This weekend, Donald Trump insisted that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Various armchair psychoanalysts have pondered just what drove Trump to believe this particular conspiracy theory and then to spread it. Perhaps the most simple explanation is that Trump places enormous value on the perception that he is the popular choice for president.
The rules of the election state that the national vote does not matter, and that the presidency belongs to whichever candidate can win a majority of the vote in 270 electoral votes’ worth of states. Trump and his party won this process legally and legitimately because it enables countermajoritarian outcomes. But they are not content with minority rule. Instead Republicans continue to portray their win as a product of the popular will.
Trump “just won a mandate,” declared Paul Ryan on Election Night. Trump’s advisers have portrayed his victory as a kind of landslide.“This election was not close. It was not a squeaker,” said Kellyanne Conway. “There is a mandate there, and there is a mandate for his 100-day agenda, as well.” Representative Darrell Issa boasts, “Perhaps since Teddy Roosevelt … nobody’s ridden into town with that kind of a mandate to say business as usual is not going to continue.” Trump himself said of his election, “the people have spoken.”
The people have spoken, and they said, by a margin currently exceeding two million votes, that they prefer Hillary Clinton to Trump. The Electoral College says otherwise. Of course, in a country where democracy is instilled in the national ethos, it is natural that any governing party will portray itself as representative of the majority. But creating the myth of popular ascent has special importance to a populist candidate like Trump. His claim to represent a “silent majority,” and to stand for the people against the elites, is fundamental to his appeal. It is the reason he has dismissed protesters as paid agents of a sinister, hidden elite opposition. And it is the reason why his supporters have circulated fake maps attempting to depict blue America as a tiny, coastal fringe.
What the people want and what the system provides are two different questions. Trump’s vote-fraud conspiracy theory is a disinformation exercise to conceal the unattractive reality that the Republican Party is gearing up to exercise minority rule.