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Why a Harvard political scientist thinks ‘Stop the Steal’ is not about ballots

Harvard-based political scientist and sociologist Theda Skocpol tells The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey the movement is a metaphor for something else.

Supporters of President Donald Trump participating in a "Stop the Steal" protest in Washington on November 14, 2020.
Supporters of President Donald Trump participating in a "Stop the Steal" protest in Washington on November 14, 2020.
REUTERS/Hannah McKay

In an interview with Atlantic writer Elaine Godfrey, Harvard-based political scientist and sociologist Theda Skocpol weighed in on the meaning of Trump, Trumpism and the “Stop the Steal” movement.

Having interviewed and corresponded with Skocpol in the past, I have long admired her insights, and she wowed me again in this transcribed interview describing what “Stop the Steal” really means to those who embrace that slogan to express their outrage over Joe Biden’s victory. And, she believes, it isn’t that Biden and the Democrats actually stole the election.

Try this Skocpolian explanation for the slogan’s real meaning for her piece, headlined: “‘Stop the Steal’ is a metaphor.” 

Skocpol said its a metaphor “for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone.”  

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“I don’t think ‘Stop the Steal’ is about ballots at all,” she opined. “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 also frankly liberal whites — are an illegitimate brew that’s changing America in unrecognizable ways and taking it away from them.”

That last sentence represents her key insight into the grip that Trumpism has on its believers.

Perhaps, like me, you have a hunch she’s onto something that explains a fair bit about what we’ve just been through, and about how it is perceived by those whose grievances were preyed upon by Donald Trump. Perhaps “the steal” refers not to a stolen election, but to a stolen country, a society stolen from people who feel deeply that they and people like them are supposed to be the ones setting the tone and running what one might call “the USA Show.”

That group fears demographic changes and growing numbers of people who share, as Skocpol put it, “liberal values and priorities different from what this group thinks are basic America-defining values.”

The election deniers, Skocpol wrote, may traffic in strange tales of ballot-handling improprieties like “late-night ballot dumps or dead people voting.” But take all that with a big grain of salt, she advised. The deniers are worried that honest elections will enable people unlike them to take over and bring a new definition to their America.

She relied for clarification on a statement from Doug Mastriano, a prominent Christian fundamentalist and Trump ally who marched in the “Stop the Steal” rally to the Capitol but has not been charged with any crimes for his actions that day. As Skocpol put it in her Atlantic interview: 

“Mastriano said it in so many words: ‘It’s a Christian country. That doesn’t mean we’ll throw out everybody else, but they’ve got to accept that we’re the ones setting the tone.’” 

“Trump gave voice to that. He’s a perfect resonant instrument for that — because he’s a bundle of narcissistic resentments. But he’s no longer necessary … for an authoritarian movement to use the GOP to lock in minority rule. The movement to manipulate election access and [ballot]-counting is so far along. I think it’s too late, and we’re vulnerable to it because of how we administer local elections,” Skocpol told Godfrey.

The future, Skocpol suggests, does not depend primarily on whether Trump can come back and win next time, but…

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“…on state legislatures, which have been captured, and the Supreme Court. The Court is a keystone in all of this because it’s going to validate perfectly legal manipulations that really are about locking in minority rule. In that sense, the turning point in American history may have happened in November 2016.”

The turning point toward what? 

“Toward a locking-in of minority rule along ethno-nationalist lines. The objective is to disenfranchise metro people, period. I see a real chance of a long-term federal takeover by forces that are determined to maintain a fiction of a white, Christian, Trumpist version of America,” Skocpol told Godfrey.

She doesn’t think it can work over the long run, because the group she referred to as “metro people” is growing and will continue to grow faster than the white working class. But she believes that, in the near and medium term, the tale will be told in “about five pivotal states where election deniers — the culmination of the Tea Party-Trumpist strand of the GOP — are close to gaining control of the levers of voting access and counting the results. If that happens, in even two of those places, it could well be enough. The way courts are operating now, they will not place limits on much of anything that happens in the states,” she fears.

So, Godfrey asked Skocpol: “What would you say is on the ballot in 2022?” She replied:

“The locking-in of minority authoritarian rule. … People talk about it in racial terms, and of course the racial side is very powerful. We had racial change from the 1960s on, and conservative people are angry about Black political power. 

“But I wouldn’t underestimate the gender anger that’s channeled here: Relations between men and women have changed in ways that are very unsettling to them. And conservatives are angry about family change.

“This is directed at liberal whites, too. Tea Partiers talked about white people in college towns who voted Democratic the way the rulers of Iran would speak of Muslims that are liberal — as the near-devil.”

I don’t dare borrow any more of the Atlantic piece than I already have. I hope you get how smart Skocpol is and what frightens her about the next election cycle or two or three. 

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And I hope you read the full, very smart piece, but I don’t know whether you can access it without an Atlantic subscription.