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Donald Trump’s Last (?) Big Lie

His reckless post-election behavior—and how we can start to heal the damage it caused.
November 10, 2020
Donald Trump’s Last (?) Big Lie
US President Donald Trump speaks to the press outside of the White House on October 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

America’s institutions have survived their most serious test since the Civil War, perhaps the Founding. Under unprecedented conditions—a raging pandemic that kept millions of people from coming to the polls on election day—the nation has managed to conduct an election that appears at this point to have been free from foreign interference or fraud and which, when all the votes are counted, will likely have produced a clear and decisive result.

In addition to a historic number who participated in the process by casting their ballots, many thousands of ordinary citizens—Republicans, Democrats and independents—worked tirelessly and under enormous pressure to count and certify every vote.

The system worked.

But at the same time, American self-government has suffered a grievous blow. In a desperate attempt to salve his bruised ego and preserve his grip on political power, the president of the United States has launched a frontal attack on the most sacred feature of our democratic political system: free and fair elections.

In remarks to the nation from the White House and in a flurry of tweets, President Trump has made a series of baseless attacks on the integrity of the election, claiming without providing any evidence that a dark conspiracy of dishonest pollsters, “fake news” media, Wall Street bankers, corrupt officials, and crooked Democrats suppressed his support and mysteriously manufactured millions of ballots for his opponent. Trump’s self-serving conclusion: “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”

If he believes he has been wronged, President Trump has the right to mount legal challenges and, in some cases, to demand a recount. At this point, however, neither he nor his campaign has presented a scintilla of actual evidence to support his allegations. But that has not prevented him from using his position and his authority to challenge the legitimacy not only of the results of this election but of the entire “corrupt” system that organized it.

The president’s allegations are profoundly dangerous and could serve to destabilize our entire system of government. The ability to transfer power peacefully is a singular achievement of our political order. Its success depends on the confidence that people have in the fairness of the electoral system. With millions of Trump’s followers believing his charges, that confidence has been placed in jeopardy, setting the stage for truly dangerous confrontations in the short term and potentially shattering much of the nation’s faith in our system of government over the longer term.

Aware of the risk, a few Republican political leaders have begun to speak out, notably Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, and Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has broken ranks with many of his colleagues by acknowledging Biden as the president-elect; former president George W. Bush has, too, in a statement calling the election “fundamentally fair” and saying “its outcome is clear.” Most Republican politicians have, so far, retreated into cowardly silence. But some have chimed in to amplify Trump’s poisonous charges. Ted Cruz, for one, no doubt eager to position himself for his own presidential run, has warned of Democratic efforts to “steal the election not just from the president” but the millions of people who voted for him.

Once the process has played out, there is little doubt that Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. But he, and the country, will face a serious problem. While some may be repelled by Trump’s petulant refusal to accept defeat, many of his followers will accept his complaints as gospel, rejecting the legitimacy not only of this election but of any future contest that produces a result they do not like.

Already we are seeing various “intellectual” supporters of Trump doubling down on his charges of fraud. Sohrab Ahmari, editorial page editor of the New York Post, speaks of the coming Biden administration as a “terrifying new regime,” and likens it to dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, where recent elections were brazenly stolen.

Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and a Hoover Institution fellow, says darkly of the vote count that there were “anomalies that no one can explain.” The various pollsters who predicted a blue tidal wave for Joe Biden worked knowingly as “voter suppressionists,” Hanson says, and “we feel tonight that if we voted for Donald Trump, we’re living in a Third World Country.”    

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion and Encounter Books, sees a vast conspiracy at work: “The forces arrayed behind Biden knew that the whole bureaucracy of the state—the poll workers and postal workers in battleground states, for example—would be on board for Biden and would be carefully coached in deploying techniques to manufacture or suppress ballots, as necessary, and skew the vote.”

It will be interesting to see both if such voices persist and if they continue to maintain a following. The boorish playboy Donald Trump is as unlikely a figure as one can imagine to create a cult of personality that would so powerfully attract those supposedly devoted to the life of the mind. But political power attracts intellectuals like moths to a flame.

Be that as it may, the larger question is how to begin to heal the damage that has been done by Trump’s reckless behavior and begin to restore confidence in our electoral system. One place to start is to do the very opposite of what Trump did in 2016. Following his victory, he appointed a few highly partisan supporters to a commission and ordered them to dig up evidence to support his claim that millions of illegal votes prevented him from winning a majority. It found absolutely nothing and was quietly disbanded.

Biden should establish a genuinely independent, nonpartisan commission, including distinguished public figures as well as experts on election laws and procedures.  The commission should be charged with carefully reviewing the conduct of the 2020 presidential election, examining every stage of the process and issuing a comprehensive report addressing the various charges that have been made by Trump and his supporters. Where appropriate, the commission should also make recommendations for improvements in local, state, and federal procedures that will ensure not only that future elections are fair and free from any form of interference—as we have every reason to believe this one was—but that they are perceived to be so by as many people as possible.  

No one should delude themselves into believing that such a commission, or any other short-term fix, can in itself come close to restoring confidence in our institutions or a sense of proportion and common purpose to our politics. But in a world in which the halves of the American population are separated into their own information bubbles, it would give a chance to at least begin to bridge the divide.

Like Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, or the 9/11 attacks, the workings of the 2020 election consist of facts that can be established to a high degree of precision.  Indeed, it will almost certainly be a good deal easier in this case to dispense with the “alternative facts” that the outgoing president and his supporters are now brewing up.  And as with these genuine national traumas, there will always be “truthers” who twist the facts beyond recognition, even if only on the fringe. Those who are now busy concocting conspiracy theories to explain away the defeat of their idol and to preserve their place in the public eye may well be too heavily invested in the Trump cult to cease and desist. But it would be wrong to assume that all, or even most, of our fellow citizens who voted for the president will remain stubbornly impervious to evidence, credibly presented.  

As dangerous as it is, Trump’s attempt to distort the truth about this election actually presents an opportunity to begin pushing back against the president’s four-year-long campaign to distort or invent facts and debase public discourse, to call his bluff and expose him yet again as the serial liar that he is. Trump likely knows that his wild allegations will not stand up on close inspection and may well decide to back away from having them tested in a court of law. At this point, his purpose in making these claims is not so much to hold on to office as to create a parallel reality in which he can continue to claim that he was robbed. But he should not be permitted simply to walk away, leaving behind slanderous and damaging allegations about the fundamentals of our democracy.    

Fortunately, truth still has a powerful internal logic of its own. Already, even without the establishment of a fact-finding body, we are seeing major institutions, including Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets like Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, begin to recalibrate, casting doubt on Trump’s allegations and accepting Biden as the legitimate president-elect. If we have learned anything in the last four years it is that even in the age of social media, traditional media organizations retain the power to amplify misinformation and mistrust. But they also have the capacity, and the responsibility, to help undo some of that damage.  

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, it was none other than Karl Rove, someone who actually knows a thing or two about the mechanics of national elections,  who pointed out that “there are suspicious partisans across the spectrum who believe widespread election fraud is possible. . . . But stealing hundreds of thousands of votes would require a conspiracy on the scale of a James Bond movie. That isn’t going to happen.”  

Trump may have inflicted grievous wounds on the American body politic, but the United States continues to exhibit the dynamism and the capacity for renewal that are its distinguishing hallmarks.The healing and reconciliation that Joe Biden has called for needs to begin at once, and debunking the false claims about the election is the place to start.

Aaron L. Friedberg and Gabriel Schoenfeld

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of Getting China Wrong@AaronFriedberg. Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law@gabeschoenfeld.