2020 elections

Trump’s Election-Day Gambit

Federal law enforcement face off with demonstrators during a night of protest against racial injustice police brutality and the deployment of federal troops to US cities on July 29, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Protests in the US city of Portland have continued for more than 60 days. President Donald Trump's administration on July 29 agreed to a deal to defuse weeks of clashes with the withdrawal of federal forces whose presence enraged protesters, but the timing remained in dispute.
Federal law enforcement face off with demonstrators during a night of protest against racial injustice police brutality and the deployment of federal troops to US cities on July 29, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Alisha Jucevic/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday night, President Trump called in to Hannity, the Fox News commentary show, and repeated his (now-familiar) claim that the election will be plagued by widespread fraud if large numbers of Democrats are allowed to vote by mail. At the prompting of host Sean Hannity, Trump added that he also intends to have police officers and sheriff’s deputies patrol polling sites on Election Day. This is the president’s latest proposition for how he will game a political contest that he is currently forecasted to lose — and confirmation of the central role he imagines American law enforcement will play in helping him.

Here’s the exchange, via Fox News:

HANNITY: My question to you, then, is … Are you going to have poll watchers? Are you going to have an ability to monitor — to avoid fraud, and cross check whether or not these are registered votes, whether or not there’s bad identification, to know that it’s a real vote from a real American?

TRUMP: We’re gonna have everything. We’re gonna have sheriff’s, and we’re gonna have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys and we’re going to have everybody — and attorney generals.

A defining feature of Trump’s presidency is his ritualistic deployment of armed state officials — the U.S. military, federal agents — on American soil for expressly partisan political ends. In 2018, when polls predicted a “blue wave” of Democratic victories in the midterm elections that would wrest the House of Representatives from Republican control, the president cast a migrant caravan making its way through Central America toward the U.S.-Mexico border as a looming invasion that would lead to the deaths of untold numbers of Americans.

The only way to ensure domestic safety, he said, was to elect Republicans to office that November. This rhetoric grew more pitched as the election drew closer. Trump and Vice-President Pence alluded to “unknown Middle Easterners” traveling clandestinely among the migrants and to the possibility that leftist governments in Latin America — namely Venezuela — were organizing the caravan as an act of war. Some of the administration’s surrogates in Congress and conservative media joined the fray, suggesting that George Soros — the Jewish billionaire and progressive donor — was bankrolling the group, which was composed mainly of refugees fleeing gang violence and economic disadvantage in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Trump tried to drive home the supposed urgency of this manufactured threat by sending U.S. troops to the border to guard against it. It didn’t work as intended; the election passed, Democrats won control of the House, and the defeated president lost interest in the caravan, which eventually made it to the border in diminished form with little incident.

But the failure of this gambit didn’t stop Trump from trying again two years later. With the 2020 election just over two months away, the president is now seeing some of the worst approval ratings of his tenure — a testament, in large part, to the disastrous manner in which he has handled the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. Trump’s response to recent protests against the mistreatment of Black people by the police has only exacerbated matters. As protests and riots roiled American cities following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the president urged state governors to “dominate” the dissidents and threatened to send the military to Democrat–governed cities, where much of the unrest was concentrated. He drafted local police officers to teargas and assault nonviolent protesters near the White House so he could walk through Lafayette Park and pose for a photo op in front of a church. As his approval numbers continued to decline — and his polling deficit against Democratic challenger Joe Biden widened to double digits nationally — Trump made good on his threats to deploy armed agents to Democratic cities, sending fatigue-clad troops from a consortium of agencies, including ICE and the Border Patrol, to Portland, Oregon, weeks after the city’s most unruly demonstrations had died down. Trump’s agents snatched dissidents off the streets, threw them into unmarked vans, and engaged in nightly showdowns with demonstrators marked by the agents’ wanton use of teargas and “less lethal” munitions. Reports have since indicated that Trump hoped to create bedlam in Portland and then play conqueror, portraying himself as a bulwark against Democratic misrule. Instead, the protests grew larger and more intense in response to his incursion — and even spread to other cities where protests were organized in solidarity.

Trump has nevertheless committed to escalating these tactics. He has threatened to send more agents to Democrat–run cities to impose “law and order,” and in some cases he has actually done so, albeit in a capacity different from what Portland experienced. The recent presence of agents in Chicago, for example, seems largely to mirror standard federal-local partnerships formed to address crime, and appears to function more as investigative aid than a crackdown on dissent. Even so, the president has continued to frame any law-enforcement surge pursued at his behest as a response to failed Democratic governance. It was only a matter of time before he applied these tactics to Election Day in an effort to thwart Democratic votes. The plan Trump professed to Hannity on Thursday is a logical next move — combining his zeal for deploying foot soldiers to terrorize his opposing constituencies with another of his favorite fixations: the negligible “threat” of large-scale voter fraud. In recent weeks, large numbers of Democrats have indicated their preference for voting by mail this year — a response largely related to the dangers of in-person voting during a pandemic. In response, Trump has expressed his intention to cut funding to the U.S Postal Service, the agency that would handle the resulting surge of mail-in ballots. He has undermined the service already by installing loyalists in leadership positions who have wasted little time removing sorting machines and collection boxes. And the president has seen no need to shroud his actions in plausible deniability, instead choosing to be forthright. “Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo last week. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped.” This latest effort expands on rhetoric he employed in 2016 as well, when he claimed that the multimillion vote gap separating himself from popular-vote winner Hillary Clinton was due to fraud. The unambiguous message has been consistent: Any election in which he has a stake, but that does not result in his desired outcome, or is not personally overseen by him, is necessarily the product of a conspiracy pursued by Democrats to undermine him.

Over the past decade, Republican dominance over state and local governments has led to a constriction of voting rights that, in many cases, calls to mind the methods used under Jim Crow. From de facto poll taxes in Florida to voter-roll purges, spurious fraud prosecutions, police harassment, and polling-site closures in Georgia and elsewhere, the consistent aim has been to impose mazelike barriers to ballot access and concoct an environment of fear, confusion, and inconvenience to deter people from voting — particularly Black people, poor people, and young people, all of whom tend to vote against the GOP. The extent to which Trump’s proposed addition can be pursued under his authority (and without local cooperation) is unclear — although the recent endorsements he has received from local police unions suggest a willing pool of law enforcement collaborators. Far less ambiguous is the degree to which he’s willing to pursue work-arounds — like deploying his own federal agents again, rather than sheriffs or police — or threaten local officials with funding cuts to force their compliance. The outcome in November may not look exactly the way he describes it. It may materialize as officials disrupting transportation routes or thwarting rideshare efforts that help get people without vehicle access to the polls. He may not follow through at all. One sure thing is that every time the president has threatened to use law enforcement to advance his political interests during an election season, he has done so, and each iteration has been progressively more severe.

Trump’s Election-Day Gambit