"There was nothing ignoble about Trump’s defeat — at least, not initially"
There was nothing ignoble about Trump’s defeat—at least, not initially. Like last time, the pollsters missed the mark and the prophesied “blue wave” never materialised. The president lost by less than one percentage point in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia, as well as in the ever-crucial Pennsylvania. As for the accusations of racism and “white supremacy”—26 per cent of Trump’s voter share came from non-white voters. In fact, the only ethnic group among whom he failed to better his 2016 result was white men. Make of that what you will.
I almost wonder whether, had we not endured a pandemic and the president’s behaviour in the fall-out, we might have been looking at a Trump landslide. But then, there’s nothing quite like a global crisis to take the shine off an entertainer-in-chief. And there’s nothing quite like an undignified response to defeat to complete the disenchantment, at least for the marginal majority.
In the absence of evidence, Trump continues to insist that widespread voter fraud means that he did not really lose the election on November 3—rather, he won “by a lot”. For the first few weeks after the election, his grip on the top job was so tight-knuckled that it looked increasingly as though he would have to be dragged out of the Oval Office by his ankles. He has (at the time of writing) relented and agreed to leave office if the electoral college vote against him on December 14. (Incidentally, the change from one presidency to the other neither legally nor constitutionally requires a concession from the losing candidate. He would always have been taken out in handcuffs if it came to that.)
However unseemly the president’s behaviour, the voter fraud controversy deserves serious consideration. This year was especially tense owing to the complications of the unprecedented level of mail-in voting. Even before the election, concerns were raised about the discrepancy between Republican and Democratic voters (the former voting disproportionately in person, the latter by mail). This played out exactly as feared. Trump made initial gains in key states but then, overnight, these leads reversed as the mail-in ballots were also counted. This led to suspicions of meddling. There are, of course, serious arguments to be made for voting reform, but Trump’s claims are something quite different.
For one thing, while the margin of victory was narrow, it wasn’t that narrow. In 2000, the Supreme Court had to intervene in the recount dispute Bush v. Gore after the margin of victory in Florida was less than 0.5 per cent of the votes cast, a matter of mere hundreds. By contrast, in order for Trump to seriously contest a Biden victory, he would have to show that he had won at least two of the contested swing states, plus Pennsylvania. That is tens of thousands of votes per state, over a hundred thousand in total.
Again, all accusations of fraud—especially those made by a sitting president, however volatile—deserve serious scrutiny. The trouble for Trump is that his own party, judicial appointees, and honest brokers in conservative media have done this due diligence. His claims simply don’t check out. All but two of the 19 lawsuits brought forward by Trump legal team lawsuits have already failed.
Further undermining the president’s credibility are the wild inconsistencies in his legal team’s claims inside and outside of court. The press conference given by the Trump legal team at the Republican National Convention headquarters, led by Rudy Giuliani, was—to any objective onlooker—the cringiest ever televised. Giuliani stated they had in their possession “enough evidence” to “overturn this election”, an assertion that collapses upon the slightest inspection. For instance, in one suit, recently dismissed by a federal appeals court, Trump’s legal team argued that Pennsylvania violated the equal protection clause of the US constitution by allowing voters in some of its counties to potentially fix their ballots in the event of mistakes. Even if this quirk in the law had given rise to fraudulence in every instance (and there’s no proof that it did) it would still bring the count nowhere near what would be needed to overturn Biden’s 80,000 victory margin. Why, then, would a judge mandate a recount, risking the perceived legitimacy of an election?
Despite being either unable or unwilling to demonstrate a single instance of voter fraud (and no doubt, some does exist), Giuliani pointed instead to a “national conspiracy”. Attorney Sidney Powell went further still, claiming that the election was rigged via corrupted machinery at the behest of foreign communists and American traitors, which apparently includes Republican as well as Democratic officials. (If you are wondering, at this point, what electronic voting has to do with fraudulent ballot papers, Powell attempted to give an account of a broken “algorithm that had been plugged into the system”, requiring the invention of fraudulent ballots at the last minute.)
The Trump team has since unceremoniously dumped Powell. If this is an attempt to distance themselves from her allegations, it is unconvincing. As my National Review colleague Jim Geraghty has pointed out, no-one on the Trump team contradicted Powell when she shared a stage with them at the RNC press conference. Besides, Giuliani is hardly any better. He proclaimed on Twitter that “in 70 percent of Wayne County, Detroit, there were PHANTOM VOTERS. There were more votes than registered voters.” Yet according to the official records, 878,102 people voted out of 1,406,355 registered voters. Or are these figures also the product of corrupted communist machines?
Even those typically sympathetic to the president have been unable to stomach the conspiracy theories. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson complained on air that Powell “never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of polite requests. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her. When we checked with others around the Trump campaign, people in positions of authority, they told us Powell had never given them any evidence to prove anything she claimed today at the press conference.”
