Faking a Mandate
The Republican Creation of a Majority That Does Not Exist
In 1903 the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party broke into two competing factions, as often happens with such movements. This was a bit confusing for everyone, so in an effort to delineate between the two factions people starting calling one the “hard” faction and the other the “soft” faction. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin didn’t find that very useful however, particularly since he was leading the faction being called hard. So in a ballsy propaganda move he told everyone to refer to his own faction as the “Bolsheviks,” from the Russian word for majority. In essence, Lenin was telling people to call his faction the “majoritarians.” And while he was at it he named the other faction “Mensheviks,” which of course means “minoritarians.”
As you may have already guessed Lenin’s faction was not really the majority. The “Mensheviks” were actually the majority as often as not, and pretty much everyone knew it. Lenin didn’t consider that a problem however. On the contrary, it was exactly the reason he came up with the names. And it worked, because people quickly began to use his new names. Astonishingly, even the “Mensheviks” used the new names!
And if you think it’s amazing that Lenin was able to get away with inventing names that were the opposite of reality and making them stick, you are only half right. The more amazing (and alarming) truth is that they stuck despite the fact that most people at the time knew that they were bullshit. This was a classic propaganda win, and if you find it both cynical and appalling you are not wrong. But as history teaches us, it still worked out pretty well for Lenin.
There are a thousand examples like Lenin’s “majoritarian” ruse, and if you understand their success then you not only understand a lot more about the power of propaganda, you also understand why politicians and political organizations will never stop using it. That’s because the real lesson of the power of propaganda is not only how effective it can be, although it is depressingly effective. No, the real lesson is how effective it can be even when a plurality of people know it’s not true.
Speaking of which, let’s move forward in time, closer to home and significantly more to the political right. Did you know that Richard Nixon helped create one of the most successful bits of American propaganda in the last century? Because he did, and it was extremely similar to Vladimir’s old trick.
If you are familiar with the expression “the silent majority” you can thank Tricky Dick. Now to be clear, Nixon didn’t invent the expression itself. It had already been around for a century or so. But it had nearly always been used to refer to the “honored dead”. Silent because they were dead. Majority because there were more dead people than living people. You get it.
Anyway, Nixon and his team gave this old expression an entirely new meaning by instead using it to refer to that upright group of living Americans who were not bitching about the Vietnam War. In particular, Nixon often used the “silent majority” expression while insisting that he could not bend to the loud cries of a radical minority instead of maintaining the course desired by the silent majority of Americans.
Do you see where this is going? Nixon’s creative use of the expression carried the implicit assertion that the majority of Americans were aligned with his agenda on Vietnam, even though the majority of Americans did not in fact agree with Nixon about Vietnam, and even though most people knew that they didn’t. And once again, despite the obviousness of Nixon’s propaganda, this effort worked surprisingly well.
In fact it even helped germinate a number of views that conservatives have held to this day. One of those, based on this new understanding of the phrase silent majority, is the deeply held conservative conviction that the majority of Americans are conservative even though many remain “silent” about it. Another is the equally strong conservative conviction that an extreme and vocal minority (this means liberals) is upending society by imposing their “radical” agenda on an unhappy and unwilling majority of conservative but “silent” Americans.
That’s a lot of baloney stuffed into two little words. But good propaganda always punches above its weight.
So why do these majority/minority claims matter? Well if you paid attention in your history classes you probably noticed that the specific idea of representing the majority is vital to those who govern, because the idea of representing the majority carries with it the presumption that you have a legitimate civic mandate for your political agenda.
It follows therefore that the larger the majority you represent, the greater your mandate. And while a “mandate” is technically nothing more than an official commission to do something, the term has come to have a meaning more aligned with those greater majorities. Which is to say, in common use a “mandate” is considered to be a type of unique political authority earned when a politician or party wins a landslide victory.
As you might imagine, the “unique political authority” accompanying a mandate is seductive enough that it has often tempted American politicians to claim a mandate based on nearly any victory. For example, despite that fact that he won by the fourth smallest spread of electoral votes in history, George W. Bush used his 3.5 million-vote advantage in 2004 to claim that he had earned a mandate.
And not surprisingly (especially when you consider the source), Donald Trump and his supporters are now calling his election a mandate, even though by any objective analysis not only did his victory not rise to the level of a landslide, it was so weak as to represent a literal fluke. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
Electoral Votes — Assuming Trump receives all of the electoral votes currently leaning his direction, which is not yet a given, he will end up with 306. Over 54 elections, going back to 1824, this is the 11th worst margin of electoral victory, placing Trump in the bottom 20th percentile. In other words, a significantly below average result.
