It was easy to predict before the 2020 election that Donald Trump would never personally acknowledge that he lost fairly, if indeed he were to lose. This expectation was apparent enough from any casual observation of Trump's behavior over his entire career in public life. Trump had even made accusations of widespread illegal voting in 2016, immediately after his surprising electoral success, so there was little reason to wonder whether he would dismiss the validity of any contest in which he was actually defeated.
What's become clear in the weeks following the vote is that this view is spreading widely within the Republican Party. A Monmouth University poll found that 77 percent of Trump supporters believed that Joe Biden's victory was due to fraud. Lawsuits and protests in multiple states have sought to overturn the results of the election or visit revenge on the officials responsible for counting the votes. Attuned to the winds blowing within their party, most Republican members of Congress either openly deny that Biden is the rightful president-elect or simply refuse to explicitly acknowledge Trump's defeat, a play-it-coy strategy that is reminiscent of many Republican elected officials' treatment of the "birther" conspiracy theory during the Obama administration.
In a provocative recent piece, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative critic of Trump, confirmed the popularity of the stolen-election theory on the American right—even among those whom he describes as "people I would not have expected to embrace it." Searching for explanations for this development, he not only lays responsibility on Trump's own claims and those of the president's vocal allies in the conservative media, but also describes a pre-existing skepticism of bureaucratic, academic, and journalistic institutions fueled by the underrepresentation of conservatives within their ranks. This perceived exclusion, Douthat argues, naturally encourages an anti-authority mentality on the right that easily leads to a search for alternative forms of knowledge—or "knowledge"—fulfilling a psychological demand for challenging the official accounts of emotionally unwelcome events. In other words, the very insistence of the "liberal media" and "liberal experts" that Trump was unambiguously defeated in a fair election is breeding a kind of reflexive resistance to the idea among those who distrust these traditional sources of information.
The dynamic that Douthat describes is likely an important part of the story. But there's another reason for the appeal of claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump that draws a bit more on conservatives' own long-held working theories of electoral politics.
The landslide victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s convinced many conservatives that there was no tradeoff between ideological purity and popular success—to the contrary, that an unambiguous embrace of the conservative cause brought reliable electoral reward. Subsequent Republican losses in presidential elections have often been explained away as cases when the party was rejected by the electorate after straying from its true ideological path, thereby reducing the participatory enthusiasm of the Republican base while causing other voters to lose respect for the GOP's wavering devotion to its own supposed principles. This view cites George H. W. Bush's loss in 1992 after violating the "no-new-taxes" pledge that he was elected on four years before; the Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 after the George W. Bush administration deviated from small-government doctrine on domestic policy; and the back-to-back defeats of John McCain and Mitt Romney, both dismissed in retrospect as imperfectly loyal standard-bearers for the conservative movement.
Had Trump also lost in 2016, conservatives could have easily explained his defeat without revising this theory; simply pointing in the direction of Trump's politically inconsistent personal history and various rhetorical heterodoxies during the campaign would have allowed them to claim that he, too, failed because he wasn't a faithful enough conservative. But once elected, Trump began to preside over a strongly ideological administration that quickly and enduringly achieved both the committed support of leading conservative media figures and a remarkable, arguably unmatched degree of mobilized passion within the Republican popular base. If Republican presidential candidates only lose when they turn their back on conservatism and disappoint their own party's grassroots supporters, Trump's presidency seemed like it was custom-built to avoid such a fate.
On top of this, the belief that voter fraud is a serious problem in American elections, and that it is perpetrated in particular by liberal Democrats in big cities, has long been prevalent among conservatives. For years before the 2020 election, this claim has been used to justify the passage of voter ID laws and other restrictive measures by Republican-controlled state legislatures despite the absence of hard evidence substantiating it.
Even without Trump's own accusations further stirring the pot, then, the situation was ripe in 2020 for many conservatives to believe that the only way the president could lose would be through a fraudulent election, and that Democrats had both the means and the inclination to commit such fraud. The narrow popular margins in pivotal states, the record amount of mail-in voting, the late reporting of urban vote piles, and the victory of an opponent (Biden) whom few conservatives view as a particularly wily or charismatic adversary all serve as additional fodder for this conspiratorial thinking, but it would probably have spread after a loss of any size or scope. Rather than revisit decades of assumptions about the administration of, and dynamics of vote choice in, American elections, it is psychologically easier to simply conclude that any defeat of a conservative popular hero must have been rigged by unscrupulous liberals.
Partisans on both sides are susceptible to conspiracy theories in the wake of political disappointment; claims of biased voting machines circulated for a time among Democratic supporters in the wake of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, for example. But most Democrats subscribe to foundational assumptions that, though they may also be factually incorrect at times, allow for the possibility of electoral defeat that is at least legally—if perhaps not morally—legitimate. Rather than assert outright theft, they more commonly accuse Republicans of cynically exploiting popular prejudices or riding waves of corporate cash to victory, or blame their own side's candidates and advisors for blowing the race through strategic incompetence. (Even the 2020 results, by no means a total failure for Democrats, have inspired plenty of internal recriminations.) Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to assume that a valid Republican defeat must be the electorate's punishment for the sin of ideological impurity. If Trump gave the American public the steadfast conservatism it supposedly craves, it's emotionally satisfying for them to conclude that maybe the voters didn't actually intend to end his presidency after all.