Our Damaged Democracy

The repercussions of Donald Trump’s presidency will be deep and long-lasting — as will his power. After all, he’s not going gently into that good night. He’s going thundering into the next 1,460 days until he can reclaim the White House in the 2024 election — or make a last-gasp effort to steal this one.

The Washington Post’s bombshell revelation of tapes in which the president hounds Georgia’s secretary of state to overturn the votes in his state is nothing short of astounding.

In the conversation, Trump alternates between rambling, chastising, cajoling, threatening and regurgitating election claims that have been debunked ad nauseam.

The president’s previous efforts to pressure Republican election officials skirted the bounds of propriety, but this attempt — in which he seems to encourage Brad Raffensperger to come up with votes that don’t exist — could border on the criminal.

“So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump tells Raffensperger, a Republican.

The audio is damning and presents two equally disturbing scenarios: The president is either illegally trying to overthrow the will of the American people or he’s genuinely delusional about Joe Biden’s victory.

Some parts of the hour-long transcript frighteningly point to the latter.

Trump pulls a litany of numbers seemingly out of thin air: stuffed machines and suitcases containing 18,000 votes (although he says “they” think it’s more like 56,000); upward of 5,000 dead people voting; a “couple of hundred thousand” forged signatures; “50s of thousands” of people who went to vote but couldn’t because apparently someone had already voted for them; and “anywhere from 250 to 300,000 ballots [that] were dropped mysteriously into the rolls” — a pretty wide range, to say the least.

At one point Trump suggests he won Georgia by half a million votes.

He lost the state by 11,779 votes — and by over 7 million nationwide.

Entire chunks of what he is saying are incoherent. Anyone who wasn’t aware they were listening to the president might question the mental fitness of the speaker.

“There’s no way I lost Georgia,” Trump repeatedly insists. “There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes.”

Raffensperger calmly resists the president’s entreaties. Other Republicans, however, have not — a clear sign that even when he inevitably exits the White House, Trump will maintain his vise-like grip on the GOP.

On Jan. 6, at least 140 Republicans in the House and about a dozen in the Senate will pursue a last-last-last-ditch effort to overturn the 2020 election when Congress meets for what is a normally a perfunctory ceremony to ratify the results of the Electoral College.

The Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz, are refusing to certify electors from “disputed states” until until a 10-day “audit” of votes in those states is done. This group includes four newly elected senators — who, incidentally, were elected on the same ballot they’re now contesting.

The senators readily admit it’s a futile endeavor but insist the audit will “protect” the democratic process.

Critics call it a congressional coup.

But the maneuver also begs a simple question: What is left to even audit?

Dozens upon dozens of lawsuits contesting the election results have been tossed out by over 60 judges — some appointed by Trump himself. Even in the boring legalese of judicial opinions, the verdicts have been damning, with judges dismissing lawsuits they said were riddled with “gossip,” “innuendo,” “conjecture” and “wild speculation … without any basis in law or fact.”

Countless state and local election officials, many of them Republicans, have thoroughly refuted an array of fraud claims.

Here is a great point-by-point rebuttal to the absurd claims going around in Georgia (including that Raffensperger has a brother, Ron, who works for a Chinese tech company. That must be news to Raffensperger, since he doesn’t have a brother named Ron.)

Multiple hand recounts have not unearthed any systemic fraud either. That’s not to say those recounts weren’t warranted. In critical swing states like Georgia where the margin of victory was narrow, they were absolutely justified. But Democrats never opposed these recounts. They were done in a transparent manner, at times with more Republican observers in the room than Democrats, despite angry mobs outside trying to intimidate those inside.

Some irregularities and instances of fraud were uncovered, but the numbers were so minuscule — a few dozen out of tens of thousands of votes — that they had no effect on the results (and, in some cases, the fraud was committed by Trump supporters).

Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, a staunch supporter of the president, came to the same conclusion.

President Donald Trump boards the presidential limousine at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 17, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This lack of evidence, however, has not deterred the Trump camp from exhausting every possible legal avenue, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. That’s where Texas and 17 other Republican-led states sought to invalidate 20 million legally cast votes in four swing states (Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).

