Georgia Republicans were left reeling after suffering some of their most serious defeats in recent memory. Once a Republican stronghold, the Peach State flipped blue for Joe Biden and also sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. To many, this was unconscionable and the only explanation for such a rout was election interference of some kind.

Then-President Donald Trump and many of his followers proliferated various theories—alleging widespread, organized electoral fraud and hacking. One such theory somehow implicated Hugo Chavez—the dead Venezuelan dictator—or his family in some plot to undermine the election; another claimed that Dominion—the voting machine maker—flipped votes; and still others spread stories of elections officials illegally “finding” mass quantities of ballots or that the absentee voting system was replete with fraud.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, these conspiracy theories do not comport with reality. The aforementioned claims have been thoroughly fact-checked, and over 60 elections lawsuits have been tossed out of court. Of course, in every election with many millions of votes, officials will discover some minor irregularities, but there was no successful, organized conspiracy to steal the election. The simple truth is that Trump lost, and for those who paid close attention, that shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. After all, Trump adopted a campaign strategy of kind-of-being-a-jerk, which generally doesn’t turn out well in electoral politics.

While Trump is largely responsible for his own loss, there’s a strong case that hacking influenced the dual U.S. Senate run-offs here in Georgia, and Trump and some of his most diehard supporters were behind it.

To be clear, hacking doesn’t always imply purposefully infiltrating cyber defenses for nefarious reasons, nor is a hacker necessarily “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” to quote Trump. In a way, hacking can be an analog action, including exploiting a weakness to gain some form of access, which can ultimately influence an outcome.

Trump did just this, but I don’t believe he did it on purpose. He propagated numerous conspiracy theories suggesting that elections are fraudulent and rigged. If that’s the case, then why bother voting, many in Georgia asked. In fact, conversations at the Georgia Capitol bear this point out. In the lead up to the January run-off, two Republican legislators told me that they were inundated with thousands of constituent messages announcing that they would no longer participate in elections because they were supposedly rigged—just like Trump had told them.

Trump later encouraged Republicans to vote, but the die was already cast. Many of these disgruntled Georgians remained true to their word—as is evident by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) investigation. They found that “Over 752,000 Georgia voters who cast ballots in the presidential election didn’t show up again for the runoffs just two months later.” More than half of these individuals hailed from demographics and regions that leaned Republican. “Meanwhile, 228,000 new voters cast ballots in the runoffs who hadn’t voted in the Nov. 3 election,” wrote the AJC. “They were more racially diverse and younger voters who tend to back Democrats.”

For Republicans, that should be a tough pill to swallow. The Democrats showed up to the polls in January because they were energized. At the same time, thousands of Republicans stayed home because, in a way, many were hacked—by unfounded conspiracy theories alleging that elections are illegitimate. Trump and others peddled these claims, and when mistruths are repeated enough, some individuals will accept them as facts. Once the electoral falsehoods took root in people’s minds, the run-off was already lost for Republicans—inadvertently hacked by Trump and company. This resulted in suppressed voter participation—making the races for the U.S. Senate far easier for the Democrats.

The fallout from the elections has prompted some soul searching among Republicans, but old habits apparently die hard. Just days ago, at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump doubled-down on some of his election theories, and speaking of his own electoral defeat, he announced, “This election was rigged.” His proclamation was met by a thunderous applause and cheers of support from political activists.

It’s hard to see the Republicans roaring back to power if they continue to believe that elections are illegitimate and participating in them is futile. However, that may well be one of Trump’s legacies. Time will tell how long until these feelings of electoral skepticism fade.

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