And the winner-take-all nature of electoral voting inflates even that result, in that Trump won the three crucial states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, along with their 46 electoral votes, by only a little over 100,000 votes out of over 12 million cast. In fact Christopher Ingraham, writing for the Washington Post, recently showed that Trump’s electoral victory was so tenuous that Hillary Clinton could have won the election with a shift of only four counties to other states.
Popular Votes — The votes are still being counted, but Clinton’s popular vote lead is already over 2.5 million. This is because Trump won a number of critical states by only a few hundred thousand votes, while losing others like California and New York by millions. These vote tallies lead to three very troublesome facts: 1) A lot more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. 2) Hillary Clinton actually received more votes than any man who has ever run for president except Barack Obama. 3) Donald Trump won this election with one of the worst vote margins in American history. In fact only two presidents have ever won the presidency with worse vote margins: Rutherford Hayes in 1876 and John Quincy Adams in 1824.
One would think that such a historically weak victory would invoke some small sense of humility. But this is not how either Donald Trump or modern Republicans function. Also, and perhaps more to the point, they all want to make significant changes to American society, and for that they require a perceived mandate. For the GOP, this mandate is about legislative legitimacy. For right-wing groups and media, it’s about public vindication. For Donald Trump, it’s about ego.
Which means that for their own distinct reasons none of the parties involved benefit from admitting the truth, which is that while they won according to the rules we have, the new administration will be a rare American example of minority rule.
This inconvenient truth not only impugns any claim to a mandate, it also butts squarely up against one of the foundational myths of modern conservatism, which is that a majority of Americans are conservative. As such, there is simply no way that Trump, the right-wing media or the GOP are ever going to openly admit to the true result of the election.
And this fact is evident in the way Donald Trump and the GOP immediately claimed a mandate they clearly don’t enjoy. So far Donald Trump, his supporters and the GOP are using three standard propaganda tactics to claim their mandate. First, they are simply repeating that they have a mandate to anyone who will listen. Second, they are busily misprepresenting the voting results and what they mean. Third, they are even redefining the term “mandate” so that it more easily lends itself to their current use. Let’s take a look at these efforts:
I. Repeating the Lie
Those who operate within the spheres of manipulation and propaganda have long known a fundamental truth — a surprisingly large number of people will believe nearly anything if you just repeat it often enough. Or to use the quote often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.”
So not surprisingly, the polls were barely closed when Paul Ryan was already insisting in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin that Trump had, “…just earned a mandate.” Which is interesting because when Barack Obama was re-elected with far better margins than Donald Trump, Ryan had insisted that Obama had definitely not earned a mandate. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has also been spinning the election results beyond anything that resembles historical reality. For example she tweeted this after Michigan confirmed its electoral votes for Trump:
This absurd tweet was only a continuation of claims Conway had already been making. For example in a statement on “Fox News Sunday” Ms. Conway insisted that, “This election was not close. It was not a squeaker…there is a mandate there, and there is a mandate for his 100-day agenda, as well.”
This of course is very nearly the opposite of what actually happened. Not only was the election incredibly close, it was in fact the very definition of a “squeaker.” And of course nothing about the actual election results suggest Trump earned a unique political authority based on an overwhelming victory.
The biggest example of hyperbole however probably has to go to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who actually insisted that Trump had the biggest mandate to alter Washington since Teddy Roosevelt! Of course Rep. Issa also stated that under Trump the government was going to be “an open book”, so it would appear that Rep. Issa’s grasp of both American history and Donald Trump is a bit dodgy.
And we can’t forget the man himself, Donald Trump. Just a few days ago our president-elect, during a tweet in which he was (again) trolling CNN, claimed that Clinton lost in a “landslide,” which is of course one of the key requirements of a mandate. And one can only wonder at the level of shamelessness required to publicly insist that the woman who beat you by millions of votes actually lost to you in a “landslide”.
Even the National Review, despite being in the #neverTrump camp from the beginning, has insisted that Trump’s electoral win is sufficient to grant him a technical “democratic mandate.” And in a somewhat bizarre effort to support that extremely weak endorsement of Trump’s faux mandate, the magazine even went so far as to claim that the unprecedented chasm between the popular vote and Trump’s electoral vote was simply the result of “the different campaign strategies of the two candidates.”
These arguments vary from artful misdirection to bald mendacity, but their goals are all the same: to keep repeating “Trump has a mandate” until enough people believe it to make it so. Sadly, and if history is any guide, their efforts are likely to be successful.