The Red states argued that because those swing states made mail-in voting easier due to the pandemic, they had the right to force the legislatures in those states — all of which happen to be controlled by Republicans — to choose their state’s electors, over the wishes of the actual voters in that state.

The move was backed by well over half of House Republicans.

Let that sink in. A party that prides itself on the notion of federalism and the sovereignty — even supremacy — of states wanted to tell other states how they should conduct their vote.

The Supreme Court, which leans 6-3 conservative, refused to even hear the case.

Afterward, Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West floated the idea of forming a union of “states that will abide by the constitution” — all because the Supreme Court refused to allow those states to defy the constitution.

A number of Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have since come out against their colleagues, urging them to accept the results and move on.

Even Vice President Mike Pence distanced himself from another legal hail Mary in which several Republican lawmakers argued that Pence had the power to decide which electoral votes should count and which to dismiss. That lawsuit was also thrown out. In response, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who spearheaded the effort, suggested that “street violence” was the only recourse left, while pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood predicted Pence would “face execution by firing squad” for refusing to overturn the Electoral College results.

Even the most jaded political observers could not have predicted the extent to which President Trump and his allies would be contesting his election loss. In doing so, they’ve created an ominous new norm that in a sense encapsulates the Trump presidency: If you don’t like something, just don’t believe it.

If you don’t like the results of an election, don’t believe them. Do everything you can to toss them out. Just make stuff up and keep saying it until people believe it’s true.

Keep throwing words out like China (avoid Russia though), Chávez, Pelosi (a perennial favorite), mystery black suitcases containing gazillions of ballots, “witnesses” who didn’t witness anything — until something sticks.

And don’t worry about how ludicrous it sounds. At a rally in Georgia, Trump proudly boasted that he won ALL the states. That must be news to New York and California.

No democracy can ultimately withstand this type of break from reality.

And it’s not a stretch to say that many of Trump’s supporters are no longer in the realm of reality.

Many accusations been proven not only to be untrue, but also flat-out absurd. Yet they are still being widely circulated.

Remember those allegations that the number of votes cast in one Michigan county exceeded the number of actual registered voters in that county? The lawyers got Michigan mixed up with Minnesota — and officials there had no idea what they were talking about. Or that seemingly incriminating video of people pulling ballots out of black, sealed-like suitcases in Georgia? It was just election workers doing their job: taking ballots out of standard containers to scan them.

One lawsuit claimed that the probability of Biden winning in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — given that Trump was ahead in those states as of 3 a.m. on Nov. 4 — was “one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000.”

A quadrillion? What magic calculator came up with that figure?

Truth is, it’s made up — and moot, because it ignores the all-important fact that mail-in ballots (which leaned toward Biden) simply hadn’t been counted yet.

President Donald Trump speaks with supporters at a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally at the Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona. (Photo: By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America – Donald Trump, CC BY-SA 2.0)

A key, and relentless, source of baseless claims has been Sidney Powell, Trump’s lawyer who pledged to unleash the “kraken,” a mythical sea beast, on opponents.

Her witnesses seem to be just as mythical. Her “military intelligence expert,” code-named Spyder, was reportedly a one-time mechanic who failed to complete basic military intel training (although it’s important to note he was honorably discharged from the Army after several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan).

Another secret witness and former intelligence contractor was a pro-Trump podcaster who apparently faked degrees and titles and has used multiple aliases to bolster her credentials.

Powell even accused Republican officials of taking bribes to rig the election, drawing the ire of Trump’s own legal team.

Many of Powell’s debunked claims have been fanned by right-wing outlets such as the Epoch Times, which has exploded from an obscure anti-China publication into a pro-Trump megaphone.

It often cites studies, experts and witnesses who need to remain anonymous for “their safety.” Here’s a little background on The Epoch Times: While its precise ownership and funding sources are shrouded in secrecy, it’s closely tied to the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement that opposes the communist government in Beijing.

The group’s leader claims to be “a god-like figure who can levitate and walk through walls,” according to an August 2019 report by NBC News.

