Starting in 2008, a widely circulated conspiracy theory was that Barack Obama was not actually born in America. Strivers on the political right scrounged around to try to produce a Kenyan birth certificate for him; they filed state and federal legal complaints alleging that Obama was not eligible to be president. But proof of this theory was never a requirement for subscribing to it; you could simply choose to believe that a Black liberal with a Muslim-sounding middle name was not one of us. And at several points during Obama’s presidency, almost a quarter of Americans did.
The country has not changed much. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist and political scientist who has studied the Tea Party movement and right-wing grievances of the Obama years, draws a straight line from that era to today’s “Stop the Steal” efforts. I talked with Skocpol on Wednesday morning about that connection, and the roots of resentment in America.
Now, as then, you can take the right’s scramble for evidence of fraud with a grain of salt, she told me. The election deniers who say they are perturbed by late-night ballot dumps or dead people voting are actually concerned with something else.
“‘Stop the Steal’ is a metaphor,” Skocpol said, “for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone.” More than a decade later, evidence remains secondary when what you’re really doing is questioning whose vote counts—and who counts as an American.
Elaine Godfrey: Tell me what connection you see between the Tea Party movement that you studied and the Trump-inspired Stop the Steal effort.
Theda Skocpol: There’s a definite line. Opinion polls tell us that people who participated in or sympathized with the Tea Party—some groups are still meeting—were disproportionately angry about immigration and the loss of America as they know it. They became core supporters of Trump. I’m quite certain that some organizations that were Tea Party–labeled helped organize Stop the Steal stuff.
Trump has expanded the appeal of an angry, resentful ethno-nationalist politics to younger whites. But it’s the same outlook.
Godfrey: So how do you interpret the broader Stop the Steal movement?
Skocpol: I don’t think Stop the Steal is about ballots at all. I don’t believe a lot of people really think that the votes weren’t counted correctly in 2020. They believe that urban people, metropolitan people—disproportionately young and minorities, to be sure, but frankly liberal whites—are an illegitimate brew that’s changing America in unrecognizable ways and taking it away from them. Stop the Steal is a way of saying that. Stop the Steal is a metaphor. And remember, they declared voting fraud before the election.