Opinion

How Republicans will exploit Trump's mind-boggling insecurity

The GOP now has a rationale for a nationwide voter suppression effort. Thanks, Mr. President.

Though I'm not a trained mental health professional, I think we can all agree at this point that President Trump's mind is... let's say an interesting place. It's a swirl of conspiracy theories and grudges, intemperate impulses and irresistible urges. And most of all, apparently, it's consumed with the question of whether enough people are displaying enough love and admiration for Donald Trump.

So despite the intense activity of any new presidency — a whirlwind of policies to initiate, problems to understand, people to be hired, and decisions to make — Trump seems to be spending most of his waking hours perseverating on two facts: that he lost the popular vote, and that the crowd at his inaugural was smaller than previous inaugurals. Democrats can certainly use his mind-boggling insecurity to needle and infuriate him. But Republicans may be able to use it to get what they want from him.

At just about every event since he became president, Trump has raised one or both of these two issues, always with a screed about how the media are keeping the truth from the public. He went to the CIA, and standing before a wall memorializing fallen agents, went on a long, rambling diatribe about how big his inaugural crowd was. In an interview a couple of days later, he said that at the CIA "I got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl, and they said it was equal. I got a standing ovation." In fact, the attendees stood when he entered, and he never told them to sit back down, so they were standing for his entire speech. (Who "they" were who compared his reception to one Peyton Manning received somewhere or other, we'll never know). He had a meeting with congressional leaders, and spent 10 minutes telling them how great his campaign was and how he would have won the popular vote had it not been for millions of votes from "illegals."

There's not much impact of his bonkers inaugural crowd boast ("They say I had the biggest crowd in the history of inaugural speeches"), unless you're one of the hapless spokespeople he orders to go in front of the cameras to repeat the claim. But the lie about millions of people voting illegally could have a real-world effect, no matter what the facts are.

Because Trump is the president, even his most ludicrous words can spur people to action. So after he promised a "major investigation" of the alleged voter fraud, members of the administration apparently said, "Well, I guess we have to do this now," because he's going to be signing an executive order launching some kind of voter fraud investigation — despite the fact that this question has been investigated many times before, and there has never been any finding of more than a few cases here and there of fraudulent voting.

The administration's investigation will surely find what all the others have found. But you can expect that when it's finished, it will be trumpeted as a major finding of "fraud," which will be accomplished by conflating two separate issues.

One is the fact that in a decentralized voting system like ours, voter rolls are always going to contain a certain amount of messiness. Trump, for instance, has seized on the fact that there are millions of people registered in more than one state. This happens because people move. When they do, they don't get in touch with their old board of elections and request that their registration be deleted, they just register in their new home. That doesn't mean they're voting in both places, any more than the fact that when people die they remain on the voter rolls means that someone is showing up at the polls and claiming to be that dead person. Which is why, as we've discovered, the Americans registered in more than one state include White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Treasury secretary-nominee Steven Mnuchin, and a young lady named Tiffany Trump.

But her father seems to believe that this is all part of a far-reaching conspiracy against him. "You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states," he said. "They're registered in a New York and a New Jersey. They vote twice. There are millions of votes, in my opinion...I will say this, of those votes cast, none of 'em come to me. None of 'em come to me. They would all be for the other side."

The second issue — actual voter impersonation — is the canard on which every voter ID law is built. It is vanishingly rare, mostly because it's about the most inefficient way to steal an election you could think of. Just imagine how many people you'd have to recruit to show up at the polls and claim to be somebody else in order to cast three to five million fraudulent votes, which is the number Trump alleges. How does he know it happened? Because he heard a story about a German guy in Florida who wasn't allowed to vote, while two people on line with him who didn't "look" like they should be allowed to vote — if you know what I mean — were given ballots. I wish I could say that isn't how the most powerful man in the world gets his information, but here we are. And let's not forget that Republican secretaries of state across the country have been desperately looking for cases of voter fraud for years, and have come up empty.

Nevertheless, Republicans will take the status of voter rolls (a real issue, but mostly a technical problem, and one that poses little threat to the integrity of elections), mash it together with phantoms of fraud (a phony issue), and use the whole thing as a rationale for a nationwide voter suppression effort, using the tools that worked so well for them last year in states like North Carolina: voter ID requirements, restrictions on same-day registration and early voting, and anything else they can come up with that will make it harder for African-Americans and other people likely to vote Democratic to get to the polls.

I wouldn't attribute that kind of strategic thinking to Trump himself, because I doubt he's capable of it. But Republicans may be coming to the realization that they can use Trump's bottomless need for ego gratification for their own ends. Sometimes when he insists on repeating lies, the resultant controversy can be a distraction that allows them to pursue what would otherwise be controversial measures with less attention. And at other times, like this one, they may find that they can satisfy Trump's ludicrous requests and help themselves in the process.

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