He teaches his followers “that sickness is a symptom of evil that can only be truly cured with meditation and devotion, and that aliens from undiscovered dimensions have invaded the minds and bodies of humans, bringing corruption and inventions such as computers and airplanes.”

Incidentally, the Nashville bomber also reportedly believed in aliens and that lizard creatures tweaked our DNA to control the minds and bodies of humans. Why bring that up? Because many people tend to dismiss crazy conspiracy theorists, but their craziness can have real-life, even deadly, consequences. That pharmacist from Wisconsin who’s accused of sabotaging over 500 COVID vaccines? He’s an admitted conspiracy theorist.

But back to the election. One of the most stubborn myths that the Epoch Times and many other right-wing voices have perpetuated is that Venezuela influenced our election because the family of former President Hugo Chávez owns Dominion Voting Systems.

To clarify, a dead Venezuelan president did not rise from the grave to rig American votes. Chávez’s family does not own Dominion Voting Systems. Nor does Beijing, Antifa, Nancy Pelosi’s family or the Clintons. The company was founded in Canada and is owned by a private New York equity firm (and was used in states that Trump won).

Fed up with the slander, John Poulos, Dominion’s founder and CEO, recently told Axios that the company plans to sue Powell, and possibly Trump. He also noted that his employees have received death threats amid the cascade of baseless accusations.

Likewise, Smartmatic threatened Fox News and Newsmax with legal action for peddling bogus claims about its voting machines, forcing the conservative outlets to issue a rare public retraction. (Smartmatic’s machines weren’t even used in the contested states anyway.)

Voters in Des Moines precincts 43, 61 and 62 cast their ballots at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: By Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA – Election Day 2020, CC BY 2.0)

U.S. officials knew ahead of time that electronic voting machines could be hacked, so they insisted on a strong paper trail. That’s why Christopher Krebs — a top cyber-security official and lifelong Republican who was put in charge of handling election security by Trump — said the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” because almost all of the ballots had a paper trail that could be manually recounted.

For defending the integrity of the election results, Krebs was summarily fired. Incidentally, Joseph diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, also declared that Krebs should be shot (he later said he was joking).

But the volley of death threats lobbed at average polling workers is no laughing matter.

One top election official from Georgia — a Republican — implored the president to speak up against these threats of violence.

“This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this,” said Gabriel Sterling, warning that “someone is going to get killed.”

President Trump has never condemned any of those threats. Instead, he’s mused about imposing martial law and seizing voting machines, alarming even his closest advisors.

It’s debatable how much this kind of talk might incite actual violence.

But at pro-Trump rallies held in D.C. late last year, there was ample evidence that his supporters were repeating much of the rhetoric and conspiracy theories emanating from the White House verbatim.

While some protesters spoke earnestly of seeking the truth, others spoke of fraud but couldn’t name the states where that fraud allegedly took place. Quite a few said that God would keep Trump in office.

Others, namely the far-right Proud Boys, spoke of a coming civil war that they would win because they “have all the guns.” MAGA leaders have openly advocated using the military and National Guard to keep Trump in office. The Daily Beast reported that one popular comment ahead of another planned rally on Jan. 6 called for protesters to “kill all the D.C. traitors and reclaim the country.”

Of course, it’s wrong to say that all of Trump’s supporters want to wage war. These extreme comments naturally come from the more extreme end of the spectrum (as they always do — on both the right and left).

But the number of Trump supporters — and Republicans in general — who refuse to believe the outcome of the election is deeply troubling. One CBS poll found that eight in 10 Trump voters wanted to contest the election. An NPR/PBS poll found that only a quarter of Republicans accept the results. The Economist found that over half of white, male registered voters don’t believe Biden won.

Think about that: Tens of millions of Americans remain unconvinced that the election was fair despite the mountain of evidence that it was. At this point, one has to wonder if they would believe the results even if they hand-counted the ballots themselves.

It’s a terrifying thought — but for the president, this refusal to accept reality has been a highly effective vehicle for raising “legal” funds, i.e. money that mostly flows into his political bank accounts.

