When I first got my hair burning about Donald Trump’s intend to exploit the quirks of mail-in voting to overturn the election results, a good friend of mine gave me a lot of grief for being alarmist. Sure, maybe Trump would try, but there wasn't any evidence that state and local Republican officials would accept go along with his delusions.
He turned out to be right, for now-but I’m increasingly wondering if it’s only for now. Trump’s attempt has failed since the ground was not prepared for it.
But the current attempt is preparing the ground, obtaining the rank and file of Republican to sign up to election conspiracy theories and be ready to demand a different result 4 years from now.
It’s not about this presidential election. It’s about the next one.
became well and truly alarmed prior to the election after reading a long article describing how Trump was getting ready to undermine the vote. I'd say this article was prescient, with the exception that Trump had been telegraphing what he wanted to do for months in front of time-and he has proceeded to attempt all of it.
The basic approach was to make use of the “red mirage” produced by the partisan differential between in-person and mail-in voting. Republicans usually do slightly better with in-person voting, while Democrats have an edge in absentee and mail-in voting, however the mail-in vote isn’t usually large enough to make much of a difference. During a pandemic year, particularly one out of which Trump was downplaying the risks of COVID-19, making his voters less likely to mail in their ballots, that effect was bigger. This produced a window in which Trump could point to an early lead from in-person voting, dismiss mail-in votes as fraudulent-a line of attack he had been preparing all summer-and claim victory on election night, prior to the votes were counted.
But this plan required follow-up from state-level officials-either election officials or members of state legislatures-who would be prepared to make use of this shift as an excuse to get rid of the actual vote counts and grant Trump their state’s Electoral College votes. Failing that, it necessary that the Trump campaign try to attain the same result by filing lawsuits that will end up in the Supreme Court, where Trump believed the majority of justices would back him.
Trump and the people have tried every aspect of this strategy-and failed. Why did it fail? Because not enough everyone was willing to go along. The first failure was Fox News Channel’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden relatively early on election night, depriving Trump from the narrative of an election-night victory that would then be “stolen” by late-counted mail-in votes. Then various local officials agreed to certify the final counts that included mail-in ballots and confirmed a lead for Biden in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
Then Trump’s team took his case to the court, only to have all but one of his suits tossed out-often contemptuously so-for lack of evidence. I’m trying to decide whether my favorite is the judge who rejected supposed evidence since it came from an anonymous Internet troll or the judge who took Trump’s lawyers to job for making up a quote from a court ruling cited meant for his case.
Trump is now playing a last-ditch attempt to get at least one senator and one House member to resist the tally from the Electoral College, forcing the entire Congress to vote, on the record, on whether or not to accept the results of the election. Even in this scenario, Trump will lose.
But winning this election isn't the point any more. The point now's to get a large number of congressional Republicans to officially sign up to Trump's “rigged election” fantasy.
any of the crucial decisions that prevented the Trump strategy from working were made by local officials who are Republicans, but who refused to sacrifice the integrity of the system for temporary partisan advantage. Many of the rulings that tossed Trump’s spurious claims out of the courts were made by judges appointed by Republican presidents.
These people are Republicans-or were Republicans. Will they remain so? Can they still even be welcome in the party?
I ask because these officials represent the pre-Trump Republican party. The judges were appointed within the two Bush presidencies, and the local election officials rose to their positions within the party either before Trump was in office, or before his influence had extended down to the details of local politics. They did not act like Trump loyalists, because they were selected before loyalty to Trump became the party’s central, defining issue.
That increasingly appears like the party’s past, not its future.
And that’s what the current tussling over the election is actually about. It’s not about overturning this election. It’s about preparing the ground for the next one.
Consider a few scenes from that transformation.
e have Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filing a suit to invalidate the election results in other states, based on a series of debunked claims. The suit was summarily rejected for consideration through the Supreme Court, but the point is this fact is now the sort of thing an ambitious state-level politician gives get himself noticed and boost his standing in the party.
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers vowed to carry hearings about voting irregularities where they would grill the state’s election officials. Instead, they have asked not a single official or election expert to testify. Rather, they're calling upon “a conservative radio talk show host, a former state Supreme Court justice, a postal subcontractor that has offered a debunked theory about backdated absentee ballots, and an election observer whom President Donald Trump wants to testify in court in one of his lawsuits within the election.”
It’s less of a legislative hearing than the comments section of a Facebook post.
Thousands of Evangelical Trump supporters marched in Washington, DC, to proclaim Donald Trump’s election victory literally as an article of faith, preached to them by such religious luminaries as Alex Jones from the Church of Infowars.
But it’s not just the rubes and the fanatics. Former intellectual luminaries from the right have endorsed the fantasy of the “stolen election” and signed petitions contacting state legislators to overturn the outcomes by appointing pro-Trump electors.
Finally, as a threat to back all of this up, there is an alt-right group distributing what they are called and addresses of local election officials and targeting them for assassination.
These would be the forces that are going to be reshaping the party for the following four years. When it next is time to appoint or elect a state election official, for example, do you think Republicans are going to back the kind of sane technocrat we’ve seen in this election? Or will the fanatical base view these figures as unacceptable and demand raving true believers?
And then what happens when Donald Trump or some successor to his movement runs again, but with a party that has been thoroughly prepared, propagandized, and purged in order to sustain the narrative of the “rigged election” that needs to be corrected by overturning its results?
nder Donald Trump, the Republican party is resigning itself towards the status of a minority party. It's giving up on any kind of “big tent” appeal, doubling and tripling recorded on pandering to the prejudices of a relatively narrow base. It's as if they have decided they're never going to win an outright national majority again-so they're trying to figure out how to wield power without having to win a majority.
Perhaps I’m being too alarmist. Perhaps with Trump from office and getting along in years, he will run out of steam, and there will be no successor who can harness quite exactly the same forces. The next election will likely not take place in the pandemic conditions that make the mail-in vote decisive and therefore won’t present the exact same opportunities for mischief. Probably the QAnon people will all go barking off to another target and lose interest.
But after five years of this, of barriers breaking down and guardrails giving out, of previously sober friends and colleagues wandering off in the fever swamps of conspiracy theories, of products that we thought would never take place in a million years happening-I’m more worried about not being alarmist enough.