From the first moments after polls closed on Nov. 3, 2020, Donald Trump has been working to undo the voters’ decision.
This effort has ebbed and flowed. In the immediate aftermath of the election, it was fairly quiet, centered on normal, futile legal responses. Soon after, though, it became dangerous, as Trump first tried to encourage his allies to simply set aside his loss and, then, as he drew people to Washington to oppose the moment in which Joe Biden’s victory was formalized. Then it ebbed again, as the former president, stripped of his largest social media platforms, was forced to make his case to friendly right-wing media outlets and, then, on the social media platform he created.
From January 2021 until recently, Trump’s rhetoric has risen and fallen largely out of public sight, as he’s embraced weird theories (like those of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell) or debunked nonsense (like the film “2000 Mules”) as ways to advocate for his own reinstatement.
This weekend, though, he went further than he has since leaving office.
“A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude,” he wrote on Truth Social, “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!”
It’s obviously ridiculous to suggest that the Founding Fathers would advocate “terminating” the Constitution, given that they wrote the Constitution. It is more ridiculous, though, to suggest that Trump’s loss in 2020 was so tainted by fraud that there’s no satisfactory response short of throwing out the American system and installing him as leader once again. There’s no evidence of any significant fraud or “DECEPTION” (as he also claimed in his post) at all, in fact.
So why is Trump making this extraordinary and extraordinarily antidemocratic claim now? Three reasons. First, his supporters have rallied around new details involving the limits on an anti-Biden story in 2020. Second, the midterm elections reinvigorated his claims about election fraud. And, third, his path back to the Republican nomination — much less the White House — is less certain now than at any point since he left office.
The Hunter Biden laptop story. The immediate trigger for Trump’s complaint was the release of internal Twitter documents on Friday showing how the company debated its decision to limit sharing of a New York Post story from October 2020 about a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son. The documents shared by Twitter owner Elon Musk with a sympathetic reporter didn’t include much new information and didn’t significantly change the understanding of how and why the company made the decision. (They certainly didn’t neutralize the broader context that demanded caution on the story in the first place.) Instead, the release of the emails created a new nexus of attention for baseless claims that limiting the story hampered Trump’s victory.
It’s worth noting at the outset that there is no reason at all to think that the results of the election would have been different had the story not been limited by Twitter. First of all, the limitation itself created a Streisand effect in which new attention was paid to the New York Post’s report because of the Twitter limits. Second, many of the claims that the election would have gone to Trump had the suppression not occurred are based on a dubious push poll from the right-wing group Media Research Center.
For Trump, of course, none of this matters. He’s embraced any and all claims about the election being tainted for the simple reason that his interest is in undermining the election, not in accurately articulating what happened. The loud, energetic conversation now underway about Twitter’s behavior is mostly about elevating a narrative about how right-wing views are purportedly censored by bad actors on the left. But the crux of the discussion is that Something Suspicious Happened in 2020, so Trump is moving his pieces forward on the board.
The Arizona gubernatorial race. The midterm elections largely managed to avoid the sort of election denialism that Trump has embraced since his 2020 loss. One exception is in Arizona, where the losing Republican gubernatorial candidate — former local news anchor Kari Lake — has tried to claim her loss was a function of fraud or devious activity. Like Trump, Lake had no political background prior to running for office, meaning she had no experience with either the process or having to gracefully admit her loss. Unlike Trump, she had an existing pool of election skeptics to whom she could appeal.
Trump has giddily elevated Lake’s baseless claims about her loss, appropriating them for his own purposes. If something sketchy happened in Arizona, after all, it suggests that other sketchy things could have happened elsewhere — and potentially provides another small puncture in the dam containing Biden’s 2020 victory. Trump likes that Lake is challenging her loss less because he supports Lake (though he does) and more because it gives him a way to talk more broadly about how he was robbed.
The state of the 2024 nomination. As of writing, Trump is the only declared candidate for the GOP nomination in 2024. His announcement last month was meant to help freeze the field, to position him as the guy to beat — as the guy not worth challenging in the first place.
But it came a week after the Republican Party fared unexpectedly poorly in the midterm elections, a result for which he was given a lot of blame, and it came in a speech that was broadly derided as lackadaisical and uninspiring. Instead of freezing the field, Trump provided a point of contrast for a lot of Republicans who were willing to say that the time had come to move on to someone else. Trump still fares well in (very, very early) primary polling, but candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are establishing solid bases of anyone-but-Trump support.
In other words, the 2024 nomination is not the gimme that Trump had hoped it would be. His path back to the presidency is less direct than it was even six months ago, with Republicans beginning to (however gently) suggest that a page should be turned.
Hence Trump’s new — obviously futile — call to simply be reinstated. It’s a moment in which there’s a lot of right-wing fury at perceived leftist elites, energy that could be perhaps redirected to his own benefit. And it’s a moment in which Trump might reasonably think that relying on the will of voters is not his surest path back to power.
So why not simply throw out the voice of voters entirely? How could the Founding Fathers object to that?