President Donald Trump's last-ditch strategy of claiming that he won the election, while filing lawsuits to stop the counting in states where he is ahead at the same time he litigates for recounting ballots where he is behind, is unlikely to change the final results. As more and more votes get counted, it appears increasingly likely that Joe Biden will win, albeit rather narrowly. But even if Trump's cries of fraud don't change the outcome, they may have an even more lasting impact — on the legitimacy of the vote and the course of a Biden presidency.
If the narrative persists that the system is rigged and, therefore, there is no legitimate path to political power, the justification for using alternative means of power grows.
Trump's political career has been defined by falsehoods that cast Democrats as cheaters and liars. He rose to prominence in Republican circles as a chief propagator of the Obama "birther" conspiracy, which claimed that Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States. In the 2016 election, he constantly spread lies about voter fraud before the election and then doubled down on those lies even after he won, claiming he would have won the popular vote, too, if not for such manipulation. He spent much of the 2020 election arguing that mail-in ballots would also lead to fraud and that the only way Democrats could win would be through cheating.
While these might all be easily disproved falsehoods, Trump's opinion-shaping power as leader of his party means his frequent misstatements have not only reverberated among Republicans, but also spawned similar misinformation through the country.
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Since the election, the hashtag #StopTheSteal has been spreading on Twitter. One video, of a pro-Trump poll watcher being kept out of a polling location in Pennsylvania, has received about 300 million likes. Expect these memes to spread and gain currency in the days and weeks to follow, especially if Trump himself promotes them (as he almost certainly will). Already, we have seen reports of a "moblike scene" of Trump supporters outside a Detroit-area vote counting facility.
The more Trump and his supporters repeat claims that Democrats stole the election, the more widely held they are likely to become. And the more widely held they become, the more Biden would be seen as an illegitimate president.
What would the consequences of that be? The first, and perhaps most certain, result would be civil disobedience. In normal times, this might take the shape of protests and demonstrations. But in these pandemic times, when wearing a mask is already a deeply partisan issue, it may take more destructive forms. Trump voters could fail to comply with federal public health mandates and even refuse to take a vaccine should one become available. In general, the more illegitimate Biden's presidency appears in the minds of Trump supporters, the more likely they are to feel not only empowered but also deeply righteous in disobeying public health guidelines that might emanate from the White House.
The second, also highly likely, consequence of delegitimizing Biden's presidency is that Republicans in the Senate will come under intense pressure from their voters to obstruct and harass Democrats at every opportunity, rather than work with them and potentially negotiate compromises. If Biden's presidency is widely considered illegitimate, GOP senators will all be looking over their shoulders for their next primary challengers should they as much as say a nice thing about Biden or any other Democrat.
Third, and somewhat likely, is that the Republican majorities in state legislatures will feel more emboldened and justified in using whatever power they have to draw congressional district maps that make it easier for Republicans to get elected. They will also feel empowered to continue to make it more difficult for citizens to vote — all under the banner of preventing fraud. After all, if Biden's presidency is perceived as illegitimate, how can Republicans back down?
The fourth outcome is also quite possible: violent protests sprinkled with some domestic terrorism. If the narrative persists that the system is rigged and, therefore, there is no legitimate path to political power, the justification for using alternative means of power grows. It is common in declining democracies for groups to resort to violence if they are shut out of political office and feel they have no reasonable hope of governing other than through force. The narrative of a coming civil war is widespread among the far right in America. Trump is playing with live ammunition right now, and the more he provokes this group, the more the chances of genuine violence increase.
The more Trump and his supporters repeat claims that Democrats stole the election, the more widely held they are likely to become.
Perception is almost always more important than reality in politics. And the more Trump and his allies stoke the fires of delegitimization, regardless of the validity of the election process, the more dangerous the state of our democracy becomes. Democrats, unfortunately, are largely powerless here, since anything they say will likely be dismissed by Trump supporters. So, frankly, is much of the mainstream media, for the same reason.
Much depends on what fellow Republicans say. Fortunately, some Republican leaders have been pushing back against Trump's claims to fight to the bitter end. But as the months go by, elected Republicans and members of the conservative media may have stronger incentives to cast Biden's win as illegitimate, since anger and outrage are in their political and financial interests. This, of course, is why we are in this mess to begin with.
Outrage and delegitimization didn't start with Trump. But he's made them far worse, and even harder to overcome.