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Politicizing a Pandemic and Rigging an Election—Trump's 2020 Re-election Campaign

Trump is leveraging the pandemic to destroy any semblance of democracy left in presidential elections.

"Trump has been laying the groundwork to fix the 2020 election results ever since deceit and treachery helped produce victory for him in 2016," writes Ripton. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

"Trump has been laying the groundwork to fix the 2020 election results ever since deceit and treachery helped produce victory for him in 2016," writes Ripton. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his Republican allies are preparing to rig the 2020 presidential election. The outline of their strategy is quite evident. The use of fear and division in campaign rhetoric and advertising is one tactic. Another is their refusal to act or even acknowledge foreign interference in U.S. elections or to move against domestic sites disseminating abjectly false information. Central to the plan, though, is delegitimizing the election process itself, especially mail-in balloting.

In doing so, Trump is leveraging the pandemic to destroy any semblance of democracy left in presidential elections. He has one exclusive goal in mind: secure another four years in office. The consequences of such callous political calculations have already been devastating. The New York Times points out that the U.S. has 5 times as many coronavirus cases as all of Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and South Korea combined. But rather than engage federal resources and assert presidential authority to promote prevention, fortify medical facilities and stanch the spread of the pandemic, Trump and his craven Republican allies have engaged in a crass and very deliberate campaign of weaponizing coronavirus for political ends.

Meanwhile, the raging pandemic makes voting at polling places a potentially hazardous experience this year. Voting by mail is the safe, obvious alternative. The attacks on mail voting, however, are direct assaults on the integrity of American elections, a particularly pernicious campaign during this time of catastrophic public health crisis. The idea that to count an anticipated tens of millions mailed ballots may take days or weeks or, as Trump recently suggested, “months” or “years” is very disconcerting. Even more alarming, Trump suggests that he will not accept the results of the election even if there is a clear winner on November 3. Taken together—mail-in vote degradation, delayed vote count and presidential refusal to accept results—it is very clear that this election will be brokered in the courts. Trump’s discrediting and delegitimizing voting by mail, in particular, prepares the ground for convoluted and protracted post-election legal battles.

"Taken together—mail-in vote degradation, delayed vote count and presidential refusal to accept results—it is very clear that this election will be brokered in the courts." Trump’s assertions and characterizations of mail-in voting, however, founder on evidence. He claims that mail-in voting is broadly corrupt. His administration suggests that it is highly vulnerable to foreign interference. Trump still contends that millions of “illegal immigrants” voted against him in 2016 and suggests that voting by mail makes such fraud easier. Yet the facts do not uphold the president’s allegations. Since many states have instituted mail-in voting, researchers have collected substantial data on voting by mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah conduct all elections by mail and another 23 states practice mail-in voting in local elections. Thus there is an ample data set for testing its reliability. Far from being rife with fraud, the Washington Post found only 372 potential irregularities in its survey of 14.6 million mail-in ballots, a mere .0025% rate of questionable votes.

Denying mail-in voting in 2020 not only puts the public’s health in grave danger it also threatens democracy itself. The Wisconsin primary in April illustrates this point. An estimated 100,000 voters were denied the right to vote due to the pandemic. And, according to a peer-reviewed study of COVID-19 and the Wisconsin primary voters, as many as 700 voters of COVID-19 infections were related to the election. Yet in Wisconsin's primary, Trump and Republicans—with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court —successfully countered the Wisconsin governor's efforts to extend the primary so that voters could cast ballots via mail. Trump and his supporters immediately moved beyond Wisconsin in their offensive on voting by mail. Though unsuccessful in California, Republicans sued in May to stop delivery of mail ballots to California voters. Again, in late June, they went to court, this time targeting liberalized absentee ballot rules in Pennsylvania. Republicans are also pursuing legal means to limit mail voting in other states including election swing-states Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona. Additionally, Trump vows to direct $20 million toward defending restrictive voting rules being challenged by Democrats in 18 states.

In the first week of August, Nevada’s mail-in voting plans slid into the scope of Trump’s re-election campaign. In Nevada, the Trump re-election campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the state Republican committee sued in court to prevent expanded mail-in voting. The three-pronged attack —also deployed in Wisconsin and California—demonstrates that the anti-democratic forces at the heart of Trump's re-election campaign and his Republican allies are tightly organized. The Nevada controversy yielded yet another stratagem to subvert the presidential election results: portraying Democrat-governed states as incapable of conducting fair mail-in voting and Republican-led states as eminently capable of doing so. In a preposterous declaration, Trump claimed that Nevada with its Democratic governor presides over a corrupt system of mail voting while Florida (think “hanging chads” in 2000 and the vote counting chaos of 2018) with its Republican governor is eminently capable of conducting a sound mail-in voting system.

