Saturday, August 1, 2020

As Defeat Looms, Trump Sows Doubts About Election

As the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, former vice president Joe Biden tweeted a warning on April 24 that he expected that Trump “is going to try to kick the election [and] come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.” The Trump campaign responded by accusing Biden of engaging in “incoherent conspiracy theory ramblings” and describing Trump’s poll-leading opponent as “out of touch with reality.”

Trump himself confirmed Biden’s warning in a tweet of his own last week [July 30] that repeated the president’s unsubstantiated warnings about mail-in voting and suggested delaying the Nov. 3 election. “With universal mail-in voting (not absentee voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Constitutional law scholars were quick to point out that Trump, as president, has no authority whatsoever to delay the election: the date is set by Congress, as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Historians were equally quick to point out that the United States held the presidential election in 1864 as scheduled, with the nation engaged in civil war.

On Capitol Hill, Republican members of Congress for once found that Trump had gone too far. Trump’s enabler-in-chief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, used an interview with a home-state television station to bat away any possibility of an off-schedule election. “Never in the history of the country, through wars and depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we'll find a way to do that again this November 3, ” McConnell told the interviewer from Louisville’s WNKY.

Steven Calabresi, a law professor at Northwestern University and a co-founder of the Trump-loving Federalist Society, went so far in an op-ed  for the New York Times as to label Trump’s suggestion “fascistic” and grounds for impeachment. Calabresi, who defended Trump during the impeachment, called for Trump to relent from the suggestion or resign.  

Several other Republicans followed McConnell’s example by similarly rejecting any likelihood of a delayed election, including the House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy. Those assurances are, to be sure, welcome, but they are not enough. Trump’s strategy is to sow doubts about an election that he is now on a path to losing, badly. Recall that even after winning the presidency by an Electoral College majority, Trump claimed, without any evidence, to have lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton only because of illegal voting by illegal aliens.

Right now, Republicans need to be contradicting and correcting Trump’s lies about what are actually the minuscule risks of fraud in mail-in voting: only 143 prosecutions for mail-ballot fraud out of more than 250 million ballots cast in mail-in voting over the past 20 years, according to an article by Igor Derysh in <I>Salon</I>. With no evidence, Attorney General William Barr told the House Judiciary Committee that there was “a high risk” of fraud in mail-in voting in this year’s election, but he refused to endorse Trump’s suggestion that the election will be rigged. “I have no reason to believe it will be,” Barr said in reply to a Democratic lawmaker’s query.

It is a commonplace observation among democracy advocates that the critical test for an emerging democracy comes not in the first election, but in the next &#151; when the in-power party faces the reality of yielding power to the opposition. On that issue, the United States has a fairly good record but with a few blemishes. John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts to put some of his opponents in jail after winning the presidency in 1796. The New York Times’s Peter Baker noted, in a news analysis, some examples of sore losers in U.S. history: Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of gaining the presidency in 1824 on the strength of a corrupt bargain with the third-place candidate Henry Clay; Democrats mocked Rutherford Hayes as “His Fraudulency” after the Republican emerged as the winner after the disputed 1876 election.

To opposite effect, however, Al Gore, as the popular vote winner in 2000, stoically accepted the Supreme Court decision that cut off the recount in Florida. “While I strongly disagree with the decision,” Gore said in a televised address the next night, “I accept it.”

Whatever grousing there may have been about elections in U.S. history, never until now has a sitting president or a former president used the prestige of the office to fuel doubts about results after or much less before they are known. “I have never seen such an effort to sow distrust in our elections,” Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization that promotes democracy around the world, told the Times’s Baker. “We are used to seeing this kind of behavior from authoritarians around the globe,” Abramowitz added, “but it is particularly disturbing coming from the president of the United States.”

Trump’s advisers have their work cut out for them in trying to convince Trump of the reality of what seems now as his likely defeat on Election Day. For the country’s sake, perhaps they can persuade him to leave quietly after the results are counted, but  that may be too much to hope for.

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