The 2020 vote, the president of the United States recently averred, would be the most “inaccurate” and “fraudulent” in the history of the country. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote?” Donald Trump asked. The answer he received was a resounding, “no.”
Some of Trump’s staunchest supporters reacted with a mix of apprehension and horror at the president’s “question.” Conservatives (present company included) unloaded on Trump for introducing an element of doubt regarding the integrity of November’s results—an element of doubt to which Trump’s fervent fans are sure to cling. The president’s Republican allies in Congress summarily dismissed the prospect of a delayed election.
This was a welcome display of civic and intellectual probity. It suggests that partisanship remains a weak force in American political life. But it would be more reassuring if we saw the same response from Democrats when their allies indulge in this kind of conspiracy theorizing. Trump isn’t the only political figure undermining the public’s faith in the coming election.
Take, for example, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. She maintains, the mountain of contradictory evidence notwithstanding, that she has no reason to formally concede that 2018 race because the results were compromised. This week, Abrams predicted that the same dirty tricks that stole the governorship from her would be applied to the presidential race.
In an event hosted by Reuters, Abrams prudently advised observers of American politics to be patient while awaiting the results of the November elections. It could take days or even weeks to count the ballots and declare a victor in the states where both presidential candidates are running competitively. This display of judiciousness was short-lived.
“But we also can’t ignore that the president has put in place a postmaster general who is slowing down the essential delivery of mail,” Abrams digressed. “We know that’s going to lead to a number of legal challenges.” She continued: “Voter fraud is not the issue. Voter suppression is the issue.”
The theory that Donald Trump is determinedly wrecking the perpetually cash-strapped United States Postal Service only to ensure his own reelection is a theory that has purchase in a variety of respectable center-left venues. It is, nevertheless, an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
The appointment of Trump donor Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General and his subsequent cost-cutting measures (including reduced operations and overtime for postal workers) has confirmed for the president’s critics that the plot is already in motion. “His demagoguery and the appointment of DeJoy raise obvious questions about whether the management of voting by mail will be manipulated in service of Trump’s reelection,” the New Yorker’s Steve Coll observed. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said the changes in postal service threaten to compromise “a free and fair election.” Joe Biden himself claimed that Trump “wants to cut off money for the post office so they cannot deliver mail-in ballots”—a theory FactCheck.org deemed a “baseless election conspiracy.”
As egregious as this is, forces loyal to the Biden campaign may be guilty of an even more odious effort to sow distrust in the nation’s capacity to administer an election.
Media consumers were recently treated to some menacing speculation about the utter breakdown of the most essential American civic tradition—the peaceful transition of power from one party to the other.
New York Times columnist Ben Smith recently joined the many legacy media outlets that have devoted space to a “war game” in which Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, played the role of the Democratic nominee in a scenario whereby Trump had won reelection. But Podesta declined to concede the race. Instead, he alleged widespread voter suppression had rendered the results illegitimate.
Podesta-as-Biden then “persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan” to reject the verdict of the voters and send “pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.” Biden encouraged the states of California, Oregon, and Washington to threaten to secede if Trump took the oath of office again next January. The House and the Senate proceeded to adjudicate the election as though the Electoral College vote yielded a tie and the nation, having given up on its representative institutions, “waited to see what the military would do.” For his part, the real Joe Biden has assured Americans that, should Trump “try to steal the election,” the armed forces would “escort him from the White House with great dispatch.” Quite reassuring.
How is it that such unjustifiable speculation found its way into print in the pages of the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic, and NPR, among others? The named members of a Washington dinner party that later transformed into the Transition Integrity Project—the organization that conducted these exercises—are well-known and by no means Trump-friendly figures. And while the exercise produced scenarios in which the president did his best to shatter national comity—even going so far as to agitate for civil unrest and invoking the Insurrection Act to quell dissent—Republicans reportedly did not hold the Union hostage unless their candidate emerged victorious.
Some might defend this as prudence and preparation, but even Globe reporters concede that the simulations produced some “far-fetched” outcomes. Indeed, the most valuable product the Transition Integrity Project’s experiment produced was a lot of free media for the Transition Integrity Project. But if our knowledge of these potential outcomes has any effect on election observers, it would be (ironically) to undermine the integrity of the vote. After all, if its close, one or the other party would most assuredly disregard the results—all of America’s responsible stakeholders say so, and who are we to question them? It’s easy to see how such an unthinkable idea can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s bad enough that Donald Trump seems unable to act like the constitutional steward he is, but he’s not alone. Trump’s tweet crossed a bright red line, and it was valuable to see him scolded for it even by those who are invested in his electoral success. Despite the commensurate nature of the threat they pose, we have not seen Democrats police their side’s paranoiacs with similar vigor.