Donald Trump may hug and kiss the flag, but he is undermining our election’s legitimacy and our government.
In the end, the biggest interference in America’s elections didn’t come from Russia, or China, or Iran or North Korea. It came from the president of the United States.
As I write this, we still don’t know for certain who won the election, although Joe Biden seems in a strong position to win the White House and Republicans to retain the Senate.
But we do know for certain that President Trump lied to the public early Wednesday morning when he claimed victory and sought a judicial rescue from voters. His brazenness undermines our election system and the very idea of a peaceful transition of power.
It’s hard to imagine that the Supreme Court, however politicized it may have become, would go along with such a charade. I don’t believe that Trump, if he loses in a clear-cut way, will be able to remain in office; if he tries to barricade himself in the Oval Office, he’ll be escorted out on Jan. 20.
Nicholas Kristof’s Newsletter: Get a behind-the-scenes look at Nick’s gritty journalism as he travels around the United States and the world.
Yet what Trump has already done is what the Russians have always tried to do: cast doubt on American elections and destabilize the United States. The 2018 federal indictment of Russian election hackers alleged that they were engaged in “information warfare against the United States of America,” by fostering confusion and distrust that impair the integrity of elections and damage the legitimacy of the government that emerges. That’s precisely what Trump is now doing. He may hug and kiss American flags and pretend to be a great patriot, but this is a betrayal of our country.
If Biden wins after this poisoning of the chalice, he will inherit a badly divided country after an election that many will deem illegitimate, and it will be harder to govern and more difficult for the United States to exert influence around the world. It’s one thing for Russian hackers in St. Petersburg to sabotage our government; it’s far more tragic when the president does the same from the White House.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke right after Trump and did not repeat the president’s claim of victory or his call for the courts to intervene. But Pence let his boss’s lies stand, and most leading Republicans have also kept quiet.
Trump’s latest attack on the integrity of America’s electoral system and on the peaceful transfer of power — the litmus test for any democracy — comes after years of other lies and efforts to discredit the electoral system. And yes, it’s true that it is an electoral system that has obvious undemocratic elements, but these aren’t what Trump has been talking about.
Biden will easily win the popular vote by millions of ballots, and yet the outcome is in doubt only because of the Electoral College. Between 2000 and 2016, in two of the three times when Republicans won the presidency, it was while losing the popular vote. And if the Supreme Court does weigh in on this election, one-third of the justices were appointed by Trump after he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes.
The Senate has similar issues. The current Democrat senators represent 14 million more voters than the Senate Republicans, but it’s the Democrats who are in the minority because of the outsize influence of low-population states.
Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has bluntly said, “we’re not a democracy” but a republic (actually, we’re both). Lee, along with Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, even recommended repealing the 17th Amendment, which provides for direct election of senators. If senators were again chosen by state legislatures, Republicans would gain a few seats.
More broadly, much of the Republican Party seems to fear voters and believes that its best path to victory is to suppress voting or even, in the case of Harris County, Texas, discard ballots. We no longer have poll taxes and grandfather clauses to disenfranchise Black voters, but G.O.P. officials modernized the barriers to voting by people of color. One careful study published in Scientific American last year found that voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods are 74 percent more likely to have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote than residents of white neighborhoods.
Trump himself said in March that he opposed efforts to encourage more voting because “if you agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Yet here’s another thought: Perhaps Republicans and Democrats alike have been too quick to assume that higher turnouts are inevitably bad for G.O.P. prospects.
This election appears to have had the highest turnout in 120 years, and Biden and Trump may end up as the No. 1 and No. 2 winners of the popular vote in American history. Trump had the support of millions more voters in this election than four years ago.
According to exit polls, Trump won votes from 18 percent of Black men and 36 percent of Latino men, along with those of 58 percent of white men.
The Democrats had a great deal going for them in this election: a nominee viewed as soothing and electable, streams of new outrages from Trump, frequent revelations of corruption or improprieties involving him, denunciations of him from family members and former aides, and above all a mismanaged pandemic that killed 230,000 Americans and devastated the economy.
Yet many voters saw all this and were unfazed. Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert in managing health disasters, says that Trump won nine of the 10 states with the highest prevalence of coronavirus.
So as I fret about Trump’s efforts to do Russia’s work and delegitimize this election, I also keep wrestling with this question: How is it that so many millions of Americans watched Trump for four years, suffered the pain of his bungling of Covid-19, listened to his stream of lies, observed his attacks on American institutions — and then voted for him in greater numbers than before?