challenges he faced. Historians, including Garrow, and some of King’s living peers offer commentary.
Hedin, who worked with Pollard on the 2016 documentary “Two Trains Runnin’,” about the Delta blues revival and the civil rights movement, said “MLK/FBI” offered an opportunity to illuminate a tortuous stretch of history.
“He wouldn’t be demythologizing someone,” Hedin said of Pollard’s approach to King. “He would simply be portraying him with responsibility and sympathy, the way he would a subject in his documentaries who was not known to the wider public.”
Though Pollard grew up in New York, his family came from the South — Mississippi on his father’s side, Georgia on his mother’s. “I kept feeling like I was hearing my grandmother, my uncles and my aunts and my cousins, when I was digging into the interviews of ‘4 Little Girls,’” he said.
His career began in a WNET film and television workshop intended to bring more people of color into editing rooms. His first job was on Bill Gunn’s stylized 1973 vampire film “Ganja & Hess,” and his mentors included the documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne and the editor Victor Kanefsky.
Pollard went on to work in both fiction and documentary film, including the classic hip-hop documentary “Style Wars,” and, in 1987, the filmmaker Henry Hampton hired him to be a producer-director on “Eyes on the Prize II.” With Hampton he also co-produced “I’ll Make Me a World,” the six-hour 1999 PBS series about Black art (a subject Pollard returns to with “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” due next month on HBO). As if matching Hampton’s scope, Pollard’s producing work only ramped up in the 2000s, alongside editing and directing entries for “American Masters” and teaching at New York University.
“He never stops working, but in a way to me that seems really joyful,” said Yance Ford, who directed “Strong Island,” about family grief, race and injustice. He views Pollard as a storytelling inspiration, and like almost everyone I contacted, Ford had a story about Pollard’s pay-it-forward attitude and Zen-like calm under pressure: When asked for feedback about a fund-raising trailer for “Strong Island,” Pollard dictated valuable edits in a late-night call.
The beat goes on for Pollard. A jazz enthusiast, he is excited for a long-gestating project on the drummer Max Roach. Hedin mentioned collaborating again, on a film “about the Lakota land claim on the Black Hills.”
Toward the end of our interview, I couldn’t help but remark to Pollard on the open-minded quality of his work: cleareyed about American history, culture, and race relations without condemnation or hopelessness. We had spoken on the morning of Jan. 6, a day that might well appear in a future documentary, when the Rev. Raphael Warnock — who had preached in the same Baptist church as King — was named the winner of a Senate race in Georgia, a few hours before the attack on the Capitol.
Pollard’s response to my comment reflected his continuing project to seek out a fresh understanding of history and art: “I would say that’s probably part of my notion of American optimism that I’m hanging on to.”
Stop the Steal’ Didn’t Start With Trump
“Mainstream Republicans and conservative commentators have been pushing the idea that Democrats can only win through fraud for decades.
To explain the attack on the Capitol, you can’t just turn your focus to Donald Trump and his enablers. You must also look at the individuals and institutions that fanned fears of “voter fraud” to the point of hysteria among conservative voters, long before Trump. Put another way, the difference between a riot seeking to overturn an election and an effort to suppress opposing votes is one of legality, not intent. And it doesn’t take many steps to get from one to the other.
Conservative belief in pervasive Democratic Party voter fraud goes back decades — and rests on racist and nativist tropes that date back to Reconstruction in the South and Tammany Hall in the North — but the modern obsession with fraud dates back to the 2000 election. That year, Republicans blamed Democratic fraud for narrow defeats in New Mexico, which George W. Bush lost by just a few hundred votes, and Missouri, where the incumbent senator, John Ashcroft, lost his re-election battle to a dead man.
Ashcroft’s opponent, Mel Carnahan, was killed three weeks earlier in a plane crash, but his name was still on the ballot, with his wife running in his stead. Shocked Republicans blamed Ashcroft’s defeat on fraud. At Ashcroft’s election-night party, the state’s senior Republican senator, Kit Bond, said, “Democrats in the city of St. Louis are trying to steal this election.”
In 2001, as the newly minted attorney general under President George W. Bush, Ashcroft announced a crackdown on voter fraud. “America has failed too often to uphold the right of every citizen’s vote, once cast, to be counted fairly and equally,” he said at a news conference that March:
Votes have been bought, voters intimidated and ballot boxes stuffed. The polling process has been disrupted or not completed. Voters have been duped into signing absentee ballots believing they were applications for public relief. And the residents of cemeteries have infamously shown up at the polls on Election Day.