II. Misrepresenting the Results.
We are all familiar with the famous phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain, that ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In fact anyone who has ever taken a college-level statistics class can attest to the truthfulness of this claim. Not because statistics itself is dishonest, mind you, but because it is often so complicated, opaque and misunderstood that it can easily be used to grace otherwise bogus arguments with a false veneer of scientific confirmation.
And some on the right who wish to deny the reality of Clinton’s overwhelming popular vote victory are already using bogus statistics to seemingly “prove” the opposite of what actually happened.
For example, take a look at the maps above. The map in the upper left is the tally of Clinton/Trump wins by county. And yes, there’s a lot of red in that map. But the reason for that comes significantly more into focus when you look at the map on the right. The blue counties on that map reflect the areas where half the population of the country live. That’s right — half of the entire population of our country lives in only that small number of blue counties.
And if you look back and forth, you begin to see a lot of overlap between the populous counties and the counties that Clinton won. That’s because Clinton won nearly all of the major cities and urban centers where most people live, while Trump won most of the suburban and rural areas with less people.
And now look at the third map in the bottom-center. This is a map Breitbart published one week after the election, and it accompanied a blatantly propagandistic article by a man named Michael Patrick Leahy. (Side note: this map has since been changed, although the article itself makes no mention of that change). This map, which is so bad that the Washington Post actually called it “hilariously idiotic”, is part of a campaign already being fought to insist that Trump, who lost the popular vote by historic margins, actually won the popular vote. Or at least the popular vote that “matters.”
First notice on this map where the blue is. Rather than showing the true spread of Democratic victories across the country, Breitbart presents slim bands of blue on the east and west coasts. This is obviously in service to another right-wing myth that has solidified over the last several decades, which is that the small minority of liberal/Democrat “elites” live on the coasts, while the vast majority of normal Conservative/Republican Americans live in the “Heartland.”
And if you can bring yourself to read the actual article, you’ll find all manner of statistical sleights of hand, such as Mr. Leahy’s claim that “Donald Trump won an overwhelming 7.5 million popular vote victory in 3,084 of the country’s 3,141 counties or county equivalents in America’s heartland.” Mr. Leahy is able to make his claim by essentially inventing his own definition of what “heartland” means.
As the Washington Post pointed out, “Leahy is using some definition of “heartland” that both incorporates most of the country but also excludes places Clinton won.” In other words it’s pretty easy to show Trump winning most of the votes when you begin by arbitrarily eliminating the most populous counties in which he actually lost.
Leahy then gets to the crux of his point when he states that, “Clinton’s 671,066 popular vote margin across the entire country…arose from this huge advantage wracked [sic] up in these ‘elite coastal counties’…It is worth noting that virtually all members of the mainstream media reside within this narrow band of elite coastal counties.”
In addition to misrepresenting Clinton’s vote advantage (it was already over 1 million even at the time of this article), Leahy’s clear intent is to use false statistics and maps to push the classic right-wing myth that both “liberal elites” and the “liberal media” are bunched up together in small enclaves on the coasts, where they exercise an outsized and inappropriate level of cultural and political influence on “real” Americans.
Meanwhile, moving from statistics back to simple “damned lies”, a much more direct attack on the actual numbers is forming, and it first received large-scale attention in Trump’s own claim that he would have won the popular vote too if it weren’t for all of the “illegal votes.”
The origin of this astonishing, absurd and dangerous allegation appears to be the conspiracy site Infowars, run by Alex Jones. On November 14th, Jones’ site posted a piece which claimed that “3 million votes in the U.S. Presidential election were cast by illegal aliens,” a piece that has since been shared on Facebook alone over 50,000 times.
Paul Joseph Watson, the author of the short piece, stated that his source for this was “Gregg Phillips of VoteFraud.org”, but VoteFraud has no report on this, and Phillips is not affiliated with that organization.
As it turns out, the actual source was nothing more than two tweets from Mr. Phillips. The first one stated only that he had “completed analysis of 180 million voter registrations” and the “Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million.” The second stated that “We have verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens.” That’s it. No other information was provided.
Politifact contacted Phillips to try to get some idea of where he got his information and how he came to this conclusion, but Mr. Phillips refused to cooperate. According to Politifact Mr. Phillips simply said that “he has chosen not to release more information because he is still working on analyzing the data and verifying its accuracy. Phillips would also not say what the data is or where it came from, or what methodology he used.”
