Sept. 29, 2020, will likely go down in history as one of the darkest days in American democracy — but arguably not in the way the average voter saw things. All eyes, after all, were focused on a debate stage in Cleveland where the 45th and possibly last president of the United States was interrupting and yelling like a lunatic at rival Joe Biden or moderator Chris Wallace — as if he were instead alone in his White House bedroom, and had accidentally turned his TV to MSNBC instead of the comforts of “Fox & Friends.”
On the bloody morning after, the mainstream media headline writers seemed to have one word for what went down during a stroke-inducing night at the Cleveland Clinic: “Chaos.” Yet what was scary about the first (and, who knows, maybe the last?) presidential debate wasn’t that Donald Trump was out of control, but that there was actual method to this madness. For one thing, the president’s imitation of a drunk nightclub heckler was meant to make you lose faith — in the Nov. 3 election, and in America itself. With just a month to go, it’s getting impossible for Trump to win a legitimate vote, so he wants to delegitimize it.
And the really frightening stuff was already happening offstage, especially here in Pennsylvania, the state that increasingly looks like Trump’s only viable path to a second term. On an Indian summer night in Ohio, the president laid out a shockingly clear vision for how he plans to steal the fall election. But it was in places like a makeshift trailer in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia — the city where Trump insists “bad things happen” — to the virtual corridors of Harrisburg where his first wave of shock troops are executing the plan.
What else is one to make of Trump’s army of 50,000 “election observations” like the unauthorized, lacking-proper-papers woman who was made to leave that makeshift voting site in Overbrook, where some voters were allegedly filmed — a ploy that historically has been used by Republicans to make voters in mostly Democratic neighborhoods uncomfortable, so some will just go home? Or this week’s maneuvers by Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature to establish a special election committee with subpoena power that disrupt voting on or before Nov. 3 and which could become a vehicle to yell ‘fraud,’ ignore the vote count, and install pro-Trump electors.
“Democracies die slowly and I think this bill would be a fatal blow to our democracy,” an angry and emotional Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia told a hearing on that resolution Wednesday — held just hours after the debate where Trump showed America that, despite his lack of interest in learning how to govern, he does have a firm grasp on how to rig an election in the mode of his dictator friends like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Losing to Biden by as many as 10 points in national polls, and with real-world problems like the coronavirus getting worse instead of better, Trump was surprisingly open and, dare I say it, honest about his strategy. It starts with suppressing the vote count — both by alienating the electorate, as he did at Tuesday’s debate, and also by active measures from slowing down the U.S. mail, to state lawsuits to make both voting and the counting more difficult, to disruptions on Election Day both from his “trained” poll watchers and from ad hoc militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.
The goal is to make the early vote count close enough that Trump and his minions will then declare fraud and seize on either trivial issues — like just 9 disputed ballots in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania — or cite legitimate protests over the president’s refusal to concede as a pretense for instead declaring victory, possibly with the aid of GOP legislators in Pennsylvania and other disputed states.
Alexander Lukashenko, in Belarus, couldn’t have planned it any better.
What was so remarkable about Trump’s debate tactics was that no only did he reveal his strategy, but he gave away his tactics. For example:
Paramilitary “brownshirts”: Many were right in the aftermath of the debate to identify the critical moment as when Trump failed to condemn white supremacists — despite insistent prodding from both Biden and Wallace — but even more alarming was his apparent bat-signal for a violent mob, the Proud Boys, to intervene. The president’s bizarre and incendiary language — “Stand back and stand by!” — almost seemed planned, and it was quickly embraced by the Proud Boys themselves and other white supremacists.
Could bands of Trump supporters disrupt polling places? They already have, on the second day of early voting in Virginia, where a gaggle of chanting, flag-waving Trump supporters caused a disruption that election officials said intimidated some voters. It’s a tactic that seems strange to Americans but is all too familiar to beleaguered citizens of other authoritarian nations where loose bands of typically armed paramilitaries or militias — role models for our Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — are a staple of undemocratic politics.
“Ballot security” intimidation: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” Trump said Wednesday night. It was hardly an idle boast. The president’s campaign has worked with the Republican Party to spend $20 million on reportedly training some 50,000 volunteer election observers in 15 states. Pennsylvanians got an early glimpse of this campaign with the unnamed volunteer who was asked to leave the Overbrook site Tuesday, and then at Philadelphia City Hall, where Politico reports that an “irate” James Fitzpatrick, Trump’s Pennsylvania Election Day director of operations, was escorted out by sheriff’s deputies after filming voters and being asked to leave.
Before a 2018 court ruling, the Republican National Committee was, under a legal settlement, barred from these kind of activities. That was because of a notorious 1981 election in New Jersey in which Republicans created a “National Ballot Security Task Force” that dispatched a couple of hundred people, some of them armed, to mostly Black and Latinx polling places where some voters were harassed in a close election won by the GOP. Some 39 years later, Team Trump is hoping that grim history can repeat.
Judicial intervention: Tuesday wiped away any doubt about the primary reason why Trump and the GOP-led Senate run by Mitch McConnell have been racing to install Amy Coney Barrett on the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of the Nov. 3 election. When asked by debate moderator Wallace about Barrett and the other eight justices settling a dispute election, Trump responded: “Yeah, I think we’re getting them to look at the ballots, differently.”
The president is counting on Republican-dominated state legislatures, like the one in Harrisburg, or GOP secretaries of state, or his army that includes not just the 50,000 volunteers but a battalion of lawyers to gin up cases before the federal judiciary. It’s been packed with more than 200 new mostly white, mostly male Republican judges rammed through by McConnell, and it funnels into a Supreme Court that will soon have six conservatives, including three Trump appointees. This process, which puts the banana in banana republic, is at the core of the Trump scheme.
“I’ll tell you what it means,” Trump said near the end of Tuesday’s exhausting exercise. “It means you have a fraudulent election.” The president, as usual, was projecting. Although there will always be glitches, there’s nothing that was fundamentally flawed about the 2020 election — including mail-in voting, which five states run by both Democrats and Republicans have done successfully years — until America’s wannabe strongman started putting his short fingers on the scale. The actual “fraudulent” part is what Trump and his goons plan to do to intimidate U.S. citizens at the polls and to stop thousands of legitimate mail ballots from getting counted.
There’s a silver lining, however, in this dark cloud that hovers over American democracy. When Trump revealed his scheme under the hot TV lights, the message wasn’t just received by Proud Boys and by Putin’s social media meddlers in St. Petersburg, but also by the American people who solidly support removing him from the White House.
That gives us a month to react — to develop plans for voting that will be free from intimidation by goon squads and that make sure our ballots are counted, and to hopefully thwart legislative schemes like the one in Harrisburg, or ridiculous GOP lawsuits. As I’ve said repeatedly this election season, Trump needs to be taken both literally and seriously, but with the confidence that we hold the power to stop his fraudulent election.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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