For months, Donald Trump has been conditioning his supporters to believe that the upcoming election will be rigged against him. All his lies about mail-in voting, all his baseless charges that absentee ballots will be “forged” or stolen from mailboxes, all his claims that the upcoming election will be “tainted”—all of it has been laying the groundwork for him to delay November’s vote or dismiss the results.
Until now, though, he’s at least tried to maintain a sliver of plausible deniability. He’s said the election would proceed as planned, and his campaign has dismissed concerns from Joe Biden and others about a looming constitutional crisis as “conspiracy theory ramblings” with no basis in reality. But he did away with all doubt on Thursday, challenging the election results before ballots have even been cast and suggesting the vote be postponed. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump wrote. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
The suggestion, rife with lies, was precisely the anti-democratic attack on the integrity of the upcoming election that Democrats and other observers have been warning about for months. But conservatives played down those fears, and much of the political media has treated them with ambivalence—at times entertaining the possibility Trump will refuse to honor the election, but largely covering the race under the presumption that he will. Indeed, even after Trump’s tweet Thursday, outlets were quick to point out that he doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally change the election.
The fact that he doesn’t is beside the point. Trump has taken a sledgehammer to democratic norms and institutions, revealing a great many of them to be reliant on gentlemen’s agreements that assume at least some semblance of good faith. His party has enabled him, collaborating with him or looking the other way as he solicited political favors from foreign leaders; fired investigators, watchdogs, and anyone else who might hold him accountable; unleashed secret police on American citizens; and committed a host of other previously unthinkable transgressions. So far, Republicans have indicated they don’t support delaying the election, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that the November 3 election is set in stone. But several either wavered or gave credence to Trump’s baseless claims of potential fraud. “I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea,” Lindsey Graham told CNN’s Manu Raju of the president’s call to delay the election. “Election fraud is a serious problem. We need to stop it and fight it,” Ted Cruz said. “But no, the election should not be delayed.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, left open the possibility. Asked if a president could modify the election Thursday, he replied: “In the end, the Department of Justice and others will make that legal determination.”
The refusal of administration officials like Pompeo to commit to holding the election this November and to honor the results is deeply concerning, and Republicans’ promises that ballots will be cast November 3 whether the president likes it or not provide little comfort, given the way they’ve caved to him time and again. But even if Trump’s suggestion to postpone the vote doesn’t gain traction, the damage is already being done. In casting doubt on the results of the upcoming election, he’s setting the stage to cast them aside. A close election, one that likely won’t be settled on election night, will give him ample opportunities to do so. The president’s media allies are sure to only amplify such claims.
Whether the United States is prepared or not for that kind of assault on democracy remains to be seen. The myth of “exceptionalism” internalized by a great many Americans has kept them from noticing the dangers at their doorstep. But one lesson of the Trump presidency is that the infrastructure of our democracy is far more fragile than many may have realized. The notion that America is immune, by virtue of our institutions or simply by virtue, from the strongmen that other nations have suffered under has never been true. In the coming months, the country may have to confront that fact. “There is no way [Trump] can delay the election,” Democratic Senator Tom Udall wrote Thursday. “But the fact that he is even suggesting it is a serious, chilling attack on the democratic process.”
— As Chaos Engulfs Trump Campaign, Loyalists Look For the Next Thing
— In Mary Trump’s New Book, a Conclusive Diagnosis of Donald Trump’s Psychopathology
— For Some on Wall Street Beating Trump Is More Important Than Money
— Bill Barr Is Running an October-Surprise Factory at Justice
— Bari Weiss Makes Her Bid for Woke-Wars Martyrdom
— Inside the Cult of Trump, His Rallies Are Church and He Is the Gospel
— From the Archive: Untangling the Symbiosis of Donald Trump and Roy Cohn
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.