Politifact then contacted Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. Based on a wealth of published information on this topic, Hasen stated that “The idea that 3 million noncitizens could have illegally voted in our elections without being detected is obscenely ludicrous.”
And at this point it may also be worth pointing out that Mr. Phillips is a former finance director of the Alabama Republican Party as well as former executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party.
Unfortunately while Mr. Phillips continues his secretive “verifications”, which will no doubt continue in secrecy forever, this bit of nonsense is quickly drilling itself deep into right-wing talking points about the election results. For example on Wednesday Kansas Secretary of State and potential Trump Homeland Security Secretary Kris Kobach stated, “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point.” In support of this Kobach went on to cite a 2 year-old study that attempted to assert that large numbers of illegal aliens were voting, a study that has been repeatedly debunked.
So essentially we have two tweets from a southern Republican official containing highly dubious assertions, which he stated had been verified but then stated had not been verified, which were then presented as fact by a conspiracy website, which was then repeated (God help us) by our fact-resistant president-elect, which were then repeated again by our possible new Secretary of Homeland Security and which are now working their way out of the lunatic fringe and into the general Republican electorate.
And if you doubt the effectiveness of propaganda even this incompetently executed, take a look at this CNN video.
Taped at the beginning of December, only a few days after Trump’s tweet, this portion of the interview shows host Alisyn Camerota interviewing a number of Trump supporters about these so-called “illegal votes.”
One of the most fascinating revelations of this interview was that despite their obvious enthusiasm to present the claim of millions of illegal votes as an incontestable fact, none of the Trump supporters seemed to have the slightest idea where the information actually came from. When asked by Ms. Camerota for the source of that information, one of the Trump supporters just kept repeating, “the media”. At one point that same supporter even insisted that CNN itself had said as much. (CNN had not.) Even more disheartening, the fact that these people had no idea where this information actually came from did not seem to trouble any of them in the slightest.
A number of the supporters then went on to insist that many non-citizens had voted because President Obama told them they could, another right-wing falsehood based on some creative video editing by FOX Business News. Astonishingly, they even went on to insist that the state of California intentionally allowed non-citizens to vote in the election, an assertion so ludicrous that it actually drove Ms. Camerota to do an on-air face palm.
Of course while that last claim may be particularly nutty, it serves multiple propaganda purposes. 1) It promotes the growing falsehood that Clinton did not actually win the popular vote. 2) It promotes the ongoing right-wing assertion that there is massive voter fraud, and that this fraud mainly occurs in “liberal” states like California. 3) It promotes the ongoing right-wing assertion that liberal politicians mostly win by cheating.
In other words, it’s a veritable hat trick of absurd right-wing conspiracy theories cloaked in the relentless packaging of “voter fraud.” This is all incredibly frustrating to watch, but as Trump, the GOP and right-wing media continue to insist on their fake mandate, we will need to get used to these lies, damned lies and statistics. Because as Clinton’s popular vote margin grows they’re all going to be under increasing pressure to somehow replace the reality of minority rule with an alternative reality of their own creation.
Sadly, if Republicans have shown us anything over the last 30 years, it’s that they are entirely OK with creating alternative realities. And if their supporters have shown us anything, it is that they are entirely OK with living in them.
III. Misrepresenting the Meaning of “Mandate”
It’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of simply changing the definition of a word, especially one that creates problems for you. Conservatives for example have spent several decades doing everything in their power to change the meaning of the word “racism.” And they have been remarkably successful. Now instead of an unjust societal system of racial discrimination that seeks to maintain white superiority, racism is mostly viewed as the personal failing of individuals who “hate” people of color. And to be clear, turning institutionalized societal racism into mere individual bigotry has been an amazingly useful bit of misdirection for conservatives, because it has forced those fighting societal racism to show “hate” or “animus” as opposed to simply showing obvious cause & effect.
In the same manner, and beginning immediately, you can expect to see Republicans, Trump supporters, right-wing media and other various conservative organizations doing whatever is necessary to redefine the term “mandate.” Some are already doing that. Not surprisingly, the paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was one of the first to attempt this redefinition. In a recent opinion piece for the Observer, Senior Political correspondent Ashe Snow made the rather bizarre suggestion that even though Trump lost the popular vote he still had a mandate because both Houses of Congress were Republican. In fact in the piece she stated that, “Had Clinton won, she likely would have had no mandate, as Republicans were projected to almost definitely keep the House and more likely than not keep the senate.”
Setting aside the fact that the GOP actually lost seats in both the House and the Senate, a president-elect’s “mandate” has always been a factor of their own electoral victory margin, and not whether their own political party happened to have majorities in Congress.
