The big lie was not a conspiracy, and the next attack won’t be either

The January 6 Committee accuses President Trump of running a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. They may be right about parts of the plot, but not about the larger campaign surrounding the big lie. A conspiracy is a secret plot, and the big lie was not secret. That may sound like a technical objection, but it’s vital. From McCarthyism to Russian “democracy” to the Holocaust, the greatest abuses of power happen in broad daylight. Conspiracies like Watergate threaten us a little. Overt, unapologetic contempt for law and for democracy destroy lives and liberty. If we focus on the small danger, we will not prepare for the real threat.

Joe McCarthy, Senate hearings (not a conspiracy)
Senator Joseph McCarthy erodes freedom in broad daylight, 1954

Conspiracy Requires Secrecy

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as “the activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal.” Conspiracies, in other words, are secret. That limits the harm they can cause. A corrupt county official can quietly miscount a few votes. But if you want to overturn millions of votes, you can’t keep it secret.

Some conspiracies succeed, particularly plots to commit garden-variety crimes, like theft, embezzlement, and the murder of private citizens. But large-scale, government conspiracies have a terrible track record. President Richard Nixon could not hide his role in the Watergate break-ins, for instance. That’s despite a conspiracy of dozens and the resources available to the most powerful man in the world.

Richard Nixon releases edited transcripts
Try as he might, President Nixon could not keep his conspiracy secret.

As a result, government conspiracies usually limit themselves to modest goals. A corrupt official takes a bribe and then struggles to keep it secret. Or on a higher level, the Reagan administration breaks the law, selling arms to Iran and funneling the money to Nicaraguan Contras (the 1980s Iran-Contra Affair). That’s very troubling, but it did not overturn governments or destroy liberty. The same goes for most government conspiracies.

Liberty Dies in Broad Daylight

Few doubt that Russian democracy is a façade. We know ballots boxes get stuffed, real opposition candidates find themselves in jail, courts protect the Putin regime, rather than the vote, and the people have little choice. Some election irregularities involve secrecy. But overall, Russia’s undemocratic democracy is not secret. It’s not a conspiracy.

Memorial to those who were detained and disappeared under Pinochet

Far darker wrongdoing plays out in the public eye. Between 1973 and 1990, for example, Chilean President Augusto Pinochet had his soldiers and police torture almost 30,000 “enemies of the state.” And they executed almost 3,000. Some individual executions and torture sessions were secret. But most victims were arrested in front of witnesses. And if you want to keep torture secret, you don’t let the victim leave. Chile and the world knew about Pinochet’s campaign of torture and murder.

Strongmen from Saddam Hussein to Mussolini to Pinochet overthrow liberty and oppress their people in public, under the light of the sun. 

The Big Lie in Public

Trump plotted some of his overthrow attempt behind closed doors. He may have committed seditious conspiracy under federal law. That’s a legal question, and my concern is not legal.

Vice President Pence
Little about the pressure on Pence was secret, but he resisted.

The January 6 Committee points to Trump’s seven-part plan to overthrow the election: 

  1. spread false information;
  2. replace the Acting Attorney General;
  3. pressure Vice President Pence to block certified electoral votes;
  4. pressure state officials to change election results;
  5. instruct Republicans in multiple states to create false electoral slates;
  6. summon a mob to Washington and direct them to march on the Capitol; and
  7. ignore please to stop the violence.

Not one of these things happened in secret. None of them could.

The Open Threat to American Democracy

Today, some Republicans — certainly not all — are working to overturn the next election. They’re campaigning for county and state election offices and for Congress on thinly-veiled promises to reject Democratic victories as fraudulent. Some of these candidates probably believe the big lie. They think they’ve just promised to do what’s right. Others know their promises could lead them to overturn valid elections. Either way, they’ve committed to put a heavy finger on the scale, ensuring Republican victories in close votes — and maybe not so close.

If they turn against each other, we won’t have conspiracies to blame.

That is not a conspiracy. If these officials pull down the pillars of American democracy, they’ll do it in broad daylight. And while some Americans will believe their claims about fraudulent victories for Democrats, most won’t. America could face paralyzing protests, street violence, civil war, and secessions — or possibly worse: unelected rulers, like Russia’s. No one could do harm like that in secret, through a conspiracy.

This attack on democracy is happening under the light of the sun. If we focus on the small threat of conspiracies, we will not prepare for the real threat to democracy.

© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


  • Counsel representing the U.S. Army Joseph Welch (left) with Senator Joe McCarthy (right), Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, June 9, 1954
  • President Nixon with edited transcripts of Nixon White House Tape conversations during his broadcast to the nation, 1974
  • Memorial conmemorativo de la violación de los DDHH en Chile durante el régimen de Pinochet, 2012, unknown author – licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license
  • Vice President Michael Pence, 2017
  • Red and blue states as of 2021, by Wyatttthomas07, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

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