Speaking from the White House briefing room Thursday night, President Donald Trump tried to delegitimize the 2020 election. This attempt may have been shuddersome, disgraceful and dangerous. But there’s one thing it was not: a surprise.
On the contrary. It was tediously predictable, exactly what you’d expect of a man who has spent four years lumbering through Washington, crushing custom after custom and norm after norm. As Trump faltered on the brink of losing a presidential election — the first incumbent to do so in 28 years — he declared, baselessly, that absentee votes legitimately cast were fraudulent; that the diligent workers paid to count those votes were doing something nefarious; and that the “election apparatus” in the still-unresolved states were controlled by Democrats. (They are not. Georgia’s secretary of state, for one, is a Republican.)
“They are trying to steal an election,” Trump said, speaking (I think) of ballot counters in Detroit and Philadelphia. “They are trying to rig an election. We can’t let that happen.”
But here’s my question for Republicans: Are they going to let this happen? Allow the head of their party to challenge the integrity of an election with record-breaking participation rates — in the midst of a pandemic, no less — just because he despises the result?
They’ve allowed just about everything else and given this demagogue a rather comfortable home; perhaps Trump’s words right now will hardly shock them. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, he’s now doing what demagogues do. We just haven’t seen the likes of it in the United States.
What Trump said Thursday night was historic, and not in a good way. These past four years, the president has done his best to weaken the foundations of democracy. But on the evening of Nov. 5, he seemed hellbent on breaking the 244-year-old thing itself. Telling your nation that the free election it just had is a sham — that’s taking aim at the head and heart.
Back in June, I wrote that you could see Trump trying, already, to make an autocratic lunge for power. He had replaced the last of his honorable civil servants and Cabinet officials with a gallery of dupes, dopes and devotees. He had dispatched Attorney General William Barr to do his bidding at the Department of Justice. He had gotten rid of five inspectors general. He had used the military to clear a public square of protesters. He had found an ally to purge the heads of Radio Free Europe and its three cousins, in what seemed like a spooky bid to make his own version of state-run TV.
As the election approached, he and his allies did everything they could to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Their efforts do not appear to have been sufficient. As I write, Joe Biden is poised to win enough Electoral College votes to win the 2020 election.
And so Trump is now doing what any aspiring strongman would: making a mad grab for power, the people’s choices be damned. He’ll use his lawyers, certainly. But just as important, he’ll use disinformation. From his Twitter feed. From the podium in the White House briefing room. From his own children — essential accessories in any banana republic — who are currently throwing Molotov cocktails on Twitter.
The company had to remove a tweet by Don Jr. on Thursday, who called on his father to “go to total war over the election to expose all of the fraud, cheating, dead/no longer in state voters, that has been going on for far too long.” (And perhaps this goes without saying, but: Sic.)
More than ever, these falsehoods have consequences. Those who simply shrug them off don’t seem to care about their reach, their power, their ability to foment unrest. A Facebook group called “Stop the Steal” started Wednesday and was shut down within the space of 22 hours, after the company learned that members were trying to incite violence. At that point, it had acquired over 320,000 followers, becoming one of the fastest-growing groups Facebook had ever seen.
Those who’ve supported Trump have one last chance to make a choice that history won’t hold in contempt.
A couple already have. And I’m betting more will join them, though it may be for the wrong reasons. On Thursday, after the president’s news conference, the New York Post ran a story about it under the headline “Downcast Trump makes baseless election fraud claims in White House address.” I do not think the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had a sudden flash of conscience. I suspect that he likes winners, and he suddenly senses that Trump isn’t one. If the president is a cult leader, now is the moment he’s demanding that his followers drink the Kool-Aid. Rupert decided he wasn’t all that thirsty.
Let’s see how many other Republicans decide they aren’t that thirsty either. Let’s see how many of them finally put country before party, deciding it’s more important — no, imperative — for American democracy to live.
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.