While you watch Donald Trump’s presidency stagger to what appears to be its ugly end, always keep in mind how it began: Trump entered the political world on the back of the birther conspiracy theory, a movement whose importance was massively underestimated at the time. Aside from its racist undertones, think about what a belief in birtherism really implied. If you doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States—and about a third of Americans did, including 72 percent of registered Republicans—then that meant you also believed that Obama was an illegitimate president. That meant, in other words, you believed that everyone—the entire American political, judicial, and media establishment, including the White House and Congress, the federal courts and the FBI, all of them—was complicit in a gigantic plot to swindle the public into accepting this false commander in chief. A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud.
That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too? No wonder they didn’t object when Trump’s White House defied congressional subpoenas with impunity, or when he used the Department of Justice to pursue personal vendettas, or when he ignored ethics guidelines and rules about security clearances, or when he fired watchdogs and inspectors general. No wonder they cheered him on when he denigrated the CIA and the State Department as the “deep state,” or laughed and smiled when he called journalists “enemies of the people.”
Not all of this was Trump’s doing. Many Americans had lost trust in democratic institutions long before he arrived on the scene. One recent survey showed that half of the country is dissatisfied with our political system; one-fifth told pollsters that they would be happy to live under military rule. Trump not only exploited this democratic deficit to win the White House, but he expanded it while in office. And now his political, financial, and maybe even emotional strategy requires him to damage America’s faith in its democracy further.
He is launching that strategy right now. And to be clear: It is a strategy, not a random reaction to events. Trump is no good at governing, but he has long understood, with the intuition of a seasoned con man, how to create distrust, and how to use that distrust to his advantage. The journalist Lesley Stahl has said he once told her that he attacks the media to “discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” He discredited and demeaned public servants such as the National Security Council staffers Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman too, so that when they spoke honestly about his behavior, no one would believe them either.
Now, having spent months talking darkly about the rules being rigged against him, he has laid a set of traps designed to discredit and demean the electoral system so that some Americans, at least, lose their faith in it. This has been said by others, but it bears restating: That Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan did not finish counting their votes on Tuesday night is no accident. In all of these states, Republican legislators prevented their election boards from counting postal votes before Election Day. In the midst of a pandemic that Democrats take more seriously than Republicans do, after Trump himself told his followers that voting by mail was suspect, the partisan gap between in-person and postal voters was always likely to be stark.
Trump anticipated that vote totals might begin to shift in Biden’s favor. That was why, when he spoke at 2:20 a.m. on Election Night, before results were even remotely clear, he declared the vote “a fraud on the American public” and announced that “we don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list.” That’s why Republicans had already launched a rash of frivolous lawsuits, designed to create the appearance that something was wrong. One case alleging fraud in Montana has been thrown out for lack of any evidence whatsoever. Trevor Potter, the president of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center and the general counsel for John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, told me that one of the Pennsylvania suits is “laughable”; all of the others are just “probing at soft spots,” using different legal avenues to slow down the counts or to get ballots thrown out in any manner possible.
Again, this is a carefully planned strategy, not a temper tantrum, and it may have several stages. The first could take the form of a Hail Mary pass, a brazen and illegal attempt to stay in office. As my colleague Barton Gellman has written, both the rhetoric and the flurry of ridiculous lawsuits are intended to create a misleading impression of electoral fraud so deep that some Republican state legislators could even be tempted to ignore the ballots and simply appoint an Electoral College delegation to vote for Trump. The head of the Pennsylvania Republican Party mentioned this as one of his “options,” although the Republican majority leader of the state Senate explicitly shot that idea down.
But even if Trump’s Hail Mary pass quickly fizzles, even if his attempt to stay in the White House is drowned out by the reality of the vote count and a tsunami of “Biden won” headlines, that doesn’t mean Trump will admit that the election is fair—ever. Even if Trump is forced to make a grudging concession speech, even if Joe Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, even if the Trump family is forced to pack its Louis Vuitton suitcases and flee to Mar-a-Lago, it is in Trump’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Trump, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.
Certainly these voters can be used to discredit and demean Biden’s presidency. Just as Trump once helped convince millions of Americans that Obama was illegitimate, so he will now seek to convince Americans that Biden is illegitimate. “Biden Is Fake” Facebook groups will be used to gin up Republican votes and support for Republican causes; emails with “Phony Biden” in the subject line will be used to raise money. Trump’s campaign has already blasted out a fundraising text with the following message: “Pres Trump & VP Pence: It’s so urgent we BOTH texted you. Dems & the Fake News want to STEAL this Election! 1000%-MATCH to FIGHT BACK! Act NOW.” Pro-Trump influencers, perhaps aided by the campaign and its botnets, have tried to make the hashtag #StopTheSteal trend on social media. Laura Ingraham of Fox News is already engaging and enraging her millions of followers by tweeting about the “continued abuse of our electoral system by corrupt Democrat officials.”
Other Republicans will join this cause, because they too can raise money and attract breathless fans by indulging that latent distrust. The newly elected senator from Alabama, the former football coach Tommy Tuberville, is already tweeting, in suitably folksy language, that the Biden campaign is cheating: “It’s like the whistle has blown, the game is over, and the players have gone home, but the referees are suddenly adding touchdowns to the other team’s side of the scoreboard.” Never mind that the game is not over, and will not be over for many days to come: Tuberville can now use the myth of Biden’s “illegitimacy” as an excuse not to cooperate with the new president, not to help pass any further pandemic-relief legislation, not to make the coming four years a success for Biden—or for America.
The Trump family being what it is, expect the illegitimacy myth to be exploited for commercial purposes too. Paradoxically, Trump’s loss may well increase the loyalty of his most ardent fans, who will be angry that he has been unfairly deprived of his rightful role. They will now become loyal purchasers of flags, ties, MAGA hats, maybe even degrees at a revived Trump University. They could become the customer base for Trump TV, a media company that will set itself up as the rival to his brand-new enemies on Fox. Maybe they will buy tickets to rallies and other public events where he plays familiar old hits like “Lock Her Up” and “Stop the Count.”
As the financial and legal pressures now bear down on Trump—the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes, the tax and fraud investigations that are on their way—he will need a political base more than ever. Expect Trump and his children to portray any and every legitimate legal action against them as political persecution: “They are trying to get me because I oppose the fake president.” Expect them to continue to seek headlines, day after day, with out-of-control press conferences, carried live on Trump TV, streamed on Facebook, featured on the front page of the New York Post. The prospect of that kind of circus would be designed to put some prosecutors off: No one will want to be trolled by a million MAGAbots or to become the focus of online or offline hate mobs.
Above all, though, the Biden illegitimacy myth will function as a prop for Trump’s own fragile ego. Unable to cope with the loss of the presidency, unable to accept that he was beaten, Trump will now shield himself from the reality of defeat by pretending it didn’t happen. His personal need to live in a perpetual fantasyland, a world where he is always winning, is so overpowering that he will do anything to maintain it. In his narcissistic drive to create this alternative reality, he will deepen divisions, spread paranoia, and render his supporters even more fearful of their fellow citizens and distrustful of their institutions. This is a president who never had America’s interests at heart. Do not expect loss to change him.