The nightmare scenario for liberals across America—what if a defeated Donald Trump refuses to leave office?—reared its head last week when the president floated the idea of delaying the election. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he tweeted and then wondered: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller later defended the suggestion, saying it was “shocking’’ that “nobody who mails in a ballot has their identity confirmed” and that “nobody checks” if the voter is a citizen, which is not true. But many other Republicans disagreed with the president, if timidly; Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN it was not “a particularly good idea.”
If this specific suggestion went too far even for the Republicans, they should not have been surprised at what their party’s actions had unleashed. There is a very fine line that separates the broader Republican Party position that American elections are seething with Democratic voter fraud and the Trumpian conclusion that we should therefore postpone them indefinitely. (Leave it to Trump to fail at Subtext 101.) But to pretend that walking right up to that line is acceptable, stopping just short of authoritarianism, legitimizes the longstanding Republican project of undermining elections, which began long before Trump.
The Republican Party has spent decades sowing doubt about the legitimacy of elections through high-level campaigns of propaganda about incredibly rare instances of voter fraud, successful purges and measures to restrict the vote under the guise of protecting the ballot, and racist fantasies about buses of immigrants showing up to vote for Democrats. They don’t even seem to care whether undermining mail-in ballots will actually hurt them; they don’t seem to care if the coronavirus kills their own constituencies, after all. The ones who do mewl, often anonymously, about how Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting should realize that this is simply a taste of their own medicine, a poison that they have spent years dripping into our democracy. The Republican machine now has no other mode than to say that elections are fake. (Except, of course, the ones they win—although sometimes those, too.) It will continue to churn on, even if it eats itself.
This did not start with Trump’s candidacy in 2015 or even with the Tea Party in 2010. Republican schemes to purge black voters from the rolls have been defended as “ballot security” for decades, as Vann Newkirk reported in The Atlantic. In 1981, the Democratic National Committee sued the Republican National Committee for allegedly sending out off-duty cops as a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” a ploy to intimidate voters—all in the name of “protecting” the ballot from voter fraud. In 1987, Democrats protested again after Republicans used letters sent to voters being returned as undeliverable as a pretext to challenge those voters’ eligibility to vote. A Republican spokesperson claimed the “purpose of the program was to help election officials make certain that no dead or fictitious persons vote,” but an RNC official said the quiet part loud in stating that these tactics would “keep the black vote down considerably.”
But the national party’s rhetoric against voter fraud reached a new level—and this is undoubtedly a total coincidence—in 2008, after the Democrats had chosen the first Black nominee for president. Most prominently, the Republicans accused ACORN, an organization that helped register voters in low-income communities, of trying to register fake voters and thus steal the election for their old pal Barack Obama, who had represented ACORN in a lawsuit and worked with ACORN-affiliated groups during his time as a community organizer. (As Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney covered in detail for Huffington Post, ACORN did not, in fact, intend to steal the election.) This campaign culminated in a hugely bipartisan congressional vote to defund the organization in 2009 when Democrats had solid majorities in both chambers. The organization folded in 2010.
It’s worth remembering that in 2008, it wasn’t a fringe candidate like Duncan Hunter or Ron Paul who thundered from a national debate stage about the threat of ACORN. It was the saint of bipartisanship: John McCain. In his final presidential debate with Obama, McCain warned the nation that ACORN was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” This was a complete fiction—not just exaggeration or rhetorical license but a cynical, racist lie designed to spread fear that an organization that worked to register Black voters was intending to cheat to get the first Black president elected. The dog whistle became an airhorn. It would not be out of place on Fox News in 2020.
There is a straight line from ACORN-gate to today’s fearmongering over mail-in ballots. It’s the logical result of a party spending more than a decade calling the legitimacy of American elections into question. Republicans learned long ago how to move the Overton Window through increasing coordinated insanity; it barely matters how irrational their claim is because the simple fact that Republicans are saying it sets the boundaries of normal debate in their favor. As Matthew Phelan and Jesse Hicks noted in this magazine, the Project Veritas-aligned Republican operative Aaron Harris said of his operation to purge voters after a defeat in the courts last year, “We are changing the entire discussion on voter fraud in Texas.”
Such is the unrepentant militancy of the right’s voter fraud witch hunt. It doesn’t really matter if the individual examples crumble or fail to satisfy, as they invariably do. The project has done its job: creating an environment of mistrust, a reason to dismiss Democratic victories, and of course suppressing the vote. Every voter discouraged by I.D. restrictions or purged from the rolls or who can’t spend hours waiting to access the ballot box is a victory for the Republicans. This is a large part of how the party retains such power in a country where a majority of the public disagrees with almost all of their goals and actively wants things that the GOP decries as Marxism. Trump’s unhinged rants about mail-in voting are a temporary threat to that project but not an existential one. The machine will churn on once Trump is gone; it just might revert to saying the quiet part a bit more quietly.