Splits in perceptions between elites and plain folk over political controversies are hardly a new development. But we are living through an unusually large and dangerous moment of disjunction in the Republican Party. As Ben Jacobs explains, it is hard to find a Republican elected official or any other “insider” who doesn’t privately acknowledge that Donald Trump really did lose the presidential election this year. They describe their silence over his claims to the contrary as “like letting a toddler, overdue for naptime, tire himself before attempting to put him to bed.” And they generally deride the bizarre spectacle put on by the Trump campaign lawyers on Thursday, one saying “I wouldn’t let those lawyers represent me for a parking ticket.”
Yet polling shows that tens of millions of Trump voters appear to share the views of the toddler and his incompetent attorneys toward the election outcome, as Dhrumil Mehta reports for FiveThirtyEight:
According to a new Monmouth University poll, about three in four Republicans now doubt the fairness of the 2020 presidential election, even though there is no evidence that the electoral process was compromised in a way that could affect the outcome … [D]istrust among Republicans has skyrocketed since Election Day.
Is this just a universal “sore loser” phenomenon? Apparently not. Democrats were vastly more surprised by Trump’s win in 2016 than Republicans had any reason to be this time around. Yet they largely accepted the results after the votes had been counted, says Mehta:
[P]olling shows that some Democrats did lose confidence in the election after Trump won in 2016. Nevertheless, a majority of Democrats (as well as Republicans and independents) believed that votes were counted accurately after the election was over. So the finding in this latest round of polls, that roughly three in four Republicans don’t have faith in the electoral process, is a big departure from what public opinion polls found after the last election.
Then again, Hillary Clinton conceded on Election Night, while Trump may never concede. His campaign’s claims of massive fraud, moreover, are getting much more loud and extreme the closer we get to the final certification, in the states, the courts, and the Electoral College, of Biden’s victory. So you have to chalk up the vast undermining of GOP rank-and-file confidence in the integrity of our election to the president very personally.
But Trump’s mesmerizing power over his and his party’s followers looks even larger and scarier if you step back and look at what actually produced the situation his lawyers are decrying as proof of a vast pro-Biden conspiracy. For months Trump demonized voting by mail as inherently fraudulent, leading his own supporters to eschew that method of voting, even in a pandemic. A new survey from Pew shows that in the end, Biden voters were almost twice as likely as Trump voters to cast mail ballots. And in some key states like Pennsylvania, the partisan split in voting methodologies was much larger. That in turn produced the shift in the results in Biden’s favor as the bulk of mail ballots began to be counted (particularly in states like Pennsylvania where election officials were not allowed to process them before Election Day) that Trump’s lawyers are now calling proof of a stolen election, per this claim by Rudy Giuliani:
I can prove to you that he [Trump] won Pennsylvania by 300,000 votes. I can prove to you that he won Michigan by probably 50,000 votes. When I went to bed on election night, he was ahead in all those states, every single one of those states.
That provoked this response from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler:
Trump’s lead disappeared because absentee and early votes largely could not be counted until election night because of rules set by the GOP-controlled legislatures in those states. So in-person votes, which leaned Republican, were reported first. Just in Pennsylvania, more than 1.4 million votes still needed to be counted after midnight. Because these votes were overwhelmingly for Biden, Trump’s lead was wiped out as the hours ticked by.
Indeed, this scenario, and the unsupported claims of fraud it enabled, were predicted by a host of observers, yours truly included, for many months before Election Day. So in a very real sense, Donald Trump personally engineered a contested election far in advance by convincing many millions of Republicans to vote in person, and he then convinced even more of them the inevitable shift in the results that he made happen constituted “proof” of an election stolen for Biden.
Why does this strategy seem to be failing at accomplishing anything other than embittering the Republican electoral “base?” Best I can tell, the surprisingly close presidential election and the possibility that Trump might prevail by less radical means than a wholesale charge of systemic election fraud led to a more cautious Trump strategy. When he claimed victory late on Election Night, he was vague about his grounds for contesting what would become a Biden victory on November 7. Only in the Giuliani-led presser this week did the full conspiracy theory of manufactured mail ballots reversing a Trump win emerge in all its malignant glory.
But if Trump’s original plans to contest the election were limited by a legal strategy that was initially narrow, technical and ultimately incapable of challenging enough votes to matter, he’s thrown enough chum into the troubled waters of a deeply polarized electorate to create a feeding frenzy in right-wing media and among MAGA bravos everywhere. As he mulls his future, including a possible 2024 comeback, his demonstrated power to convince his supporters that democracy is “rigged” against them is a bankable political asset.
No wonder Republican elites are afraid to call Trump’s election challenge itself a massive fraud.