If it wasn’t already obvious from his time in office, when under threat, the president is inclined to prefer the conspiratorial to the constitutional. Admittedly, this is sometimes quite effective. Indeed, when applied politically, there is a certain benefit to “gish-galloping” (the debating practice of introducing a high volume of arguments without concern to strength or accuracy, so as to overwhelm one’s opponent). The logic being thus: that it’s easier to start ten fires than it is to put them out. The trouble is that fires tend to cause indiscriminate damage. And what then?
Take that old conservative talking point, “due process under law,” for instance. Lacking evidence to support his claims, Trump has attempted to pressure Republican officials and state legislators to refuse to certify the votes and appoint electoral college delegates. He even summoned Republican state senators and officials in Michigan to the White House in a bid to recruit them. Such an approach is as undemocratic as it is unconservative, undermining 200 years of precedent by which these decisions are determined by the will of the electorate made manifest in the results of state elections. Yet it is what many have come to expect from a president whose self-regard is seldom curtailed by any concern for loftier principles.
Fortunately for the country—if not for the president—Republican lawmakers have mostly ignored the Trump team’s cynical ploy. Michigan’s Republican House speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey have reasserted the certification of Trump’s defeat in the state. The Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, made clear that “we have not seen widespread, systemic voter fraud that would overturn the results of the people”.
The predicament Republican officials face harkens back to the judgement of Solomon. The true conservative, like the true mother in the story, is the one who refuses to split (and so kill) the baby—the American constitutional republic—even if that does mean conceding legitimate defeat in the 2020 election.
Nevertheless, if there is a predisposition among voters to believe partisan fantasies over objective reporting, we journalists might stop to ask ourselves why. After Trump’s victory in 2016, the Democratic establishment—enjoying the full support of the liberal press—spent two years pursuing a bogus Russian election interference conspiracy, at the cost of $32 million to the American taxpayer. Trump’s fabricated “illegitimacy” was frequently invoked as a reason for having him impeached or otherwise defeated.
Now a sitting president has made similarly outlandish claims of voter fraud and the very same people are utterly incurious—content to ignore, or even to censor, his claims. This double standard is not lost on the American public, whose distrust in “official sources” (as Twitter so sinisterly arbitrates them) is more than justified. Once respected outlets such as the New York Times, are now so obviously partisan, hysterical and intolerant, that the “mainstream media” is the all-too-convenient face for the left-wing bogeyman that features in every Trumpian conspiracy.
It’s no wonder that Trump is taking the loss so badly on a personal level. It is not only his ego at stake. Life in a post-Trump presidency has bigger implications for the outgoing incumbent. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has compared Trump’s final days to “an endgame even more perilous than the one confronted by Nixon”, as famously described by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in 1974. Mayer nods to Trump’s resilience: he has “survived one impeachment, two divorces, six bankruptcies, twenty-six accusations of sexual misconduct, and an estimated four thousand lawsuits”. Nevertheless, he may be at the end of his financial, as well as his political, rope. He has outstanding loans of three hundred million dollars, all of which he has personally guaranteed, many to foreign creditors.
In any case, Trump is clearly experiencing an unfamiliar and uncomfortable vulnerability. When he told General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy to “do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols,” signalling that he would instruct his staff to cooperate with the transfer of power procedures, he soon added, “What does GSA being allowed to preliminarily work with the Dems have to do with continuing to pursue our various cases on what will go down as the most corrupt election in American political history?”
Yet there is nothing truly inexplicable about Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s respectability problem translated into an electability problem. He lost the support of educated suburbanites, as well as a significant portion of the conservative Christian vote, which contributed to his loss in key states. Considering the polling predictions, the real surprise has not been his defeat as much as the narrow margin, which has so far helped Republicans maintain their control in the Senate. At the time of writing, the Associated Press has called 33 of the 35 seats up for election; bringing the Republican lead to 50-46. All eyes are now on Georgia where the fate of the GOP candidates in the runoffs will determine whether or not the Republicans have the majority of 51 that they need to block a Biden-Harris legislative agenda. It doesn’t help that the GOP candidate Trump has endorsed has links with QAnon quacks.
Notwithstanding the remote possibility that the Trump team is delaying their revelation of widespread and systemic voter fraud, it seems, then, that much of the litigation is for show; it’s either a sore loser’s last protestation or a cynical ploy for political longevity.
Still, if we have learned anything about Trump, it is that he and his base exhibit a kind of ferocious loyalty to one another. At the last count, roughly half of Republicans believed that Trump “rightfully won” the election, while 68 per cent said they had concerns about a “rigged” vote count in favour of Biden. Those are not insignificant figures. In a way, the president’s final days merely solidify the great sorting that has been happening over the past four years on the American Right. To Republicans, the experiment of Trumpism was always destined to be high risk/high reward. It cost them 2020, and it may even cost them the future credibility of conservatism. But on the flip side, Trumpism did deliver three conservative Supreme Court picks and (potentially) a Republican-controlled Senate—beyond that, I suppose, there’s always 2024, when Trump or one of his disciples can take another run at it. Good luck to anyone who would try to stop them.