This Was Always the Plan
President Trump telegraphed that he would try to steal the election if he didn’t win.
Dear Reader (including those of you who are starting to layer up like Steve Bannon to deal with the cold),
I rather enjoy not writing about Donald Trump. My column today is on why I think forgiving student debt is a bad idea. On Wednesday, I wrote a pithy and fun G-File that barely mentioned the sitting president. It was nice.
I’d like more of this. But I feel like I need to vent some rage. If you don’t want to read it, fine, skip ahead to the Canine Update. Or stop reading entirely. Or unsubscribe. Or eat an enormous wheel of industrial grade salad bar cheese. Do whatever you want—I’m not the boss of you, nor you of me.
The thing is, I am very angry.
The president of the United States is trying to steal an election he clearly and unequivocally lost.
Even liberals frame this fact wrong. They keep saying that Trump is undermining the legitimacy of the election. He is certainly doing that. But the undermining isn’t the end he most desires—it’s the means to that end. The man is literally trying to steal an election.
He may not think—anymore—that this is the most likely outcome. But he certainly thinks it’s one of the possible outcomes, and one of the few things we know about Trump is that he likes to keep his options open. From the reporting, he’s pursuing a bunch of goals, many of which reinforce each other.
Claiming the election was stolen lets him pretend—to himself or the country—that he’s not a loser. Claiming the election was stolen and pretending that he’s not a loser keeps his hardcore fan base with him, which will be good for him no matter what happens. It’s good prep work for some kind of “Trump TV” and/or for a potential bid to run again in 2024—at least in his mind. But he surely also thinks there’s a chance, however slim, that he will actually get to steal the presidency. If this was all just a show, he wouldn’t need to invite Michigan pols to the White House, presumably to strong arm them.
Think about it this way: Let’s say there’s a 99 percent chance he won’t be able to do any of the things that could result in him staying in power. He won’t be able to flip various state electors, get the courts to invalidate millions of votes, or get this sent to the House. But odds are good that in his head he thinks he’s got a maybe a 5 percent or 10 percent chance. Maybe even better than that.
As outrageous as his effort to delegitimize the election is—and it is very outrageous—that outrage pales like a lit candle next to the noonday summer sun when you compare it to an effort to literally overturn the popular and Electoral College vote and steal the election. But because that outcome is so unlikely, and Trump’s effort to pull it off is so comically inept, people are focusing on the more likely outrage rather than the more outrageous outrage.
This was the plan.
It’s pretty clear now—as I think Nicholas Grossman pretty accurately predicted—that his goal was always to steal the election if he didn’t win fairly.* He was pretty transparent about this long before the election. He spent months saying that mail-in or early ballots were rife with fraud. He told all of his voters to vote on Election Day. He expected this would give him a “mirage” lead that night, and then, because he had already established the illegitimacy of mail-in ballots, he could pretend to be justified in proclaiming victory on Election Night.
Sure, there would be lawsuits and the like later, but Trump would have momentum on his side. He even telegraphed over and over that he expected the Supreme Court to come to his rescue amid the chaos. That was his primary explanation for why he thought it was important to get Amy Coney Barrett confirmed.
But as Grossman points out, there was just one problem: Trump wasn’t actually leading on Election Night. It’s one thing to declare victory prematurely when the tally on the scoreboard on your side is tied—it’s another to claim that you won when even the scoreboard clearly says you didn’t.
This, by the way, explains why Trump World was so very, very, very, angry about Fox’s decision to call Arizona. I’ll admit, I thought the anger at Fox was simply stupid, not evil. I wrote of the people screaming at Fox:
[They] … are the political equivalent of Kathy Bates in Misery. They think the Fox News Decision Desk is James Caan, and their collective sin is not writing the story the way the MAGA Kathys wanted. And they’re ignoring the fact that even if Fox banged out precisely the story the Kathys wanted on their metaphorical manual typewriters, it wouldn’t change the fact that the story they want is fiction. Trump lost because more Americans—in total and in the necessary states—voted against him. Grow up and deal with it.
But it turns out that the Arizona call ruined the pretext. If Pennsylvania had been the tipping point, they thought they could get the election thrown to the court. But the Arizona call combined with the undeclared result in Georgia preempted that.
So now the Trump team is falling back on sheer gall, breathtaking dishonesty, and gobsmacking insanity. Noah Rothman laid out the naked idiocy of what they’re trying to do. Sadly, he wrote his piece before Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell said, “Hold our beers.” The theory—theories? —they laid out yesterday made Billy Madison’s speech seem like the Gettysburg Address and Demosthenes’ Third Philippic rolled into one.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining why any theory that hinges on the cutting-edge computer know-how of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is going to have problems (see our fact checks here). I’ll just note that even if you sat there watching that thing and said, “This sounds plausible,” it doesn’t change the fact they offered no proof of what they were alleging. Nor have any of their lawyers when they have stood before a judge. On Twitter and in press conferences, Trump (and Trump World) are alleging world-historic crimes. In front of judges, their lawyers are muttering about Sharpies.
Tucker Carlson’s getting a lot of praise for calling B.S. on Powell’s allegations. I’m glad he’s doing it, even if I have problems with his late conversion to Trump-skepticism. I also have issues with acting like Powell is just freelancing here. She and Giuliani are doing Trump’s bidding, so this isn’t just Powell’s deranged theory—it’s the sitting president’s theory, too. We can all laugh or shake our head as Rudy Giuliani spews nonsense to the point where someone would be forgiven for thinking his leaking hair dye was literally bullshit seeping out of his head. That doesn’t change what he’s trying to do.
