Lagging in the polls, Donald Trump has made it clear that he’s preparing to subvert a full counting of votes to stave off electoral defeat. On Sunday Axios reported that “President Trump has told confidants he’ll declare victory on Tuesday night if it looks like he’s ‘ahead,’ according to three sources familiar with his private comments. That’s even if the Electoral College outcome still hinges on large numbers of uncounted votes in key states like Pennsylvania.… Trump’s team is preparing to claim baselessly that if [counting those votes] changes the outcome in Pennsylvania from the picture on election night, then Democrats would have ‘stolen’ the election.”
The New York Times carried a brief report to the same effect:
Trump sprinkles his rally speeches with unfounded attacks on the election process. Last week, he claimed with no real evidence that “everyday, there’s cheating with the ballots.” It’s part of his consistent questioning of the integrity of the election. Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.
Trump’s own words support the contention that he’s going to try to muddy the water by claiming that the election night tally should be conclusive, despite the fact that elections in the United States often take much longer. Even at the presidential level, there was no clear winner on the night of the election in such recent elections as 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016. Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Trump said, “I think it’s terrible that we can’t know the results of an election the night of the election…. We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers.”
Richard L. Hasen of Slate argues that there is little reason to believe that Trump’s bluster could change the outcome of the election. He thinks both the mainstream media and the courts can be relied to push back against Trump’s bullying. Hansen contends that Trump’s strategy
is not going to work. The networks and news organizations are prepared for this, and Americans have learned to discount anything the president says. Most are inoculated against his lies about voting. And assuming there are no major foul-ups in how the rest of Election Day voting goes, it is hard to imagine any legal strategy that will lead courts to order a halt to the counting of ballots that have arrived before Election Day (even if there could still be litigation over late-arriving ballots). So far, all of the Trump and Republican suits aimed at stopping the easing of voting rules during the pandemic on grounds of a risk of fraud have failed miserably, and any postelection attempt on these grounds should fail too.
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Hasen’s arguments can’t be discounted out of hand—but they are not conclusive. While the media has learned to be more critical of Trump, there is still a powerful impulse towards faux-neutrality when covering partisan competition. The mainstream media is still governed by the imperatives of pretending that both sides of a debate are equally valid. Just on Sunday, the Times reported on Trump’s stoking of political violence with a headline that read: “With the Election Looming, the Nation’s Divisions Play Out in the Streets: Disruptions in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere reflect a bitter, uncertain election.” The headline was later changed to read: “Trump Backers Block Highways as Election Tensions Play Out in the Streets.” The first headline shows that the initial impulse of the mainstream media in any partisan dispute will be to avoid casting blame on one party. Which means Trump’s muddying of the water will have some impact.
Nor are the courts fully reliable as protectors of the votes—not with the history of the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision. Three Republican lawyers who worked on that case, which ended with a partisan court stopping the vote count, now sit on the Supreme Court.
Never Trump conservative Bill Kristol thinks we should turn to Republican officials to help prevent a sabotage of vote counting. On Sunday, Kristol tweeted, “If Trump ‘claims’ victory, media should debunk. But GOP elected officials, in relevant states and nationally, are key. They all need to say right away, ‘No. Let the votes be counted.’ And a George W. Bush statement saying no, let votes be counted, should be ready to go at once.”
This scenario is naive to the point of absurdity. The vast majority of elected Republican officials have gone along with Trump’s corruption until now. Why would they take steps to prevent him from being reelected? For that matter, George W. Bush has to date not said a single public word holding Trump directly accountable for his actions. There is no reason to think that he would do so now.
The existing political system, including the courts, can’t be trusted to do the right thing. It might, but there is no certainty, especially given historical experiences like the 2000 Supreme Court intervention.
Institutions like the courts are more likely to stop Trump if they are goaded into proper action by mass political mobilization. Writing at the website Org Up, Jacob Swenson-Lengyel and Jonathan Matthew Smucker lay out the case for progressives to mobilize around a message that affirms the need for a complete vote count. Such a message would also include the affirmation that protest is itself a necessary part of keeping institutions in check. “Our messaging must reinforce the idea that the outcome of any and all contested election scenarios will hinge on mobilizing peaceful demonstrations at an unprecedented scale,” they recommend. “In America, since our founding, the mandate to govern ultimately comes from ‘We the People.’ We cannot rely on established systems and procedures to protect our democracy. The people themselves must lead and demand accountability from those who claim to represent us.”
If Trump does follow through on his threats to sabotage the vote count, then America will face a protracted war of narratives that could last weeks, if not months. In such a war, it’s essential to mobilize the population in order to make clear that Trump’s actions are illegitimate. In the contested election of 2000, organizers like Jesse Jackson, working with labor unions, were ready to take to the streets. Al Gore infamously ordered them to stand down. Neither the Democratic Party nor the broader anti-Trump movement can risk repeating that mistake.