I could start this column with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the mother of all Signals: the bombshell New York Times investigation pretty much nailing Trump as a tax fraud, a grifter, and a man who has turned the US government into a vehicle for personal enrichment. But to do that one justice, you really need to read the full story for yourself. (And try to filter out the Noise, the non-denial denials in which Trump and his allies don’t contradict the numbers in the Times’ story—nor produce a single Trump tax document to refute the charges—but simply say the paper is purveying “fake news.”)
Instead, let’s talk about Trump’s strategy to suppress the vote, as polls show that he is likely to handily lose an election already in process.
What Trump is saying with his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power is, “Either you reelect me or acquiesce in my holding on to power by other means—or I will trigger civil conflict.” And what he is saying when he tells supporters to check on polling stations to make sure things are going OK is that he wants his foot soldiers to intimidate people into not voting. And what he is really saying when he says that no matter what the voters decide, he hopes to compel a “continuation” of his presidency is that there’s no point in going out to vote, because he’s going to attempt to treat Americans like serfs rather than citizens.
He has already said he wants a new Supreme Court justice in place soon, as a guarantee that the court will back him when—not if—he challenges election results and vote counts; and he has said that he wants, and ought to have, a 9-0 court ruling in his favor for such an election dispute.
Let’s parse this: A president of the United States is saying repeatedly that the election will be rigged against him; that any result other than one proclaiming his victory is fraudulent by definition; that he knows in advance that too many votes are being cast against him and that if those ballots aren’t counted he’d be the winner; that he will order his team to make many legal filings disputing the results; and that the court ought to give its legal imprimatur to whatever legal arguments his team comes up with. That’s the stuff of banana republics.
We now know, from Barton Gellman’s reporting in The Atlantic, that Trump’s strategy involves a concerted effort to get courts around the country to not count ballots that arrive after Election Day, even if they are postmarked before Election Day and even if the reason they don’t arrive is Postal Service slowdowns. That strategy, according to Gellman, involves a deliberate effort to run down the clock so votes can’t be counted in time for states to certify them. And that if states do certify results that aren’t in Trump’s favor, Trump’s team will argue that the vote counts were flawed and will call on state legislators to handpick electors to the Electoral College who favor Trump. And we know from Trump’s own words that he will push his case all the way up to his handpicked Supreme Court majority.
The strategy at this point is escalation-at-all-costs.
Witness what happened in Pennsylvania last week, when a poorly trained contract worker hired by the elections board in Luzerne County didn’t realize presidential voting had already begun (it had, but only for military personnel serving overseas rather than for the general public), opened nine ballots, apparently assumed they were votes from the now-long-finished primary, and tossed them. It was a stupid, illegal act and, quite rightly, was referred to the local DA, Republican Stefanie Salavantis, who also, quite rightly, referred it to the regional US Attorney’s office.
From there, however, things took on a life of their own. Despite the fact that there was no indication that it was a coordinated attack on the integrity of the election (Keith Gould, a Republican who sits on the Luzerne County elections board, told me he was convinced that “it was a mistake. It was the employee’s third day. I think it’s ineptitude”) and that the elections board issued a statement to this effect within hours of the problem’s having been identified, Team Trump began wailing that this was part of a massive, coordinated, national conspiracy to deprive him of reelection.
On morning news shows—even before the Justice Department published an unprecedentedly political press release on the case, explicitly identifying which candidate the tossed votes had been cast for—Trump and his press team were already hyping the incident, using it as a sort of Reichstag fire moment to redouble their attacks on the political process and urging further constrictions of access to the vote. Trump only had this inside information because Bill Barr’s Justice Department had personally briefed the president on an ongoing investigation in a way that allowed Trump to fuel a conspiracy narrative.
We also know that after the GOP-controlled Florida legislature shredded that state’s recent reenfranchisement—approved by a huge majority of voters in a 2018 referendum—of ex-felons, and after Trump-nominated judges upheld this at the appellate level, the state’s attorney general, encouraged by GOP politicians, is asking the FBI to “investigate” Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to pay the fines and other court fees of ex-felons to help them become eligible to vote. We know that North Carolina GOP officials just resigned as a way to scupper a brokered agreement, which they themselves had agreed to just days earlier before receiving pushback from GOP higher-ups, that would have allowed for the counting of ballots that arrive late. We know that in Pennsylvania, election officials are warning that the state Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate “naked ballots” could result in thousands of mail-in ballots being trashed. We know that in Nevada and elsewhere, GOP attorneys are suing to block expanded mail-in voting options.
In other words, the GOP, using multiple levers of power simultaneously, is accelerating efforts to limit the franchise and tailor it so that manufactured pro-Trump “majorities” are created out of minority support-pools. In fact, Trump and his supporters see the very idea of an election as nothing more than a raw power game. If that game results in support for the person currently in power, so be it—but if it doesn’t, the plan is to use any means necessary to keep in power an administration that has lost all pretense at popular legitimacy.
The GOP is situating itself increasingly as an authoritarian, antidemocratic party—how apropos, given that Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the Netherlands hosted a fundraiser for a right-wing extremist party in the US Embassy in Holland earlier this month.
So here’s a question for Republican senators who claim they are upholders of democracy and decency, and who pride themselves on their constitutionalist mindset—to Mitt Romney, for example, who says Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses is an abomination, but who also says he supports moving ahead with a Supreme Court confirmation that can’t be voted on until a few days before the election; or to Ben Sasse, who claims to scrupulously adhere to constitutional values, which presumably makes the New York Times revelations about Trump’s tax-avoidance proclivities all the more inconvenient: If you genuinely believe in American constitutional norms and the spirit of democracy, why not demonstrate your trust in the people?
If the American people do indeed believe in the same values you do, and support the same sorts of judicial nominees you do, you will see this soon enough; and then, after November 3, you can move forward with the confirmation process. But if it turns out the public isn’t in the same head space as you are—if voters are discomfited by the stampede to seat a justice nominated by a president who has never been supported by a majority of the population, and who now appears to be up to his neck in unethical and possibly criminal tax avoidance—then surely you owe it to them to respect that difference and hold off on the rush to confirmation.
Look in the mirror and ask yourself where your values, and your commitment to country, are at this perilous moment. For if your expression of fealty to constitutional norms is more than simply a cloak for a raw power grab, you must slow down this process and not place someone on the Supreme Court during an ongoing election in which a desperate president, facing potential criminal liability, attempts to get the courts to keep him in office and protect him from indictment.
This really isn’t a hard argument to follow. Shredding democracy for short-term judicial leverage and putting all your trust in a con man is a losing bet; ultimately, that Faustian bargain corrodes respect for the judiciary and for democracy more broadly. And then everyone loses.