So Tucker is right when he says, “What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history.” And he’s right that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
But he doesn’t close the circle. If our political system were sufficiently sclerotic and decadent that Powell’s con yielded the results she desires, it would be the greatest crime in American history, too. I don’t see the moral difference between stealing the election using cutting-edge Venezuelan algorithms and stealing the election by peddling deranged nonsense about Venezuelan algorithms.
I understand that everyone is tired of being angry. But this whole spectacle is infuriating. At least some of the people pushing Trump’s effort have to know it’s a colossal fraud, but they’re just doing it anyway. They are trying to pull off monumental election fraud by claiming that Democrats—and the Venezuelans, Cubans, and perhaps the Lizard People (but not the Lizard People you’re thinking of)—are guilty of monumental election fraud.
And spare me the anti-anti-Trump bloviating about how Trump’s scheme, however “overstated” or “problematic,” is still valuable because it’s shining a light on the very real issue of election fraud. This is like forgiving an attempted bank robbery because it exposed the flaws in bank security.
I don’t like “lying for justice” arguments from the left or the right. I don’t give a rat’s ass that Trump’s failing effort to steal an election or his already successful effort to delegitimize an election and a duly elected president is “raising awareness” or “shining a light on important issues.” And, as I strongly suspect, neither do the people hiding behind this irrelevant rhetoric.
The GOP’s cowardice.
I know I’m a broken record about how the weakness of our political parties is poisoning our politics. But look, political parties are supposed to be patriotic institutions. Unlike the Boy Scouts or Major League Baseball, however, they have a deep interest in protecting the sanctity of our electoral system. Their interest in preserving the legitimacy of our political system is total, in the same way the New York Yankees’ interest in the health of baseball is total. And yet, the RNC hosted that hate crime against democratic legitimacy yesterday. The GOP’s social media account spewed soundbites from Powell and Giuliani out into the country like a firehose attached to a sewage tank.
A serious party that cared about its long-term credibility, never mind the long-term credibility of our political system, would walk away from this burning septic tank en masse. Instead it spends its days lobbing Molotov cocktails of flaming B.S. from its windows.
And I don’t care if “the Republican base” believes this bilge or wants to believe it. The party has a higher obligation to the country, to future Republicans, and—as quaint as it sounds—to its principles than to a lame duck president.
None of these hacks are getting Wales out of this, and it wouldn’t be worth it if they were.
While we're at it, spare me the hosannas for the newfound courage of people like Joni Ernst. When the Trump campaign was merely claiming that the presidency was stolen, she stayed quiet. It was only when Powell claimed that other Republican politicians stole their races, too, that she suddenly took offense.
As for the conservative “leaders” who think it’s their job to tell their readers, viewers, and listeners what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear for the good of the country, my contempt is total. In a system with weak parties, it is incumbent on the ideological allies of the party to explain to the rank-and-file what is true and right. Pandering to them is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. The whole point of the conservative movement is to protect and preserve the legitimacy of the constitutional order and the blessings of liberty such an order was intended to secure. Indulging feelings—no matter how sincerely felt—when they don’t align with the actual facts undermines that project.
What if they won?
Which brings me to my final complaint and what really stews my bowels. What’s the end game? Again, I doubt Trump or his criminal accomplices actually believe they’ll succeed. But that’s very different from saying they don’t hold out hope that they still might pull off this caper. What if they did? What if instead of being the incompetent bungling demagogue we know Trump to be, he actually managed to bribe, blackmail, or otherwise cajole enough of the legislators, judges, justices, electors, and various officials required to hand him the presidency despite losing both the electoral college and the popular vote?
What would the country look like in Trump’s purloined second term?
Look, I think “What if this were Obama?” is one of the lowest forms of punditry. But if Barack Obama tried something like this, after losing fair and square to Mitt Romney, we’d be hearing lots of conservatives talking about “Second Amendment remedies.” And as loath as I am to hint, even for rhetorical purposes, that violence is justified, they’d have a point.
If Obama actually succeeded in stealing the election in 2012, there would be riots. There would very likely be open rebellion in the military. And when the dust settled, Congress would likely vote to impeach and remove him (or at least I hope it would). What is your principled argument for why it should be any different with Trump?
The likely scenario for how this all plays out is bad enough. But if Trump actually succeeded, it would wreck the country. But, yes, it’s true: He would own the libs. And apparently doing that is even better than getting to be Attorney General of Wales.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls are really enjoying the fall (even indoors) and they are somewhat contemptuous of the idea that my political concerns should intrude on that. Yesterday, I had a very long day and came home past my canine curfew. Zoë chastised me gustily for it (Of course, Zoë can be pretty high maintenance. Sometimes she refuses to share). She was already cross because I was out of town for a couple days this week (which meant the Fair Jessica took over treat video duties, causing many to claim once again she’s the real auteur of the genre). Pippa, meanwhile, still has her concerns about mean dogs, some real but mostly imagined. It doesn’t help that her limp is still an issue. She also thinks she’s mastered the art of invisibility by staying extremely still. Other than that, there’s really not much to report. Have a great weekend—they certainly will.
And now, the weird stuff
Correction, November 21: This column initially referred to an article by Matt Grossman. The author’s name is Nicholas Grossman.