Trump’s Election Disinformation: Three ‘Don’t’s

Policy


President Donald Trump delivers an update on the Operation Warp Speed program in an address from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Don’t minimize it.

Nothing over the past four years convinced me so effectively that Trump needed to be defeated as has his response to defeat. No, it’s not an attempted coup in the literal sense. But it is an extended campaign of brazen public lies by a sitting president of the United States (“I WON THE ELECTION, BY A LOT”; “This was a RIGGED ELECTION!”; etc. — emotionally incontinent majuscules in the originals), undertaken to make his supporters falsely believe that an election has been stolen, combined with an attempt to reverse the outcome of that election by gaming the system. Nor did the disinformation campaign begin on Election Day. Trump strategically laid the groundwork for it all summer and fall (e.g., on June 22: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”).

Whether or not Trump would execute a coup if somehow he could is, in the present American context, beside the point. What stops him, or anyone else, from doing so is the design of our institutions and the political-cultural norms that undergird that design, one of which is that elected officials admit defeat when the evidence of their defeat is clear — rather than file frivolous lawsuits, attempt to game the system, purge government officials for telling the truth, impede the transition to their successors, and lie, lie, lie. Part of what makes Trump’s lying so devilishly effective, which is to say destructive to that norm, is that claims of small-scale voter fraud are sometimes plausible and it is within the realm of the possible that voting systems could be hacked. The lies are thus presented under a patina of theoretically possible truth, with the deception consisting in a massive exaggeration as to the allegedly election-swinging magnitude of possible fraud and the treatment of every conspiracy theory as something in need of refutation rather than confirmation.

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Of course this will have harmful effects on our political culture and weaken our institutions to some unpredictable degree. A new and dangerous thing is getting normalized. I heard a little warning bell go off in Utah when Burgess Owens, the Republican representative-elect of the state’s fourth congressional district, alleged in fundraising emails that Democrats were attempting to steal the election from him — citing no evidence whatever, and even as he led in the vote count. I had never before seen anything like it in the politics of my state. We have Donald Trump to thank.

Pro-democracy dissidents can also thank Trump for undermining their cause by comporting himself in a way that indeed bears a family resemblance to the conduct of strongmen and dictators: not through acts of political violence, which are thankfully beyond his means, but through his lying, lying, lying efforts to invalidate a democratic outcome and spread false beliefs about it.

“Disinformation” is the only adequate word.

Don’t falsely equate it.

Let’s go ahead and grant the harshest claims that the Obama administration abused its power in various ways, some of them involving unjustified surveillance and investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign. Let’s go ahead and grant that the Left never treated Trump’s victory as legitimate and that Hillary Clinton did what she could to entrench the belief that James Comey and Russian hacking had cost her the election. Nonetheless, Clinton conceded her defeat — by margins smaller than Trump’s in 2020 — the morning after the election. Obama invited Trump to the White House and publicly wished him success. Call this hypocritical all you like, but don’t pretend that it was a public campaign of lies, lies, lies about the vote-tallying itself, combined with a system-gaming effort to confer a presidential term on the losing candidate.

Don’t relativize it.

Even if Obama and Clinton had embarked on such a campaign, it would not excuse what Trump is doing now. Paraphrasing “I know you are but what am I” as plural converse — “I know we are but what are you?” — may offer a certain tribal-partisan satisfaction. It is also a concession that what one previously found egregious enough to howl against is, now, just the way things go.


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