The Republican National Committee supported this push, claiming to have evidence that thousands of voters had cast more than one ballot in the same election.
Over the ensuing years, under pressure from the White House ahead of the presidential election in 2004, the Justice Department ramped up its crusade against voter fraud. Of particular interest was ACORN, a now-defunct advocacy organization that was working — as the presidential election got underway — to register hundreds of thousands of low-income voters. Swing-state Republicans accused the group of “manufacturing voters,” and federal prosecutors looked, unsuccessfully, for evidence of wrongdoing. Later, Karl Rove would press President Bush’s second attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, to fire a number of U.S. attorneys for failure to investigate voter fraud allegations, leading to a scandal that eventually led to Gonzales’s resignation in 2007.
ACORN and voter fraud would remain a bête noire for Republicans for the rest of the decade. Conservative advocacy groups and media organizations produced a steady stream of anti-ACORN material and, as the 2008 election campaign heated up, did everything they could to tie Democratic candidates, and Barack Obama in particular, to a group they portrayed as radical and dangerous. ACORN, Rush Limbaugh said in one characteristic segment, has “been training young Black kids to hate, hate, hate this country.”
During his second debate with Obama, a few weeks before the election, the Republican nominee, John McCain, charged that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” And his campaign materials similarly accused Obama, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party of orchestrating a vast conspiracy of fraud. “We’ve always known the Obama-Biden Democrats will do anything to win this November, but we didn’t know how far their allies would go,” read one mailer. “The Obama-supported, far-left group, ACORN, has been accused of voter-registration fraud in a number of battleground states.”
McCain and the Republican Party devoted much of the last weeks of the election to a voter fraud scare campaign with ACORN as the villain. And while, in the wake of the election, these allegations of illegal voting never panned out, the conservative fixation with voter fraud would continue into the Obama years and beyond.
Not that this was a shock. As an accusation, “voter fraud” has been used historically to disparage the participation of Black voters and immigrants — to cast their votes as illegitimate. And Obama came to office on the strength of historic turnout among Black Americans and other nonwhite groups. To the conservative grass roots, Obama’s very presence in the White House was, on its face, evidence that fraud had overtaken American elections.
In 2011, Republicans in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin capitalized on their legislative gains to pass new voter restrictions under the guise of election protection. Other states slashed early voting and made it more difficult to run registration drives. One 2013 study found that in states with “unencumbered Republican majorities” and large Black populations, lawmakers were especially likely to pass new voter identification laws and other restrictions on the franchise.
The 2012 election saw more of the same accusations of voter fraud. Donald Trump, who had flirted with running for president that year, called the election a “total sham and a travesty” and claimed that Obama had “lost the popular vote by a lot.” According to one survey taken after the election, 49 percent of Republican voters said they thought ACORN had stolen the election for the president.
ACORN, however, no longer existed. It closed its doors in 2010 after Congress stripped it of federal funding in the aftermath of a scandal stoked by right-wing provocateurs, whose accusations have since been discredited.
The absence of any evidence for voter fraud was not, for Republicans, evidence of its absence. Freed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which ended federal “preclearance” of election laws in much of the South, Republican lawmakers passed still more voter restrictions, each justified as necessary measures in the war against fraud.
Prominent Republican voices continued to spread the myth. “I’ve always thought in this state, close elections, presidential elections, it means you probably have to win with at least 53 percent of the vote to account for fraud,” Scott Walker, then the governor of Wisconsin, said in a 2014 interview with The Weekly Standard. “One or two points, potentially.”
Rank-and-file Republicans had already been marinating in 16 years of concentrated propaganda about the prevalence of voter fraud by the time Donald Trump claimed, in 2016, that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote with millions of illegal ballots. If Republican voters today are quick to believe baroque conspiracy theories about fabricated and stolen votes, then it has quite a lot to do with the words and actions of a generation of mainstream Republican politicians who refused to accept that a Democratic majority was a legitimate majority.
The narrative of fraud and election theft that spurred the mob that stormed the Capitol would be unintelligible without the work of the Republican Party, which inculcated this idée fixe in its voters. “Stop the Steal” wasn’t a Trump innovation as much as it was a new spin on an old product line that, even after the violence on Jan. 6, Republicans are still selling.