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Trump Just Made the Election About Democracy Itself

And now he's woken the sleeping giant in American politics.
July 31, 2020
Trump Just Made the Election About Democracy Itself
(Hannah Yoest / Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

When Napoleon ordered the execution of the Duke d’Enghien, it was described as “worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

Thursday exposed the extent of Donald’s Trump’s own miscalculation on the election: He’s not necessarily planning a crime, but he is committing an epic blunder.

As you know by now, the president began his day with a tweet complaining about the possibility of fraudulent mail-in ballots and raising the possibility of delaying the November election. To underline his apparent seriousness, he made it his pinned tweet. But, as every constitutional scholar in the country quickly pointed out, he lacks to the power to move the election and there’s absolutely no support in Congress for such a move, so that leaves three alternative explanations.

(1) He wanted a distraction from truly ghastly economic numbers that had just been released.

(2) He is continuing to stigmatize mail-in voting in an effort to suppress that vote.

(3) As Amanda Carpenter writes, Trump is “gaslighting the nation,” to lay the groundwork for delegitimizing and possibly challenging the election. “Trump is spreading such lies and rumors about the 2020 election,” she writes, “because he’s afraid of losing it.”

You can see the talking point taking shape: Trump is not a loser, he is a victim.

On such reeds are Grievance Movements built and Trump is all-in on the strategy: As Peter Baker writes this morning:

The idea of putting off the vote was the culmination of months of discrediting an election that polls suggest Mr. Trump is currently losing by a wide margin. He has repeatedly predicted “RIGGED ELECTIONS” and a “substantially fraudulent” vote and “the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” all based on false, unfounded or exaggerated claims.

It is the kind of language resonant of conspiracy theorists, cranks and defeated candidates, not an incumbent living in the White House. Never before has a sitting president of the United States sought to undermine public faith in the election system the way Mr. Trump has. He has refused to commit to respecting the results and, even after his election-delay trial balloon was panned by Republican allies, he raised the specter on Thursday evening of months of lawsuits challenging the outcome.

By the end of the day, though, it was clear that Trump’s obsession with discrediting the election was backfiring badly. Republicans were generally quick to reject the idea and even the founder of the conservative Federalist Society denounced it  (going so far as to suggest that the tweet itself was grounds for impeachment and removal from office).

The scope of his blunder also came into sharp relief. He had created a dangerous wedge issue that is a political loser both for him and the struggling GOP.

Here is the stark choice: You either want to make it easier for Americans to vote, or you want to make it harder. There is nothing ambiguous or mysterious about Trump’s choice.

But the outrageousness of the tweet can obscure the fact that Trump’s assault on mail-in voting puts him on a collision course with the vast majority of voters.

As the folks at FiveThirtyEight noted:

A new poll out this week found the American people largely supportive of efforts to expand absentee voting. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of adults said that any voter should be able to vote early or absentee without an excuse.Furthermore, an additional 14 percent thought a documented reason should be required, but that COVID-19 should count as one of the reasons. As a result, only 19 percent of Americans believed that voters should need an excuse other than the pandemic to vote absentee.

That Pew survey found that Republicans were far from unanimously behind Trump on the issue.

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly support so-called “no excuse” early or absentee voting: 83% say this. Among the small share of Democrats who do not, most say the coronavirus outbreak should qualify as a documented reason.

GOP views are more divided: 44% of Republicans and Republican leaners say no documented reason should be necessary to vote early or absentee, while 55% say one should be. Among Republicans who say a documented reason is needed, most say the coronavirus outbreak should not be considered a valid reason: 37% of all Republicans say early and absentee voting only should be allowed with a documented reason and say that COVID-19 is not an acceptable reason; 17% say a documented reason should be required, but that COVID-19 should be a valid reason.

The obvious problem with Trump’s position is that if he succeeds in discouraging absentee or early voting, he may actually be suppressing his own votes, especially among older voters.

But this is not the worst of it. What we saw yesterday was that he has awakened a giant, smoldering issue.

John Lewis’s funeral was a clarifying moment. While we had been distracted by Trump’s obsessive, whiny narcissism, former president Barack Obama powerfully reminded listeners of the history, power, and resonance of the issue of voting rights.

The New York Times reports that at a recent event, Obama was asked what kept him up at night. “He cited fears of voter suppression and an effort by Mr. Trump to question the election’s legitimacy,” the Times reported.

On Thursday, he unleashed on Trump:

“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” the nation’s first Black president said at Lewis’s final memorial service. “George Wallace may be gone but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.

Obama reminded listeners that the march in Selma had been about voting rights; and that the issue remains central to the fight over social justice and constitutional order. It felt like a pivotal moment in the campaign, as if a massive trap had been sprung. Democrats had their rallying cry; Trump had made democracy itself a campaign issue.

Listening to Obama, you had to realize: Trump has picked the wrong fight at the wrong time,

Of course, Trump may have a different definition of “winning:” Chaos, grievance, and confusion may now be his best case scenario, but it is hard to see how it leads to anything but ignominious defeat.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.