When a sitting President threatens to delay a sacrosanct American ritual, you’d better listen.
On Thursday morning, minutes after the worst U.S. economic data in seventy years were released and barely two hours before an American hero who risked his life for the right to vote was laid to rest, the President of the United States proposed delaying this fall’s election. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread remote voting, Donald Trump said that it would be the most “INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” Why shouldn’t the U.S. “Delay the Election,” he asked, “until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
It was not the first time that the President has raised this particular canard—and a canard it is, a radical move that is not within his power to make happen—but it was by far his most inflammatory, destabilizing, and provocative attempt yet to call into question the legitimacy of the November election, in which he is trailing the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, in virtually every poll. Has there ever been a President who has done more to undermine American democracy? Trump himself has become the crisis of confidence in our political system that he warns about. He is his own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t be sucked in, Trump’s critics immediately warned. He is trolling us. He is distracting us. Of course, they had a point. It was no accident that the tweet came at 8:46 a.m., sixteen minutes after the government reported that the U.S. economy had contracted by nearly ten per cent in the second quarter, the biggest drop in quarterly G.D.P. ever. There is so very much for Trump to distract us from. Trump’s tweet came just a day after a grievous milestone was reached: a hundred and fifty thousand Americans dead from covid-19. And it was only a couple of hours before John Lewis, the longtime congressman and civil-rights leader, was laid to rest in what amounted to a state funeral—minus the decidedly unwelcome head of state.
But this was not merely one of Trump’s transitory diversions, in a week already full of them. (Remember the demon-sperm-doctor controversy? The transparently racist appeal to those living the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” free of low-income interlopers?) In fact, Trump’s attack on the legitimacy of the upcoming election has been intensifying for months, as his poll standing has sunk. Trump’s “Twitter Richter scale,” as the Democratic lawyer Norm Eisen put it to me the other day, was already registering “off the charts” on the subject. Indeed, when I asked Bill Frischling, who runs the Factbase Web site, which tracks Trump’s public statements and tweets, to look at how often the President had questioned voting or suggested that an election would be rigged, unfair, or otherwise compromised, he came up with seven hundred and thirteen references by Trump since 2012, the vast majority occurring in clusters as the elections of 2016, 2018, and 2020 neared. Already, Factbase has recorded ninety-one instances of such rhetoric from Trump this year, a number which is all but sure to escalate.
So, sorry, we cannot just ignore it when the President threatens to cancel an election. This is the kind of statement that should haunt your dreams. It is wannabe-dictator talk. It is dangerous even if it is not attached to any actions. And those who think that some actions will not follow have not been paying attention. My alarm stems from having covered Russia when Vladimir Putin was dismantling the fragile, flawed democratic institutions that the country had established after the fall of the Soviet Union. It stems from reading history. It stems from having watched the past four years in America, where, day by day, the unthinkable has happened and been justified, rationalized, and explained away.
Some of Trump’s supporters are already normalizing his attacks on the foundations of American democracy; he has succeeded in getting us used to the idea, to having a conversation that should never be happening. In April, Biden warned, at a fund-raiser, that Trump might attempt to “kick back the election” if he was losing. At the time, Steve Guest, the director of rapid response for the Republican National Committee, responded, “Joe Biden is off his rocker to make such an irresponsible allegation without any evidence.” Well, now we have the evidence. And what did Steve Guest have to say on Thursday? When I e-mailed him, he did not respond. His Twitter feed was silent. “Those are the incoherent, conspiracy-theory ramblings of a lost candidate who is out of touch with reality,” the Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said, about Biden, back in April. “President Trump has been clear that the election will happen on November 3rd.” So what are we supposed to think now?
Trump’s most senior Cabinet officials have shown that they, too, are willing to follow their leader down even this most dubious of paths. Attorney General William Barr, asked during congressional testimony earlier this week, before Trump’s tweet, about the possibility of a delayed election, refused to rule it out, dismissively saying that he had “never looked into it.” On Thursday, shortly after Trump’s tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to answer the question, as well. “I’m not going to enter a legal judgment on that on the fly,” Pompeo, a Harvard Law School graduate who is likely quite familiar with the Constitution, said. He nonetheless added, “In the end, the Department of Justice and others will make that legal determination,” which is not at all how it will work.
Just as problematic were the lukewarm-at-best defenses of American democracy offered by some of the Republicans who did comment on Thursday. “We’ve had elections every November since about 1788, and I expect that will be the case again this year,” the Senate Majority Whip, John Thune, of South Dakota, said. “I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump’s golfing buddy and confidant from South Carolina, said. “Expect”? “Particularly”? Not exactly a rousing case for voting. Perhaps most astonishing was this comment from Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota: “I think that, if you guys take the bait, he’ll be the happiest guy in town. I read it. I laughed. I thought, My gosh, this is going to consume a lot of people, except real people. And it was clever.”
