After a long, grueling campaign season, and a nail-biting election, the news networks called the race for former Vice President Joe Biden Nov. 7. Biden has since given his victory speech, in which he urged those who didn’t vote for him to give him a chance. He has also begun assembling a coronavirus task force, along with other cabinet picks.
In normal times, this would be utterly routine, not even worth mentioning. However, these are not normal times. The current president has refused to concede the election and has ordered his administration not to cooperate with the incoming administration — a frightening first in American history.
Trump has also launched a raft of lawsuits aiming at trying to throw out enough votes to swing the election back in his favor. So far, those suits have been thrown out of every court; there is simply no evidence of the kind of widespread voter fraud Trump is alleging.
Perhaps rightfully, most honest media have been dismissing these suits as stunts, the last attempt to hold on to power by a desperate man. The whole situation can be summed up by the incident in Clark County, Nevada, where a deranged man wearing a “BBQ/Beer/Freedom” tank top interrupts Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria’s press conference to scream about the Biden “crime family” stealing the election and the media covering it up. After the screamer finishes his tirade, Gloria turns, non-plussed, back to the press conference. “Where were we?” he asks, refusing to engage with such wild-eyed conspiracy theories.
But the attitude of smug dismissal may blind us to the wider effects Trump’s strategy is having on our country. Sure, many of us are comforted by the fact that the Secret Service will remove Trump on Jan. 20, whether he agrees with the election or not. But the White House isn’t the only place where Trump has entrenched himself.
Trump’s lawsuits are just one part of a multi-pronged effort to de-legitimize the election and remain in power. Days after the election, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo authorizing Department of Justice officials to investigate allegations of voter irregularities. This dangerous departure from DOJ policy not to get involved in elections pushed Richard Pilger, head of the Justice Department’s election crimes branch, to resign immediately afterwards.
Though Barr’s memo warns that “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries” and that “nothing here should be taken as any indication that the Department has concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election,” it still provides legitimacy to Trump’s claims of election fraud.
As expected, the right-wing propaganda networks are echoing the president’s baseless claims (to be fair, some on Fox have reported the election accurately). Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others, have been making the media rounds signal-boosting the president’s accusations.
These actions have been greeted with much the same aplomb as that shown by Joe Gloria: we can let the crazies rant, the sentiment seems to be, because in the end, the truth and rule of law will prevail.
What the confident chattering classes seem to forget is that Trump’s strategy isn’t aimed at the courts. Not really. It’s aimed at the 70 million who support him, who hear his accusations that our democracy has been destroyed and the election stolen from the rightful winner.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. His rhetoric, amplified by right-wing pundits, is really aimed at the small percentage of his supporters like Kyle Rittenhouse, or Cesar Sayoc, or the Wolverine Watchmen in Michigan. We’ve already seen that there is a troubling number of his supporters who are willing to commit acts of violence against those labeled “the enemy” — the last four years has seen right-wing extremist violence triple, accounting for more attacks than left-wing and Muslim extremists combined. The threat is such that the FBI warned that right-wing extremists (including QAnon) represent the greatest domestic violence threat in the country — and that was before the president started accusing the Democrats of stealing the election.
This summer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report stating, “terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election” (italics mine). Before the election, Trump supporters in trucks tried to force a Democratic candidate’s bus off the road in Texas; the FBI is still investigating the incident. After the election, law enforcement arrested two armed QAnon followers who had driven from Virginia to the Philadelphia Convention Center, where ballots were being counted. They have been charged with weapons violations and may be charged with election law violations. In these incidents, thankfully, no one was hurt.
But on Nov. 15, long after the votes had been counted and Joe Biden declared the winner, a coalition of far-right extremists — including neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, and Alex Jones — marched on Washington, D.C. in a rally billed as “The Million MAGA March,” “March for Trump,” and “Stop the Steal.” The event, which drew considerably less than a million people, was aimed at protesting the election results. At first the protests were peaceful, with police keeping them separated from counter-protesters. But once darkness fell, the two camps began to get violent. There were street brawls between Antifa and the Proud Boys, and one man was stabbed (though not fatally). Two police officers were injured, and more than 20 people were arrested for assault and weapons violations.
I predict, as the president and his followers continue pounding home the narrative that Democrats have stolen the election, there will be more of these kinds of skirmishes, as well as the kinds of hate crimes that have flourished under this president’s watch. Hopefully, law enforcement will be able to intercept them before anyone gets hurt. But when a “lone wolf” stochastic terrorist decides to attack Democratic (or Jewish, or LGBTQ, or female, or immigrant, or Black) targets, there may be no way to prevent it.
Regardless, we must prevent violence, and if we can’t, we have to prosecute the perpetrators. If one party is having to live with the fear of being physically attacked for their political beliefs, when violence breaks out over election results, we can’t have a real democracy. Just ask Black voters who lived through the Klan days.
The solution to this situation, however, isn’t just to prevent and punish terrorist attacks — though that is certainly critical. We are going to have to deal with the fact that a large percentage of our fellow Americans are in the grip of a delusional cult, who have been programmed to hate anyone who isn’t in it with them. We are going to have to find a way to de-radicalize these folks, without coercion or force. One step might be to put a kink in the firehose of disinformation by reinstating the Fairness Doctrine and levying fines for passing on disinformation — just as the FCC fines broadcasters for saying curse words on air. Needless to say, the social media giants will have to be broken up and regulated similarly to broadcasters.
Beyond those who are targeted by right-wing extremists, all of society suffers when violence and lawlessness is allowed to go unchecked. It is deeply destabilizing, and the damage done can’t easily be repaired.
We have our work cut out for us.
Postscript: In the weeks after I wrote this story, sadly, it has gotten worse. Election officials in several states have reported threats of violence — particularly those who have been attacked by Trump. Most notably, Georgia Secretary of State Gabriel Sterling spoke out about the threats he and others in his state have been facing. It is reported that the FBI is investigating these threats; hopefully threats are as far as this will go.