From the New York Times:
To explain the attack on the Capitol, you can’t just turn your focus to Donald Trump and his enablers. You must also look at the individuals and institutions that fanned fears of “voter fraud” to the point of hysteria among conservative voters, long before Trump. Put another way, the difference between a riot seeking to overturn an election and an effort to suppress opposing votes is one of legality, not intent. And it doesn’t take many steps to get from one to the other.
Over the ensuing years, under pressure from the White House ahead of the presidential election in 2004, the Justice Department ramped up its crusade against voter fraud. Of particular interest was ACORN, a now-defunct advocacy organization that was working — as the presidential election got underway — to register hundreds of thousands of low-income voters. Swing-state Republicans accused the group of “manufacturing voters,” and federal prosecutors looked, unsuccessfully, for evidence of wrongdoing. Later, Karl Rove would press President Bush’s second attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, to fire a number of U.S. attorneys for failure to investigate voter fraud allegations, leading to a scandal that eventually led to Gonzales’s resignation in 2007.
ACORN and voter fraud would remain a bête noire for Republicans for the rest of the decade. Conservative advocacy groups and media organizations produced a steady stream of anti-ACORN material and, as the 2008 election campaign heated up, did everything they could to tie Democratic candidates, and Barack Obama in particular, to a group they portrayed as radical and dangerous. ACORN, Rush Limbaugh said in one characteristic segment, has “been training young Black kids to hate, hate, hate this country.”
During his second debate with Obama, a few weeks before the election, the Republican nominee, John McCain, charged that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” And his campaign materials similarly accused Obama, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party of orchestrating a vast conspiracy of fraud. “We’ve always known the Obama-Biden Democrats will do anything to win this November, but we didn’t know how far their allies would go,” read one mailer. “The Obama-supported, far-left group, ACORN, has been accused of voter-registration fraud in a number of battleground states.”
McCain and the Republican Party devoted much of the last weeks of the election to a voter fraud scare campaign with ACORN as the villain. And while, in the wake of the election, these allegations of illegal voting never panned out, the conservative fixation with voter fraud would continue into the Obama years and beyond.
The narrative of fraud and election theft that spurred the mob that stormed the Capitol would be unintelligible without the work of the Republican Party, which inculcated this idée fixe in its voters. “Stop the Steal” wasn’t a Trump innovation as much as it was a new spin on an old product line that, even after the violence on Jan. 6, Republicans are still selling.