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The Pro-Trump Case for Rejecting the Big Lie

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The Pro-Trump Case for Rejecting the Big Lie

This past week, days before Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters in Conroe, Texas, that “the 2020 election was rigged and everyone knows it,” Weston Wamp, who voted for Trump, appeared in the third episode of his video series, “Truthtellers.” “You know, a lot of people still have unanswered questions about the 2020 election,” he says at the start of the episode, titled “Off the Rails.” According to a number of recent polls, eighty per cent of Republicans still don’t believe that Joe Biden won the election. Wamp, who is thirty-four and talks with the unhurried cadences of southeast Tennessee, where he grew up and still lives, is not among them; he’s on a mission to convince others on the right that the Big Lie is a big lie. “I’ve tried to approach it with the sobriety of being a conservative Republican who lives every day with the reality that a lot of my friends and fellow-Republicans still question the results of the 2020 election,” he told me. “I am a fiscal conservative and a social conservative, and I just happen to have a real interest in the truth.”

With its modest production values, “Truthtellers” has a homemade vibe that reflects Wamp’s conviction that facts matter. Unlike the efforts of Republican Never Trumpers, such as the Lincoln Project, which released a series of videos during the 2020 election season that delighted in making fun of the President and his minions, the tone is earnest, often credulous. “We’ve tried to be diligent in our research and humble in our approach,” Wamp said. “I didn’t want to treat my fellow-Republicans like they had bad intentions in thinking that something had gone wrong with the election or that they weren’t smart enough to understand it, but quite the opposite. Where there was smoke, we wanted to see if there was fire.”

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As an example, he pointed to Pennsylvania, a swing state where Trump was ahead soon after the polls closed, but lost his lead in the days that followed, after the absentee ballots were counted. As Wamp explains this discrepancy in the second episode, his brow furrowed, his voice grows calm and clinical. He points out that Trump told Republicans to vote in person, while Biden urged his supporters to skip the voting booth. Because Pennsylvania law does not allow absentee ballots to be processed and counted until Election Day, and because so many Democrats voted by mail, Wamp tells viewers, it makes sense that Trump’s lead did not hold. Near the end of the video, rather than mention recent Republican efforts to make voting by mail more difficult, Wamp tells his viewers, “We’ve got to avoid this happening again. . . . States should simply allow election workers to begin processing ballots when they’re received.”

Wamp’s videos, which are circulated on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, have been viewed more than a half million times. The comments are, for the most part, a blend of vitriol and mockery. “I don’t really care if people call me a RINO because there’s a ton of evidence that I’m conservative,” he said. “I’m not going to change simply because the expectations within the Republican Party are that we all agree all the time.”

Part of Wamp’s message is that the Big Lie is ultimately bad for the G.O.P. He is convinced that Democrats won the two runoff elections in Georgia last year because Trump’s rhetoric persuaded Republicans to stay away from the polls. In the larger scheme of things, he’s concerned that, if the losing party claims fraud each time there is an election, that will undermine the electoral process and American democracy itself. (He considers Democrats’ claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election an earlier example of this.) “President Biden has made comments in the last couple of weeks about his concerns over whether the next election could be legitimate,” he told me. “This is all a terrible trend.” Wamp added, “We have an incredibly durable—and reliable—system of elections across America. And so that’s the message that I have shared and will continue to share.”

“Truthtellers” is an outgrowth of Wamp’s podcast, “Swamp Stories,” an unvarnished look at corruption and cronyism in Washington on both sides of the aisle. (Past episodes have examined the role of dark money in politics and the ways in which politicians use political-action-committee contributions to fund lavish life styles.) Both efforts are sponsored by the nonprofit political reform group Issue One, whose ReFormers Caucus includes former members of Congress, governors, ambassadors, and Cabinet officials, including the Democrats Russ Feingold and Christopher Dodd, and the Republicans Ray LaHood and Trent Lott. (Wamp’s father, Zach Wamp, a Republican who served eight terms in the House of Representatives, is also a member.) “Swamp Stories” began to focus on election integrity as Trump ramped up his stolen-election rhetoric in the months before and after the 2020 election. Similarly, Issue One created an ancillary group, the National Council on Election Integrity, to counter Trump’s lies. Two former Defense Secretaries, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Leon Panetta, joined up.

Reid Ribble, a self-described right-wing Republican and former congressman from Wisconsin, is also a member. Last May, he helped draft “A Call for American Renewal,” a public letter that urged the Republican leadership, among other things, to admit that the 2020 election was fairly won by Biden. “It was a lie from the beginning and it still is a lie today, no matter how many times it is repeated,” Ribble told me. The letter was signed by more than a hundred and fifty Republicans, former Republicans, and independents. Shortly after the letter was released, Ribble told Wisconsin Public Radio, “We’ve developed kind of a commonsense coalition of former elected officials that are asking the Republican Party to reconsider Trumpism.” Since then, Ribble told me, not much has changed. “I talk to Republicans all the time,” he said. “I just talked to someone who said that he was a hundred-per-cent convinced that the election in Georgia was stolen. It reminds me of one of the things my dad told me when I was a young man—it’s always easier to scam somebody than it is to convince someone they have been scammed. People don’t want to believe they’ve been cheated, so they defend the people who cheated them.”

It may seem that people like Ribble and Wamp are shouting into the void. But, as Charlie Sykes, a former Republican who has spent the past five years railing against Trump, told me, “It’s important to get the message out, and it’s crucial that it comes from Republicans.” Last February, Politico profiled Rohn Bishop, a Trump supporter and the chair of the Republican Party in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, who was vilified after he began speaking out against Trump’s efforts to discourage absentee voting. Later, he urged Party members to accept Trump’s loss and resisted attempts to challenge the legitimacy of absentee ballots in the state’s urban districts, where many people of color live. The backlash was intense, and led Bishop to consider stepping down. Instead, the following year, he was unanimously reëlected Party chair. In an excerpt of their book, “The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It,” which was published by “The Dispatch,” the journalists Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague called Bishop “the most authentic Republican in America.” In a small—but deeply red—corner of the country, truth either won out, or people just got tired of fighting.

Wamp may not be so lucky. He recently declared his intention to run for a countywide office. It’s his third try at electoral politics. In 2014, when he was twenty-seven, he ran for his father’s former seat in the House, and narrowly lost to the incumbent. Since then, he has helped start a Chattanooga-based venture-capital company and founded a nonprofit called the Millennial Debt Foundation, which aims to bring “a generational voice to the conversation about the fiscal future of America.” But Wamp’s affiliation with Issue One, among other things, has earned him the animus of the Tennessee Star, a conservative news site, which has questioned Wamp’s conservative bona fides and loyalty to Trump. He’s found himself on the defensive, saying that he is just “a contractor” for Issue One. (His title with the group is senior political strategist.) “Quite frankly, what he’s doing with this “Truthtellers” series is probably not playing well in southeast Tennessee,” Ribble, who is now the C.E.O. of the National Roofing Contractors Association, said. “It’s a risk for him to do this. But it goes to show the character of the man and his convictions, and that he’s not afraid to speak the truth.”

In the current climate, Charlie Sykes told me, aspiring Republican officeholders have to “at least pretend to believe the Big Lie in order to remain viable.” But Wamp maintains that his position is the only practical one for Republicans. “I think it’s inevitable that in 2022 we are going to have midterms that are very good for Republicans,” he said. “When that happens, I’ll be asking, ‘Where’s the fraud?’ And the answer will be that there wasn’t any, because there just isn’t significant fraud in American elections.”

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The Pro-Trump Case for Rejecting the Big Lie