President Donald Trump is sabotaging the 2020 presidential election. Not planning to sabotage it, sabotaging it now, in real time.
Just as coups d’etat need to be planned in advance, so do disrupted elections. By repeatedly claiming that the November election will be rife with fraud, and that delayed completion of the vote count will be evidence of this fraud, Trump is pursuing two goals. One is to destroy Americans’ belief in the integrity of the electoral process. Their disbelief will come in handy if Trump loses and claims to have been the object of fraud.
Trump’s second goal is to provide a narrative for his GOP allies for Election Night and its aftermath, supporting any claim he makes that he has won, before all the votes have been counted or all state-by-state contests have been decided.
Some may object that the president, whatever his intentions, has not yet sabotaged the election. It is too narrow to think about the election as taking place during the hours on Nov. 3 when polling places are open. The presidential election is well underway; in some states, voters are casting ballots. To sabotage the election, Trump and his allies need to knock down Americans’ beliefs in the fairness of the process, and that effort takes weeks and months. That is why they have been repeating the mantras of “rigged elections” and “mail-in ballot fraud” for much of the spring and summer.
Trump’s efforts are paying off. A survey conducted in August by the American Social Survey found that 60% of respondents were very concerned or somewhat concerned about fraud in mail-in voting. The worries were more widespread among Trump supporters, but 42% of Biden supporters expressed the same level of concern.
Americans who want to protect our democracy have not found an adequate response to Trump’s current electoral subversion. Journalists and pundits challenge Trump’s assertions of mail-in ballot fraud with words and phrases like “unsubstantiated” and “without evidence.” The words leave the impression that evidence is lacking, that more of it might indeed turn up instances of systematic fraud.
This is inaccurate. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that mail-in ballot fraud — indeed voting fraud of any kind — happens with negligible frequency and has never come close to changing the outcome of a national election in the United States.
With election sabotage occurring in real-time, social-media companies must move more quickly and aggressively to keep the mail-in-ballot-fraud lie off their platforms. Trump knows that repeating lies, over and over, drills them into the understanding of many citizens. Merely offering additional messaging that the claims are unsubstantiated or untrue is much weaker than keeping the claims off the platforms in the first place. Social-media companies do not want to look back, months from now, and regret that they inadvertently contributed to the breakdown of electoral democracy in the United States.
Some may believe that Trump and his allies cannot be involved in a coup-like conspiracy to sabotage the election. After all, their statements questioning the validity of the election are made loudly and in public. So are Trump’s refusal to promise that he will abide by the results, if he loses.
We’ve been here before with this president, who appears guileless in the openness of his abuses of power. How could he be colluding with the foreign powers if he asks openly, for instance, for the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s emails?
But the form of sabotage in which Trump is engaging has to occur in public. In effect, he has to turn large segments of the public into co-conspirators. Twitter, press interviews and campaign speeches are the means by which Trump conveys to these voters the false notion that the election will be “rigged.” A key to the success of the sabotage is to tear apart Americans’ belief that our elections are fair and reliable. The public nature of the sabotage should not mislead us.
Some may say that, since we’re so close to the election, all that can be done is to work and hope for the election saboteur’s defeat at the polls. Those stating this view often follow with the observation that Joe Biden’s victory needs to be a landslide. Otherwise, Trump will claim that the outcome was the result of fraud. A lopsided Biden win will also be required, the thinking goes, to overcome efforts at vote suppression and low in-person turnout of voters in the middle of a pandemic.
These formulations show how much damage Trump has already done to our democracy. Imagine learning about a country in which the incumbent could hold onto power if an election was close — whether he won or lost. But the only way for the challenger to take over was to win in a landslide. You would think you were hearing about a banana republic.
Others may feel that Trump’s acts of sabotage are mere words and statements. Do we want to get into the business of policing politicians’ statements, beyond simply fact-checking them? The central point is that these are not mere words but acts of sabotage. But in addition to the words, the ongoing sabotage has involved undermining governmental institutions and using them to further the scheme. Trump has appointed an ally, Louis DeJoy, to head the Post Office. DeJoy has undertaken additional actions to undermine the voting process and people’s belief in its fairness. Another close ally, Attorney General William Barr, has helped spread fear of violence and chaos in this election season.
Some readers might think that perhaps Trump and Republican leaders believe that their misstatements are true. They are the saviors of democracy, whereas the Democrats are poised to commit massive voter fraud. If Trump and his allies are themselves merely misinformed, we might be able to change their views and halt the misstatements by offering them reassuring information about the near-absence of fraud in American elections, whether voting is in person or by mail. Many of the president’s critics view him as foolish and trapped in a world of faulty information provided by media outlets like Fox News.
Yet there is plenty of solid information, produced by the careful work of experts, indicating that voter fraud is not widespread in the U.S. Trump is selectively impervious to inconvenient facts. And he may be less impervious than he appears. Tape recordings of conversations between Bob Woodward and Trump revealed the president to have had a strong grasp on the looming pandemic last winter, even as he told the public that there was nothing to worry about.
Discussions of Trump’s election sabotage need to shift from the future to the present tense. The delicate tissue of belief in our elections has already been torn. Even if it fails to keep a losing incumbent in office, the damage to our democracy will take many years to repair.