There is a scene in Citizen Kane in which the title character, a newspaper mogul who runs for governor, faces up to his Election Night defeat. Kane’s advisers sadly put aside their headline proclaiming victory for the alternate headline, “FRAUD AT POLLS!”
That, more or less, is the position in which Donald Trump now finds himself. Unlike Kane, who owned a newspaper, Trump’s control of the right-wing media is indirect. His media machine has shifted from predictions of victory to hysterical denunciations of voter fraud.
Trump did not invent the notion that the election was stolen. The existence of mass-scale vote fraud by Democrats — specifically in cities with large minority populations — is a matter of faith on the political right. This suspicion has persisted for decades despite all evidence to the contrary. The George W. Bush administration, admired today for its relative adherence to political norms, ordered U.S. Attorneys to produce charges against the vote fraud it imagined existed, and fired several prosecutors for failing to confirm Karl Rove’s fever dreams.
Drawing on this theological belief, Trumpian minions like Newt Gingrich, Mollie Hemingway, Donald Trump Jr., and many others have sprayed out a wide array of groundless charges. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity devoted large chunks of their Wednesday night programming to spreading baseless allegations of vote fraud. Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kim Strassel spread a wild charge of massive fraud in Wisconsin that turned out to be appreciated on a simple arithmetic error, a very on-brand move for the Journal opinion operation.
As a strategy to retain office, this gambit stands almost no chance of success. For one thing, Trump can’t even hew to a simple message of legal strategy. He is simultaneously demanding more vote-counting in states like Arizona and Nevada, where he trails, while stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania and Georgia, where he is clinging to a disappearing lead. The way to steal an election is to seize the lead, gum up the works, and find ways to prevent a chunk of decisive ballots from being added to the totals. Trump doesn’t have that option.
Second, while he stands some chance of coming from behind in Arizona, and perhaps squeezing out a narrow win in Georgia, the math in Pennsylvania is forbidding. As Nate Cohn explains, Joe Biden is tracking for a clear win in that state based on a breakdown of the uncounted mail ballots. What’s more, the identifiable variables are all upside risk for Biden. An unknown number of same-day ballots and provisional ballots — from voters who requested mail ballots, didn’t return them, and then voted in person — will likely add even more to his total. The Pennsylvania margin will be well beyond the range where a recount or any legal challenge can overturn it.
But what if the Supreme Court decides to invent some exotic theory to negate the plain meaning of election law? That of course is always possible. But it is difficult to imagine the Court’s justices laying out their credibility given that a Biden presidency constrained by a Republican Senate poses little threat to the conservative movement, and that even winning Pennsylvania is highly unlikely to give Trump 270 electoral votes. (He would also need to win two of Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.)
But the fraud narrative is useful for Trump. The perception that his election was stolen will enhance his position, whatever his next move may be: running for president in 2024, building a media brand of his own, or simply raising money for his legal defense.
Trump’s exploitation of right-wing paranoia is deeply corrosive. His presidency has both benefited from and served to further spread a deep strain of right-wing authoritarianism, which considers Democratic governance inherently illegitimate. The party will continue its long evolution into authoritarianism after he exits the stage. In the meantime, the exit is coming.