While candidates jostle for advantage in the Democratic presidential primary, and the news media play the odds, President Donald Trump already knows the identity of his opponent. Indeed, his campaign, with the full support of the Republican Party, is already waging a vigorous crusade to destroy his opposition. No, it’s not Joe Biden, who inspired Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine. Trump’s gunning for bigger game: democracy itself.
The Democratic Party is not prepared for this war. The news media is still struggling, and often failing, to adapt to demagogy. And the electorate, at least the non-MAGA majority invested in preserving rule of law, has limited tools for fighting back. As election law expert Richard Hasen notes in “Election Meltdown,” his alarming new book about the threats to U.S. elections, mitigating risk is “especially challenging when one of the greatest risks to the integrity of the process comes from the sitting president of the United States.”
The assault will have multiple fronts. Trump’s disinformation campaign is, obviously, under way, to the extent that there is any meaningful distinction between the words “Trump” and “disinformation.” The news media, like many Americans, have become acculturated to Trump’s lies and to the lies of his accomplices and defenders. The Washington Post keeps a running tab, now well above 16,000, of the president’s public falsehoods. Does anyone notice anymore?
Democracy takes place largely in public communication; it can’t function without reasonably honest discourse. Trump’s daily dose of propaganda and smears badly corrodes an already weakened democratic faith, rendering it less resistant to his subsequent assaults.
As November approaches, Trump plans to complement corrosive rhetoric with concrete action. In the words of one Trump campaign official, the GOP will be playing “offense” on Election Day. This will entail something more than Trump’s efforts in 2016. Then, Trump closed out his campaign with sinister threats about voter fraud. In an October 2016 rally in Pennsylvania, he told his MAGA followers: “So important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us.” In Akron, Ohio, he told a MAGA crowd that they needed to “watch” the vote.
“And when I say ‘watch,’ you know what I’m talking about,” Trump continued. “Right? You know what I’m talking about.” His white followers knew.
The 2020 election will be the first in decades in which the Republican National Committee will not be constrained by a Reagan-era court order that prohibited “ballot security” measures to intimidate nonwhite voters. The Democratic National Committee had sued to halt the intimidation, after the GOP had deployed off-duty police officers wearing “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands to New Jersey polling stations. Some of these poll watchers were visibly armed.
According to a leaked recording of a Trump campaign official, Trump is all in on the “voter fraud” theme this year. “We’ve got a guy that’s committed to this, who is able to short-circuit media attention on stuff,” said Trump campaign senior counsel Justin Clark last November to a meeting of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Madison, Wis. “Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.”
The “program” relies on Trump’s talent for “raising the profile of issues that come up,” as Clark put it. If lawyerly euphemism is not your native tongue, here’s a translation: Trump will foment hysteria about voter fraud — “the issues that come up” — to justify GOP suppression tactics, aka the “program.”
Trump made preposterous claims of fraud after his 2016 victory. Just last week, Trump was in New Hampshire falsely claiming that he lost the state in 2016 due to fraud. He is sure to yell “fraud” if he loses in November. Then what?
Hasen considers other potential nightmare scenarios, including an Election Day power outage in a Democratic city in a swing state, sabotaging the Democratic vote. “As much as Democrats worry that Trump won’t concede a close election if he can raise unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” Hasen wrote, “what will Democrats do if they are on the losing side of a close election that they can credibly claim was marked by efforts of voter suppression?”
The choice in that case is to accept that the election was stolen, and accept Trump’s ensuing assault on democracy and rule of law, or plunge the nation into an electoral civil war with no clear endgame. The terminus of any legal process is a very Trumpy Supreme Court.
Despite Republican obstruction of election-security legislation, U.S. election administrators can take steps to protect the 2020 election from foreign hacking; many have done so. Social media companies, if they accept their responsibility to the democratic culture that helped nurture them, could curb Russian bots and curtail propaganda.
To protect American democracy from Trump himself, however, is a more demanding task. It will require an unflinching news media meeting an authoritarian challenge that it has thus far largely failed to acknowledge. It will require a vigilant electorate, mindful of its own democratic imagination, prepared to take public action not just on the day of the vote but after. And it may well require a hefty helping of luck. America used to have an abundant supply. Let’s hope it hasn’t run out.
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.