Roger Stone speaks at a rally of Trump supporters on January 5, 2021 (Image: EPA/Michael Reynolds)

In the last 24 hours of the Trump presidency, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell finally declared Donald Trump to be a liar who fed conspiracy theories to the mob which stormed Capitol Hill on January 6. He also raised the role of other “powerful people”.

McConnell didn’t name them but they are likely to include infamous Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone and the off-the-charts radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, best known for promoting the conspiracy theory that a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook school in 2012 was a hoax.

Stone and Jones both addressed a pro-Trump rally in Washington on January 5, the day before Trump told his followers to go to the Capitol. Stone’s message was that the president’s enemies wanted “nothing less than the heist of the 2020 election”. 

Stone has been a key promoter of the lie that the election was stolen from the Republican Party by voter fraud. And it’s nothing new. He launched a “stop the steal” website before the 2016 election, seeking donations on the basis that: “If this election is close, they will steal it.” Repeated ad nauseam and spread through social media, that lie is believed by about 35% of Americans, mostly Republican voters.

Stone has been a fixture in Republican politics dating back to the Nixon years. As a junior operative he was implicated in the Watergate scandal. He has the face of disgraced president Richard Nixon tattooed on his back.

He’s specialised in disinformation as a political strategy and in the US it has found a willing public. “Stop the steal” is but the latest in a long line of political lies which Americans have been prepared to believe, albeit that disinformation is weaponised by the algorithms of social media as never before.

In 2003 — after the September 11, 2001, attacks — US opinion polls showed that 49% of Americans were prepared to believe Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, was directly involved in planning and financing the attacks, even though there was no evidence. Belief in this lie peaked at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq after a sustained campaign from George W. Bush.

When it comes to the “birther” conspiracy which questioned the bona fides of then president Barack Obama’s US citizenship, a 2010 poll found that 25% of Americans believed Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president”. A subsequent CNN poll found that 16% had doubts Obama was born in the US, and a further 11% were certain he was not. 

By mid 2016, when Trump had rekindled the birther conspiracy, 41% of Republicans disagreed that Obama was born in the US and 31% neither agreed nor disagreed, according to an NBC poll.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, by July last year one-third of Americans did not believe the official death toll — even as infections and hospitalisations surged to a new high, an Ipsos poll found.

In the latest survey of trust in the US election results — published yesterday by US research company Morning Consult — only 36% of Republican voters believed the 2020 election was free and fair. While still low, the figure is 14% higher than from the previous week.

It found 65% of all voters say the 2020 election was free and fair, but there was a sharp partisan divide: 91% Democrats and 36% Republican.

As the US enters a new phase, the damage done by Trump and his co-conspirators as well as the Murdoch-owned media is stark.

According to the Morning Consult survey, among those who believe the election was fraudulent, Trump and Fox News are the most commonly cited sources of information propping up that view: 55% of Republicans who believe there was widespread fraud in the election say Trump is one of the sources that lead them to that conclusion, and 45% say the same about Fox News — the highest levels of 17 sources tested.

Capitalising on the gullible, it seems, is good for business. How to unwind it is a whole other question.