the national interest

Trump Wants to Convince Bernie Voters the Election Was Rigged Again

Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared before reporters to state his party’s principled view about impeachment. What troubled McCarthy’s conscious is that the proceedings will hurt poor Bernie Sanders by removing him from the campaign trail, to the benefit of Joe Biden. The Republican leader proposed, as restitution, that Biden suspend all campaigning until impeachment has concluded.

Obviously, nobody is going to take either his complaint or his demand seriously. The apparent purpose of this statement is to convince Sanders supporters that the party is plotting to undermine their candidate. It is the exact same play Republicans ran during the last election.

During the bitter 2016 Democratic primary, many supporters of Bernie Sanders concluded that the Democratic Party had secretly worked to undermine their candidate, in favor of Hillary Clinton. While it was true that Democratic elected officials endorsed Clinton in heavy numbers, it’s not true that they took any concrete steps to tip the scales in her favor. Nonetheless, Republicans worked diligently to fan the flames of their discontent.

Trump proposed that Sanders run as an independent, and constantly charged that the Democrats had rigged the primary against Sanders:

Later that summer, WikiLeaks published Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers. The emails showed members of the Democratic National Committee sympathizing with Clinton’s campaign and anticipating her victory, and even though they didn’t reveal any plot on her behalf, many embittered Sanders supporters took them that way. Trump again drove this message:

Russian social media, amplifying Trump’s message, focused on disgruntled Sanders supporters. “I think there is no question that Sanders was central to their strategy. He was clearly used as a mechanism to decrease voter turnout for Hillary Clinton,” concluded a researcher who studied Russian bots. This is not to say Russia devised the idea, or even that Russians coordinated the message with Trump officials — merely that they could see that appeals to the grievances of Sanders voters was a useful message to boost Trump, and glommed onto it.

It is also clear that Trump and his allies are recycling this message again. “The Democratic National Committee, sometimes referred to as the DNC, is again working its magic in its quest to destroy Crazy Bernie Sanders …,” Trump tweeted last April, “ … for the more traditional, but not very bright, Sleepy Joe Biden. Here we go again Bernie, but this time please show a little more anger and indignation when you get screwed!”

When he wrote that last spring, Trump didn’t have (or, apparently, need) any factual basis for the accusation. But impeachment has supplied him with that pretext. The hosts at HillTV, media outlet founded by Trump ally John Solomon, floated the theory that Nancy Pelosi scheduled impeachment in order to undercut Sanders. McCarthy is now amplifying this absurd charge. Donald Trump’s Jr. repeats the theme this morning:

Note McCarthy did not suggest Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, or any other non-sitting senators be forced to suspend their campaigning. (The White House, correctly or not, has been focused on Biden as its strongest opponent.) Nor did he evince any sympathy for Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, who will also have to forfeit campaign time for the impeachment trial. There’s no principle involved.

Neither the total lack of evidence for the theory that impeachment is a plot to hurt Sanders, nor the minuscule probability that Sanders plays along with the Republican conspiracy theory, barely matters. Trump’s messaging operation thrives on disinformation, recirculating rumors through social media that can target voters who distrust traditional media. Simply injecting a claim into the normal media in any form allows it to be quoted and repeated at any time between now and November. Trump’s plan to win reelection isn’t terribly original. He’s just reusing the same methods he used to win election in the first place.

This post has been updated.

Trump Telling Bernie Voters the Election Was Rigged Again