The week's big question: What are the consequences of Trump's stolen election claims?

The Week Staff
President Trump.
Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Ten days after Americans voted in the 2020 election, and 6 days after Joe Biden was projected as the president-elect by every major news organization, President Trump has still not conceded the race. Instead, he's spent the intervening days claiming the election was stolen from him, alleging massive voter fraud and election rigging without evidence, and pressing forward with lawsuits in a number of states to challenge the outcome. Many members of the Republican Party have echoed Trump's claims, while many others, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have refused to acknowledge Biden's victory. Meanwhile, polls show a strong majority of Republicans now doubt the legitimacy of Biden's win.

This week's question is: What are the consequences of President Trump's baseless election fraud claims? — Bryan Maygers, deputy editor

A post-truth nation's final descent?

The groundwork to a post-truth nation was laid sporadically but securely, then more steadily: Ronald Reagan claiming ketchup was a vegetable; George W. Bush claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; Fox News amplifying misinformation and telling flat-out lies to millions of Americans; and finally, Donald Trump on television with his birtherism and then in the White House with his "alternative facts." The ramifications of this evolution are now hitting hard and fast as the president claims that he won an election he lost, and tells his followers that the American electoral system is rigged.

Trump's claims of election fraud are scary and delusional, particularly because so many people believe him. But what truly threatens the basic stability of the nation is that the same fertile ground that allowed Trumpism to take root has grown up an entire alternate reality ecosystem, including right-wing media, denialists (of racism, of sexism, of climate change, of the president's obvious shortcomings), evangelical Christians, conspiracy theorists, and grifters, many of them Trump's own relatives — and has entangled much of the mainstream Republican Party.

This could be a do-or-die moment for American democracy, and the GOP has chosen to follow Trump in choosing "die." They are rejecting truth and fact, even about the most foundational democratic matter: Which number of votes is bigger. A society where people don't just disagree on matters of opinion but on matters of reality is not a society that can function smoothly for very long. It is not a society where democracy can thrive. We're about to find out whether it's a society in which democracy can survive.

The further debasement of the Republican Party

In the last week, congressional Republicans have revealed just how desperately far the party of Lincoln has drifted from its former commitment and adherence to constitutional norms. President Trump's actions — his refusal to accept defeat by now President-elect Joe Biden, and his baseless suggestions of mass voter fraud — would have once elicited collective gasps both inside and outside the Beltway. But his behavior has become normalized: A sizable percentage of the electorate applauded Trump's taking a wrecking ball to our system, and congressional Republicans did not rush in to stop him.

In fact, many of the party's leaders are supporting flimsy lawsuits and spreading unfounded claims about a "stolen" election in a transparent attempt to rile up the GOP base. With each allegation of voter fraud being shouted from the White House, not only do Americans become more divided — which results in civil unrest and greater distrust in our institutions — but so continues the rapid erosion of the very pillars of our democracy.

It is not too late to salvage the party's dignity. But doing so requires humility and acceptance. We've done this before: Back in 2012, after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee's autopsy report was a public acknowledgement of loss, and a course-correcting endeavor. Now, there must be a reckoning within the Republican Party if it ever hopes to win back the presidency. Unfortunately, if and when that reckoning comes, few NeverTrumpers who continually sounded the alarm about him will be around to help. Instead, many moderate Republicans will be found working alongside the Biden-Harris administration.

Not much at all

Millions of Americans seem to find it entertaining to pretend that we have been living under fascism. (I have often wondered what kind of dictator is not allowed unfettered access to public communications platforms in his own country.) The latest evidence for this absurd proposition is President Trump's unwillingness to concede to Joe Biden, a public position somewhat belied by his apparent interest in running again in 2024.

But you gotta dance with the one who brung you. If Hillary Clinton, who was talking about Trump's "illegitimacy" only days before the election and has insisted from the beginning that the presidency was stolen from her by an entity known as "Russia," did not undermine our democracy, whatever that means, Trump's bad sportsmanship won't either. (Does anyone even remember the absurd recount her campaign demanded in Wisconsin four years ago?) It certainly will not lead one of our two major political parties to begin calling for a new Cold War against an insignificant oligarchy.

Trump's campaign was unprepared for even the most obvious and straightforward post-election legal wrangling. As I write this, the most formidable weapon in his arsenal is Rudy Giuliani, the hero of Ukraine. It would be better for the president to resign now, accept a blanket pardon from Mike Pence, and retire to a life of golf and occasional campaign appearances. The fact that this is unlikely does not mean that it is dangerous for anyone accept the man himself, who is almost certainly going to be prosecuted in the state of New York, like the disgraced ex-president of a Third World republic.

