‘Stop the Steal’ Is a Metaphor
The scholar Theda Skocpol—renowned for her research on the Tea Party movement a decade ago—explains how American politics has evolved since then.
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.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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.
Godfrey: A metaphor?
Skocpol: It’s a metaphor for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone. Doug 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. That’s what Hungary has in mind. Viktor Orbán has been going a little further. They’re a more muscular and violence-prone version of the same thing.
People in 2016 who were otherwise quite normal would say, There’s something wrong with those votes from Milwaukee and Madison. I’d push back ever so gently and say, Those are big places; it takes a while to count the votes. I’d get a glassy-eyed stare at that point: No, something fishy is going on.
They feel disconnected from and dominated by people who have done something horrible to the country. And 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.
Godfrey: Elaborate on that for me.
Skocpol: He’s not necessary for an authoritarian movement to use the GOP to lock in minority rule. The movement to manipulate election access and counting is so far along. I think it’s too late, and we’re vulnerable to it because of how we administer local elections.
What’s happened involves an interlocking set of things. It depends not just on candidates like Trump running for president and nationalizing popular fears and resentments, but also 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.
Godfrey: The turning point toward what?
Skocpol: 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.
That can’t work over the long run, because the fastest-growing parts of the country are demonized in that scheme of things. But a lot of things liberals do play into it: Democrats are the party of strong government, and they’re almost as fixated on the presidency as Trumpists are. People on the left started bashing Joe Biden less than a year into his presidency. Why won’t the president just exert his will? Well, that doesn’t work.
The hour is late. This election this fall is critical.
Godfrey: Why so?
Skocpol: We’ve got 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.
Godfrey: So what would you say is on the ballot in 2022?
Skocpol: 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.
Godfrey: What are the roots of that resentment?
Skocpol: The suspicion of cities and metro areas is a deep strand in America. In this period, it’s been deliberately stoked and exploited by people trying to limit the power of the federal government. They can build on the fears that conservatives have—about how their children leave for college and come back thinking differently. As soon as you get away from the places where upper-middle-class professionals are concentrated, what you see is decay. People see that. They’re resentful of it.
Anti-immigrant politics is very much at the core of this. Every time in the history of the U.S., when you reach the end of a period of immigration, you get a nativist reaction. When the newcomers come, they’re going to destroy the country. That’s an old theme in this country.
Godfrey: The 2016 election was surrounded by a lot of discussion about whether Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism or economic anxiety. What’s your view on that?
Skocpol: That whole debate tends to be conducted with opinion polls. I’m in a minority, but I don’t find them very helpful for understanding American politics. Even when well conducted, polls treat the American political system as a bunch of potatoes in a sack—so you can pull out What women think, for instance, but not which women and where. And in American politics, everything is about the where.
If you drive into a place in Iowa or Nebraska where immigration is happening, it’s changed the shops downtown, it’s changed the language, it’s changed the churches, it’s changed the schools. And people’s jobs have changed—so it’s also about economics. In our 2011 interviews, Tea Party members were angry about immigrants. I’m not saying everybody in those communities is angry at newcomers, but it creates tensions that rabble-rousing politicians can take advantage of.
We know that Trump supporters, Stop the Steal supporters, are much more likely than other Republicans and conservatives to resent immigrants and fear them. In my 2017–2019 period of research, I visited eight pro-Trump counties. Tea Party types were just furious about immigrants. Trump’s emphasis on immigration interjected the idea that the debate is about what the nature of America is.
Trumpism is nativism. It’s also profoundly resentful of independent women, and it’s resentful of Black people whom it considers out of place politically. Trump channeled that and fused it into one big, angry brew.
Godfrey: How organic have these movements been? At a certain point, we heard a lot about how the Tea Party movement became a Koch-funded operation, not a true grassroots movement.
Skocpol: The Tea Party was not created by the Koch brothers; it was taken advantage of by the Kochs. But the Kochs were not anti-immigrant. The Tea Partiers really were. The Kochs didn’t control the results. The Kochs didn’t select Donald Trump. They didn’t even like him. Marco Rubio was their guy. The Chamber of Commerce crowd wanted a Bush. Both were easily dispatched by Trump.
Republican leaders could have done something—and they still could. The real story is about Republican Party elites and their willingness to go along with what they’ve always known was over the top. That’s a mystery that’s a little hard to completely solve. A lot of the opportunists think they can ride that tiger without it devouring them, even though sometimes it does. But nobody seems to learn.
At this point, what does resistance in the party consist of? Mitch McConnell taking a day to start denouncing the FBI. That’s it. Just discernibly different from Kevin McCarthy.