The U.S. Postal Service has also emerged as a pivotal agency in countering the mail-in vote. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee, appears to be doing the president's bidding as he slows the movement of mail. DeJoy has taken offline high-speed mail sorters and removed blue postal boxes as well as reduced window hours and overtime for postal workers. While DeJoy promised Congress this week that “The Postal Service is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail fully and on time,” he had earlier informed state election officials that election ballots will no longer be handled as priority mail. DeJoy testified that cost-cutting measures would be suspended until after the election but six states and the District of Columbia went to court to contest his assurances amid fears that changes already instituted at the Postal Service have caused extensive delays that could affect the on-time delivery of ballots in the fall. For his part, Trump feigns innocence of any sinister intent with mail delivery times, disingenuously complaining about the slow delivery of mail to deflect attention from his meddling in the on-time delivery of mailed ballots. 

While most political polls show Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in the presidential race, it is important to recognize that political polls do not measure perfidy. Trump has been laying the groundwork to fix the 2020 election results ever since deceit and treachery helped produce victory for him in 2016. As part of the fix, over the last four years, he has attacked immigrants, excused white supremacists, and vilified opponents among other outrages. He has demanded and rewarded uncritical allegiance. He has fired numerous appointees who fell short of total obeisance, dismissed and replaced dozens of federal attorneys with doctrinaire conservatives, and demanded deregulation across all federal regulatory agencies. He has even transformed the Department of Justice into his own legal team with Attorney General Barr calling for investigations that support Trump's interests including discrediting Robert Mueller's investigation, intervening on behalf of Trump associates involved in potential collusion with Russia and renewing the effort to find compromising material on Biden in Ukraine.

"Trump has been laying the groundwork to fix the 2020 election results ever since deceit and treachery helped produce victory for him in 2016." In his actions and his statements since 2016, Donald Trump has made it quite clear that elections and democratic processes are obstacles to his authoritarian designs. He has no intention of leaving the White House. He has no respect for law or the Constitution and he’s flirted with being president for life. Trump has apparently staked his re-election on de-legitimizing the voting process itself. His incessant denunciation of mail-in voting is the hinge on which his re-election swings. Can he sow enough doubt about voting by mail to provide shelter against losing the election? Will his protestations of voting fraud gain sufficient traction with the public and in the courts in the days following the presidential election? For sure, voting irregularities may occur in any election but the incidence of fraud across decades of elections in the U.S. is extremely low. Nevertheless, in November Trump and his allies will exploit any opportunity to challenge vote counts, especially when they favor Democrats. The numerous challenges to mail-in ballots already underway will, after November 3, give way to a virtual firestorm of them. And Democrats may be underestimating the level of chaos and the staggering challenges to constitutional authority that Trump and his Republican supporters will prosecute.

Democratic leaders nevertheless assure wary supporters that Congress has the ultimate authority over presidential elections. In reality, Congress does control the processes of the electoral college. But how will the electoral college convene when voting remains unsettled? In the end, the Constitution may not even be enough to compel a defeated Trump to step down. Yes, the elected president must assume office on January 20 and the previous president must accept the transfer of power. But what if the election results are hung up in the courts by multiple legal challenges and there is no definitive winner on January 20? Transfer of presidential power, after all, may turn out to be as much governed by tradition and norm as by the Constitution itself.

Ultimately, politicizing a pandemic and contributing to widespread suffering and death erodes confidence in government and wears down the moral fiber of a nation. Efforts to manage voting, even to deny citizens' right to vote, becomes easier when a nation is divided and the government appears morally bankrupt. The political course Trump has blazed doesn't just transgress norms that have preoccupied so many politicians and pundits. Trump's presidency and his 2020 campaign have shown just how easily breached our presumed representative democracy actually is. Perhaps this should not be surprising. The seeds of democracy's dissolution were there from the beginning, in a Constitution designed by propertied and commercially-minded white men, many of whom professed democratic principles but actually held human beings in bondage and denied women the right to vote. Two and a half centuries later, in the midst of a crippling pandemic, the United States has lurched so far to the political right that fascism is no longer unthinkable. The nation is drifting into a moral crisis born of callousness and the blind and vicious political ambition of a president. This reality makes the removal of Donald Trump from the presidency of the United States a historic and existential imperative for the nation.

John Ripton

John Ripton writes political essays and research articles. He holds a Master in International Affairs and PhD in History. His dissertation explores the historical impact of global capitalism on Salvadoran peasants and how it contributed to the revolutionary struggle against authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. John's articles and essays have been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and other publications in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia.

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