As an aside, there’s a certain irony that the only congressional veto override of Trump’s presidency was the recent defense spending bill, which the president vetoed because it did not include a completely unrelated measure to repeal content liability protections for social media and tech companies.

Why is that ironic? Because it is Trump supporters who have mastered the art of social media manipulation, not Democrats. For all their complaints about Facebook censorship, the right-wing will never abandon the platformbecause it has given them the most oxygen.

As POLITICO extensively documented, conservative voices regularly dominate the online discussion of hot-button issues like Black Lives Matter and voter fraud.

In many ways, the 2020 election mirrors the Benghazi strategy: Repeat something often enough and it becomes gospel, no matter what the truth is.

Interestingly, Trump had his own Benghazi moment early in his presidency when he hastily authorized (over dinner) a risky raid in Yemen that went awry, killing Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. Instead of taking responsibility for the loss as the country’s commander in chief, Trump punted the blame for Owens’s death to military generals (while also declaring the botched raid a success).

There are myriad examples of the president using — and misusing — the military when it suits him, such as his pardon of a Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes. Perhaps Trump was trying to display his unwavering support of the military, but the pardon was an uninformed, superficial decision that betrayed the platoon members who bravely came forward to denounce one of their own — a man who, among other things, stabbed a captive to death and then forced his troops to pose for a photograph with the corpse.

But Democrats have never latched onto any of these controversies the way Republicans have with events that had far less merit.

Why? Because most Democrats don’t employ the right-wing strategy of demonizing the other side with simple, relentless, viral messaging (perhaps because they refuse to stoop that low, or they fear the blowback, or they’re just not as social media savvy).

“This viral content is ‘clicky and sticky’ — something that makes people want to click on it and that sticks in the brain thanks to the tricks of modern marketing,” wrote Joseph Romm and Jeff Nesbit in The Nation, a liberal news outlet.

“A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth,” GOP strategist Frank Luntz told conservatives in a prescient 2002 memo on climate messaging.

Most recently, a prime opportunity to use the power of viral messaging came up during the stimulus talks in December, when Trump’s last-minute demand to send out $2,000 checks threatened to derail the relief package that would’ve sent desperately needed unemployment benefits to over 10 million jobless Americans.

Biden’s social media team could have contrasted shots of Trump playing golf and Pence skiing with images of Americans waiting in breadlines over holidays — and hammered home the visual without mercy. It’s tacky, but do you genuinely think the other side would have resisted such a tempting target?

President Donald Trump disembarks Air Force One on his arrival to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Dec. 31, 2020, after returning from his Christmas holiday in Palm Beach, Fla. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Biden would never approve of such a move. But he’s also an old-school politician adhering to a playbook that no longer exists.

Granted, trolling and spreading inflammatory misinformation is a controversial strategy, but Biden could find other ways to adapt to the new Trump era.

An easy one would be to drop the meaningless political platitudes and talk more like regular people. After all, this was a huge part of Trump’s appeal — he spoke his mind, not off a script. He may not always have been coherent, but you could never accuse him of being boring.

Democratic leaders, Biden especially, could learn a lesson by using plain-speak instead of diplo-speak. The key distinction, however, is to be straightforward with people using facts, not falsehoods.

In other words, you can deliver the kind of rhetorical gut punches the other side does, without resorting to low blows.

Speaking to Axios, Joe Biden’s sister Valerie said her brother will ignore Trump once he begins governing. But you have to wonder if Biden will have that luxury. He may need to occasionally fire back or risk getting drowned out by the noise.

And here’s a prediction: the next Benghazi will be the 10-day audit that GOP senators are currently calling for. It won’t happen — and that will be used as “proof” by Trump supporters that the election was stolen (prepare for the inevitable avalanche of #audit hashtags).

Indeed, the claims of election fraud will only grow louder over the next four years (we are, after all, still talking about Hillary’s email servers).

Biden will be the president, so the media will naturally shift gears to cover what he says. But he’ll also be presidential (i.e. boring), and it’s doubtful the media will completely ignore Trump’s headline-grabbing tweets.

