To ‘Steal’ an Election

Elections
President Donald Trump touts recent U.S. stock market gains during a brief appearance in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, November 24, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Dan has a good article on the homepage, the main point of which is that the system worked, since Trump’s efforts to reverse the election failed. Certainly I agree with him about that. But he also finds charges that Trump tried to “steal” the election “overheated.” Since I made such a claim myself, I hope he won’t mind my defending it.

Definition 3(a) of “steal” as a transitive verb in Merriam-Webster is: “to seize, gain, or win by trickery, skill, or daring.” One of the examples given is “stole the election.” So the term needn’t be limited to extralegal means. It can be used to describe legal chicanery by which an electoral loser, making dishonest claims of massive fraud, seizes victory in court or in state legislatures. And “try to steal” would not become inapt just because the person making the attempt had a low probability of success or declined to own certain aspects of the strategy in public.

My purpose isn’t just to quibble over semantics. I think there remains a real question as to whether Trump’s post-election conduct weakened the norms and the system. It’s not as if inviting the Michigan house and senate leaders to the White House set a harmless precedent: It happened in a particular context, one that included the public reluctance of Republican election-board members to certify the vote, and it was followed by another baseless Trump claim of “massive and unprecedented fraud” in the state. What happens when the vote count is closer? What would the aftermath of the 2000 election have been like if the highly technical Bush–Gore disputes over “hanging chads” had been accompanied by wild conspiracy theories, efforts to invalidate rather than count hundreds of thousands of votes, and calls by one or both candidates for their supporters to mass in the streets? Will Trump’s example encourage the losing candidates (whatever their party) in future presidential elections to act as he did? Will it influence future state and local elections, too? The effect would be a creeping third-worldization of our politics and an even greater tendency for voters of both parties to consider electoral results illegitimate if their candidate loses. On the other hand, perhaps the failure and condemnation of Trump’s gambit will discourage others from doing likewise. Let’s hope. Either way, I think it’s right to feel a certain patriotic anger over what Trump tried.

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It’s good to see talk-radio and TV hosts cast Sidney Powell overboard (to the kraken?), but it doesn’t undo Trump’s own conduct, or change the fact that Rudy Giuliani and the RNC were happy to help spread Powell’s claims. And we’re already seeing the beginning of “The election was rigged,” version 2.0. “Rigged” is of course the word Trump has used to falsely allege massive voter fraud, but in his monologue on Monday night Tucker Carlson defined it instead in terms of media bias, tech bias, and politically motivated expansions of mail-in voting* (which tends to favor Democrats). The particular claims are debatable, but the rhetorical effect of the diction is to make it seem as if Trump was somehow more right than wrong about the big picture, and to distract attention from the dishonest and possibly destructive set of assertions Trump has been summarizing with the same word.

And while it’s tempting to say that Trump’s tweets matter little given that we have the system we do, I’m not sure. A president can now instantly spread conspiracy theories about an election among tens of millions of followers, who then act instantly as force multipliers. It’s hard to feel sanguine about the effect this will have on the norms and the system if national politicians — including, quite possibly, Donald Trump over the next four years — decline to exercise a voluntary restraint.

It seems to me that we are on a frightening trajectory. The Founders and the Framers feared mass democracy for a reason. They foresaw Donald Trump and took measures to contain him, but they could not predict social media, cable news, and talk radio. One should not rule it out that we are entering an age of foundation-shaking demagogy.

(*Regarding mail-in voting: It is less secure, an objective concern, but the pandemic did provide an objective reason to want to expand it. In this sense Carlson’s allegation is a kind of mirror image of the Democratic claim that Republican concerns over voter fraud are really attempts to disenfranchise minority voters. This is a good example of why we should try to debate reasons in politics rather than motives: If a policy is objectively justified, the justification is not invalidated by the fact that it happens to benefit a particular group politically; and if we want groups not to push through policies purely for their own benefit, the best way to stop them from doing so is to focus on the actual merits or demerits of what they seek, since a purely self-interested policy will tend to lack merit.)

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