The fact that putting off an election is outside the power of the Presidency, that the Constitution clearly prescribes a transition of power on January 20th, 2021, and that it would take an act of Congress to do anything about changing the time, place, and manner of the election is certainly relevant. But there are many ways to cancel elections, and not all of them involve literally failing to hold the balloting. Denying access to the polls, questioning the legitimacy of the results, throwing up legal challenges, forcing voters to stand in long lines: these have all happened, in our lifetimes, in the United States—we don’t have to look to foreign tyrannies for examples of how to influence elections. So was it really reassuring when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to put the matter to rest by calling the November election date “set in stone”? When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “We should go forward with our election. . . . No way should we ever not hold an election on the day that we have it”?
The President did not back off his words. He did not delete his tweet; instead, he pinned it to the top of his feed for part of the day. After hours of criticism, including from a founder of the Federalist Society, who said that it was ground for his impeachment and removal, Trump’s unconvincing effort at spin was to suggest that it was all a brilliant ploy to get “the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the Risks to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-in Voting.” But, in fact, the risk to American democracy is Trump himself.
Later, at a news conference, Trump yammered and stammered his way through questions about whether he really favored a delay. “Do I want to see a day changed? No. But I don’t want to see a crooked election,” he said. He again suggested that the election could be “fraudulent,” “fake,” and “rigged.” It was not a denial. He never disavowed what he had said earlier. On Thursday, Trump careened over a cliff, and the question is, whom is he going to take with him?
After Trump’s tweet, I spent much of the day listening to the funeral of the late Representative Lewis, who was mourned as an American saint, a hero who staked his life on the premise that voting in elections was the truest expression of our democracy. Trump’s three predecessors were in attendance, their presence a visible rebuke to the current President and a reminder of his absence. Trump’s name was never spoken out loud. It did not have to be.
The drill is sadly familiar by now. These funerals of public figures in the Trump era have become the mark of our divided and splintered politics, the gathering spaces at which we are forced to take stock of the widening gap between our current President and the state of his party and what the leaders of both parties once believed. When John McCain, the Trump-resisting Republican senator from Arizona and a Vietnam War hero, died, in 2018, we saw it. And, again, a few months later, for George H. W. Bush, the Republican avatar of a vanishing East Coast-conservative establishment, whose last vote for President was against Trump, in 2016.
Lewis’s sendoff was always going to be a grand one. He was one of the last of the civil-rights greats still with us. He had long ago guaranteed his place in the American pantheon with that march in Selma, as a young man—and with the decades that followed of irrepressible service and indefatigable activism for social justice and equality under law. During the service, he was hailed as Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s disciple, the heir of Gandhi and Mandela, a great-great-grandson of slaves whose moral audacity and sheer bravery transformed him into “Saint Lewis,” a would-be preacher who became the sermon himself.
But Trump’s tweet provided the urgency of the moment, the infuriating and clarifying framing for a funeral that took place when the rights for which Lewis fought—not the least of which is the right for all eligible voters to cast their ballot this fall—are under threat as never before. Bill Campbell, the former mayor of Atlanta, told the mourners at Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church that Lewis had conveyed to him a final wish when they last met. “He pulled me closer and he whispered, ‘Everyone has to vote in November. It is the most important election ever,’ ” Campbell said. “I promised him that with every fibre in my body. . . . If you truly want to honor this American hero, make sure that you vote.”
At McCain’s funeral, Barack Obama delivered a eulogy in which he rebuked the “small and mean and petty” politics of the moment, and the “trafficking in bombast, in insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage.” This was back in the late summer of 2018, when it still seemed as though Trump’s hateful words and tweets were the threat, and when it was still news when the former President obliquely criticized the current one.
But Lewis died at a time when Trump, facing reëlection he fears he may lose, has made his threats more explicit, and Obama’s response this time was more direct, too. In his eulogy for Lewis, the former President brought the church to its feet by denouncing modern-day Bull Connors and George Wallaces and by making explicit references to the police who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and to the federal law-enforcement agents that Trump has ordered to violently suppress peaceful protests. “Democracy isn’t automatic,” he warned. “It has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to.”
Most of all, Obama’s eulogy was an extended love letter not just to Lewis but to the voting rights that he had been willing to sacrifice his life for. Obama demanded action, and he was specific: renewing the Voting Rights Act provisions that have been gutted by the Supreme Court in recent years and blocked by Republicans in Congress, and eliminating the Senate filibuster, which he called a “Jim Crow relic.”
So often, Donald Trump looks to the worst of the past in making a hash of America’s present. He is, bizarrely, even now running as a defender of the Confederacy, the toxic legacy of which Lewis spent his life trying to undo. Obama, in contrast, is the perpetual conjurer of a better American future, and there are few who heard his soaring peroration who could not have been inspired by its vision of a vibrant, free, inclusive democracy. But perhaps the fierce urgency of the day was best summed up by a scene that caught my eye as the funeral was ending. It was a glimpse of Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who came up short in her run for Georgia governor, two years ago. Like all the other mourners, she was wearing a face mask because of the pandemic. On it was written a single word: “Vote.”