Money, money, money

President Trump's fundraising team is sending out urgent solicitations for "election defense" donations to support his campaign's mathematically futile fight against Joe Biden's victory in the presidential race. "We can't allow the Left-wing MOB to undermine our Election," says one recent appeal. Another touts a "just activated" "EMERGENCY Wisconsin Recount Fund" to push for a recount in a state where Biden leads by about 20,000 votes with an estimated 99 percent of all votes counted.

As Reuters reported Wednesday, however, the legal fine print says only Trump campaign donations above $8,000 — which most small-dollar contributors will never remotely approach — will go to recount efforts and similar "election defense." The rest, probably the lion's share, will be distributed between Save America, a Trump-linked PAC, and the Republican National Committee.

This sort of thing is the most certain result I anticipate from the president's false claims about the election results: It will make him and his party a lot of money.

Protecting American election integrity is a compelling fundraising pitch to conservative donors. The Republican direct mail machine, pioneered by Richard Viguerie and never to be underestimated in its calculated folksiness and under-the-radar profitability, will turn a pretty penny on this theme. I wouldn't be surprised if "EMERGENCY" appeals to stop the "MOB" keep going out even after Biden's inauguration.

Though soon to be out of politics proper, Trump will likely reap financial benefits from this scheme as well. Putting up a fight as he leaves office will, for his base, replace a narrative of failure with one of grievance. He's not a loser. He was wronged! He's not unpopular. The Democrats lied! And whatever Trump decides to do next, that story will help him sell it. Undermining his supporters' faith in the election is just good business.

Both parties have work to do

In the wake of this heated election, every patriotic public figure must commit to restoring trust in our electoral system. That includes President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. The Trump team has put forward no evidence that would overturn Biden’s presumptive victory, and the Department of Homeland Security has determined there was no evidence "any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised." This should be heralded, and Trump must stop insisting it was a rigged election, let the legal system play out, and commit to honoring the outcome of the courts and the Electoral College.

But it's imperative that Americans, especially those who did not vote for Trump, understand how the 2016 election paved the way for the public’s distrust in electoral outcomes. For four years now, supercilious elites have derided Trump voters as rubes, racists, and xenophobes. High profile media figures and prominent Democrats insisted that the Russians threw the election to Trump, and that Trump was not the legitimate president, but a stooge of President Putin. It is hard to overstate how badly this frustrated and energized voters, and caused them to disdain efforts to flout their will, overturn the results of the 2016 election, and remove Trump from office, efforts which culminated in a scurrilous impeachment trial.

While nothing is official until December 14 when electors cast their votes, Biden has the votes necessary to become the 46th president of the United States. But division will continue to rage as long as the parties offer fundamentally different visions for the country. Those differences only make it all the more important that each state work, as Florida did following the 2000 election, to earn the trust of all voters, create an airtight database to know who legitimate voters are, and honor the will of the people. We are a Democratic Republic, a nation of laws that must be written, amended, and upheld by the consent of the people. Elections must not only be timely, free, and accurate, but the voters must also have confidence that that is so.

Accelerating America's Democratic decline

As President Trump publicly gloms onto increasingly lurid and preposterous conspiracy theories to explain away his decisive loss to President-elect Joe Biden, and allies seek to subvert the clear outcome of elections in Pennsylvania and Michigan, the long-term damage to democratic legitimacy in this country is incalculable.

The president's authoritarian quest to cling to the presidency will almost certainly come to ruin. But the GOP's dangerous game risks destroying the already frayed legitimacy of American democracy. In political science, legitimacy is about perception, the extent to which citizens regard the power wielded over them by the state as just and proper. What Trump and the GOP are creating is a serious and immediate legitimacy crisis, by convincing millions of rank-and-file Republicans not just that the 2020 election was stolen from them but that vote fraud by Democrats is routine and so pervasive as to call into question the legitimacy of all elections.

The widespread belief that elections are rigged or stolen is the hallmark not of a healthy democracy but of countries either making painful transitions from dictatorship or backsliding into what's called "competitive authoritarianism." The 2006 and 2012 general elections in democratizing Mexico, for example, were both marred by massive protests and allegations of impropriety. In backsliding Poland this year, the opposition sought to have the election voided by courts.

Thanks to long-term Republican efforts to insulate the party's power from public accountability, the United States was already a country, like Poland, in sharp democratic decline. Yet doubt about the integrity of Election Day results — which threatens the very foundations of democracy by jeopardizing peaceful transfers of power — was not among the country's serious problems before 2020.

It is now. Elected Republicans need to start speaking out against President Trump's assault on the integrity of America's democratic institutions before it's too late.