Rudy Giuliani then took one of the more interesting positions on ABC’s “This Week”, insisting that “You have the same mandate whether it’s a close result or it isn’t. You’re the president of the United States.” In other words, Giuliani’s position is that the amount of support Trump received is irrelevant; he won so by definition he has his mandate.
And of course many Trump supporters are simply insisting that since Trump won despite supposed opposition from the Republican Party, the “media” and the establishment, that this alone qualifies as a mandate. And as with the ongoing claims and the misrepresentation of the actual election results, this is only the beginning. As we move closer to the inauguration Trump’s supporters, and particularly Congressional Republicans, will increasingly come up with new and creative definitions of “mandate” in order to make sure that they can apply it to Donald Trump.
At this point the question could be raised, “What’s the difference? Mandate or not, Trump won didn’t he?” And the answer is that yes a win is a win, and no a mandate does not affect the actual election results. But mandates are never about who won the election, mandates are about what presidents can DO after they win. Mandates are perceived as conferring upon those politicians who achieved an overwhelming victory a special kind of legitimacy and political clout. Or again, a “unique political authority.”
Also, presidents who want to enact major legislation have a much better chance if they can come into office claiming a mandate. As Julia Azari, associate professor of political science at Marquette University has pointed out, “Research suggests that mandate claims, despite their tenuous connection to reality, can be effective in affecting legislative behavior.”
Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans want to enact sweeping legislative changes that could affect our country for decades, and they realize that they have a better chance of making that happen if they can convince the American Public (as well as each other) that they received a mandate from American voters to do exactly that. And to be clear, there is no question that they also believe they require a perceived mandate. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be putting so much work into insisting that they have one even when they so obviously do not.
Also important is the fact that this effort is not aided by Trump’s actual election performance, which seriously undermines not only his supposed mandate, but also his populist claims to represent the fabled “silent majority.” Because let’s face it, you can’t say you represent any type of majority, silent or otherwise, if you get a minority of votes.
And the dubiousness of his claims to represent the majority are only compounded by the level at which he remains disliked. Not only does Trump lack a real mandate, he lacks most of the simple good will that usually accompanies a new president into office. Even after winning, Trump’s favorables only moved from a stunningly low 37% to about 42%. Rising polls for a president-elect are typical. Numbers like this are not. To give some perspective, Obama’s post-election favorables came in at 68%, George W Bush’s came in at 59% and Bill Clinton’s came in at a 58%. This means that Trump could actually begin the honeymoon phase of his presidency under water, which is unprecedented. In fact Trump could end up being the first president in modern history to begin his presidency with a less than 50% favorability rating.
This matters quite a bit, because it’s difficult for presidents to be successful without a certain level of public support, and before he’s even begun Trump appears to lack that. Even worse, it’s typical for presidential favorability ratings to fall during their term. And that definitely represents a real problem for Trump, because there’s not a lot of room left to fall when you’re already in the basement.
In a recent interview on the Diane Rehm Show, Donald Trump supporter and CNN political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes declared that, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” She then went on to opine that, “One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.”
This appalling bit of word salad represents the world in which all too many of our fellow Americans now live. It is one in which there are no objective facts, there are only partisan interpretations whose validity depends on nothing more than the opinion of each individual. In other words, in spite of the aphorism usually credited to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” a depressingly large portion of the American electorate has decided that everyone is in fact entitled to their own facts.
Unfortunately there is a steep price to be paid for this disregard for objective truth, this unrelenting willingness to replace reasoned analysis and critical thinking with confirmation bias and conspiracy theories. The absurd and dangerous insistence that facts are only trustworthy when accompanied by the proper partisan pedigree slowly but ineluctably degrades our democratic society and institutions. And as history also teaches us, there are always people patiently waiting to take advantage of that.
If tribalism, ignorance, anger and fear are the four horseman of the factpocalypse, then propaganda is the bugle which calls them to battle. And those who wish to bend reality to their favor always employ these things to reverse known facts into something more useful.
This is how a large portion of the American public came to believe that tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories and white nationalist web sites are more reliable than the nation’s most important newspapers and broadcast journalists. It’s how so many came to believe that a fundamentally dishonest and fraudulent American oligarch was suddenly a champion of the working man. It’s how many have already come to reject the fact of minority rule in favor of the more useful faux reality of a majority mandate.
It’s how we got the electoral catastrophe of Donald J. Trump, and it’s how he’s going to accomplish so much of his deeply troubling agenda.