Perhaps Donald Trump’s tweet alleging that his popular-vote loss to Hillary Clinton was the result of “millions of people who voted illegally” means nothing beyond the president-elect’s reflexive inability to admit defeat in any aspect of the election. Maybe as a “populist,” he thinks it is important to claim some sort of popular mandate for his agenda, facts be damned. And speaking of “facts be damned,” quite possibly Trump just cannot get out of the habit of playing the victim, even when he’s won.
Whatever his motives, Trump’s persistence in alleging — without a shred of evidence so far — massive voter fraud even after the election is most unfortunate. It will reinforce the fatal temptation on the political right, extending from non-ideological partisan hacks to the most race-crazed of white nationalists, to declare permanent open season on voting rights. And once universal suffrage stops being a principle to which both major parties subscribe in theory if not always in practice, reestablishing it could become as difficult as it was in the darkest days of the southern struggle for civil rights.
It is bad enough that loose and almost entirely unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have become routine ammunition in the battle of Republican state lawmakers and elected officials to shave a little bit here (fewer early voting opportunities) and a little bit there (unnecessary and discriminatory voter-ID requirements) from the exercise of the franchise by the young and minority voters most likely to support Democrats. What Trump seems to be buying into is something much more sweeping and ominous: the argument that large-scale voting for Democrats in any particular demographic category is prima facie evidence of fraud because Democrats are offering minority voters — specifically immigrants — inducements no legitimate government should be able to extend, from a path to citizenship to “welfare.”
The idea that the power of “takers not makers” is reaching a tipping point where confiscatory socialism becomes inevitable is an old idea among conservatives, although one they do not often broadcast. It was, after all, the basic point of Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” gaffe. In 2016, it was reflected in one of the most pervasive conservative memes: that 2016 could be the “last election” thanks to the success of Democrats in expanding the electorate to achieve a permanent majority based on lawbreakers and dependents. Indeed, some anti-Trump conservatives used this argument to justify voting for the mogul despite all their misgivings about him: It was the “Flight 93 election,” in which hurling oneself suicidally into the fight to deny liberals an electoral victory was the only patriotic course of action. But Trump himself endorsed this meme in September in an interview with Christian right journalist David Brody:
I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’re going to have a whole different Supreme Court structure. That has to do a lot with what we’re doing because the Supreme Court, as you know with Justice Scalia gone, I think you could probably have four to five judges picked by the next president. Probably a record number, David, probably a record number of judges. If they pick the super-liberals, probably to a certain extent, people that would make Bernie Sanders happy, you will never have a Supreme Court, we’re going to end up with another Venezuela, large scale version. It would be a disaster for the country.
If, indeed, the very continuation of constitutional government depends on resisting the enfranchisement of new Democratic voters, then efforts to disenfranchise them are always in order, in good times and bad, and even in victory as well as defeat. I am afraid that is the new reality we are already seeing in Trump’s “voter fraud” tweet.
With the election of a president who embraces the idea that universal suffrage is political suicide for the GOP and demographic suicide for real Americans, we may have already lost the hard-won bipartisan support for the proposition that voting is a right for everyone who has not done something terrible to forfeit the vote. The entity that is charged with protecting the right to vote, moreover, is being entrusted by Trump to Jeff Sessions, a man whose entire career has been devoted to maintaining and restoring the kind of highly ordered traditionalist society the civil-rights and voting-rights revolutions endangered in the 1960s and endanger now. Thanks to a conservative Supreme Court majority (soon to be reestablished and perhaps expanded by Trump) that vitiated the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sessions will, if he wishes, be able to pursue a “voter fraud” witch hunt without significant contradictory obligations to defend the right to vote from those who would deny or restrict it.
What this ultimately means is that much of what voting-rights advocates have taken for granted for decades now is again in question. It will take some exceptionally principled Republicans to keep their party from adopting voter suppression as a day-in, day-out political strategy followed in broad daylight rather than the shadows. And the more the GOP fights letting those people vote, the more it will depend on restricting the franchise in the future if its shrinking white voter base is to continue to prevail. In effect, every election will be the “last election” unless voter suppression is not only maintained but intensified to turn back the nonwhite demographic tide.
It is always possible that Donald Trump will decide he’s made America so great in so short a time that his party no longer has to rely on giving disproportionate power to old white people in a sort of truncated quasi-democracy. But if that is where this most unlikely leader of the Party of Lincoln is headed, he is off to a terrible start.