To be sure, the mainstream media never gave President Trump much credit for his accomplishments, namely confronting China for its trade practices and forging a nascent Arab-Israeli peace.

His disdain for masks, which he turned into a political wedge issue, undoubtedly cost lives, but his Operation Warp Speed will also save them. Yet the fact that he was too busy tweeting out baseless conspiracy theories about the election instead of taking a victory lap by being present at the first coronavirus vaccination is perhaps emblematic of his self-destructive tendencies — and the box he’s constructed for himself. After all, the optics aren’t ideal when you’ve dismissed science and experts for four years, only to openly embrace them at the last minute.

But it’s dangerous to conflate the liberal leanings of traditional media with the outright lies of far-right outlets that the Trump presidency has fed on and fueled. And here we get to perhaps the most damaging effect of the last four years: the erosion of truth and, by extension, democracy (not to mention common decency).

Just contrast what is happening today with what happened 20 years ago, when Al Gore accepted defeat even though George W. Bush’s victory hinged on a handful of votes — compared to the hundreds of thousands that Biden racked up. And just as Gore did, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, garnering 3 million more votes than Trump. But what did she do? Did she spend weeks refusing to accept the Electoral College results? No. She promptly placed conciliatory phone call to Trump and urged the nation to unify and move forward.

So will Democrats now contest every loss the way President Trump’s supporters have (personally I doubt it, but who knows). Will this race to the bottom become our new norm?

That, perhaps, will be one of the more enduring critiques of the Trump presidency: that it was not so much about breaking laws as it was about shattering norms.

We’ve become numb to four years of outlandish and offensive tweets and rhetoric — everything from accusing doctors of not caring for coronavirus patients because they want to make more money; to denigrating an American war hero because he was Muslim; to suggesting women are on their periods for asking tough questions.

Trump has repeatedly pretended to not know what QAnon is — despite being repeatedly told what it is — in a baldfaced bid to pander to voters who believe a cabal of satanic pedophiles, including Tom Hanks, secretly runs the world.

The president’s wink-wink acknowledgement of conspiracy theorists has helped what were once fringe groups go mainstream.

We also now shrug our shoulders at the kind of hypocrisy that would easily topple any other politician.

We saw evidence of this early on when then-candidate Trump in 2015 publicly encouraged a foreign adversary, Russia, to hack his opponent’s emails and release them. If Clinton had done the same thing, Republicans would have quickly labeled it treason.

Trump slammed Barack Obama for playing golf, yet has spent roughly one-fifth of his presidency at his golf clubs.

It’s all made for funny memes, but the ramifications are very real. For years, Trump called out presidents who wouldn’t disclose their taxes, and then become the only U.S. president in modern history to refuse to release his.

For all the speculation that Trump is hiding shady connections to Moscow or Beijing, the refusal to reveal his taxes could be a simple matter of bilking the government and banks for years by falsely inflating the value of his assets to qualify for loans or, conversely, reducing their value to get big tax breaks.

While Trump’s taxes may not reveal any foreign entanglements, what does it mean when a leader who claims to represent the working masses doesn’t pay taxes like they do?

What does draining the swamp look like when you have one of the most corrupt Cabinets in history, with a slew members who’ve resigned or are being investigated for, among other things: insider trading, foreign conflicts of interest, using taxpayer money for personal errands and private charter flights, suspiciously timed investments — and even swindling business associates out of tens of millions of dollars?

Or when you have a president who over-charges his own Secret Service protection detail for staying at his properties.

Above all, when did it become acceptable to say whatever you wanted without the fear of consequence?

The Washington Post has meticulously documented over 22,000 false or misleading claims — and counting — that the president has made. During the recent campaign, he racked up over 50 a day. (After a certain point, it’s time to call a “falsehood” what it really is: a lie.)

This list has culminated in what is likely to go down as the most damaging deception of all: that Democrats are trying to steal a presidential election — when the thievery appears to be on the other foot.

Laws may or may not have been broken, but norms have been destroyed, and once you lower the bar, it’s a heavy lift to raise it back up.

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