What would the U.S. media say if the president of another country was threatening to hobble his nation’s postal service in hopes of suppressing ballots ahead of an election?
Every once in a while, an American journalist gets this notion: to imagine how the national press would cover a particular domestic story, whether it be white nationalist violence or protests against racist policing, as if it were happening in another country. It’s a venerable and sometimes illuminating frame—a way for Americans, given to believing in their own exceptionalism, to see themselves and their country’s troubles from a different vantage.
But in the postal case, and increasingly in the age of Trump, the “if it happened there” test proves of little use. It is 2020, after all, and there is no global shortage of demagogues and authoritarians making a joke of democratic processes. They stuff ballot boxes, jail opposition leaders, harass journalists, and threaten voters. They exploit all the tools at their disposal to rig an election in their favor. They increasingly welcome elections, in fact, with recent scholarship showing “that elections can actually prolong dictatorships in the longer term,” as three European political scientists put it.
What they don’t do is adopt the bizarre tactic President Trump has. Neither I nor any of the political scientists and journalistic colleagues I consulted could come up with an example of a national leader trying to preemptively invalidate the upcoming election that he’s forecast to possibly lose. Generally, it’s opposition parties—some of whom may, of course, be aspiring autocrats—that attack the legitimacy of an upcoming referendum, not the guy in power. Yet that is precisely what Trump is doing with his ceaseless warbling about nonexistent voter fraud and the need, amid an unprecedented killer viral pandemic, to kill mail-in voting.
“If we don’t make a deal [to fund the U.S. Postal Service], that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it,” he told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo last week. This is as anti-democratic as it is fantastical, akin to Arrested Development patriarch and white-collar felon George Bluth erroneously insisting that he and his wife can’t be arrested for the same crime. Even Fox News had trouble spinning Trump’s statement as anything other than an explicit desire to wreck American institutions: “Trump seeks to starve post office to limit mail-in voting,” one headline read. Before giving up the goods live and on air, he’d warned extensively all summer that November’s election—held in the country where his party controlled the federal government, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and nearly 60 percent of statehouses—would “be the greatest rigged election in history, it’ll be the greatest fraud ever perpetrated, other perhaps than what they did to my campaign [in 2016].”
It is neither incorrect nor unduly crude to say here that Trump is both stupid and full of shit. There is no method or strategy here other than Trump’s radical centering of his world around himself. He pulled the preemptive “rigged election” card in 2016, too, when defeating his presidential campaign looked as easy as a chip-shot field goal. He hasn’t changed at all since then. He’s simply gone from being a terrible candidate to a terrible president, and in the process he’s decided to turn his longshot reelection into a referendum between him and America’s Constitution-based electoral system, again. The “if it happened here” test has become banal; it is always happening here now.
A better question might be: Is Trump the dumbest autocrat in the world?
Perhaps, but like his dullard son-in-law who’s trying to split the vote by putting a troubled rapper on the ballot, the president is playing a song in recognizable Republican chords.
“Democracy requires that parties know how to lose,” the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of 2019’s How Democracies Die, wrote last September in The New York Times. In the United States, this fairly describes the Democrats, the Libertarians, the Greens, and even the rightist Constitution Party. But among nations that are still largely described as liberal democracies, no political party is as hellbent on winning cynically and in perpetuity, liberal democracy be damned, as the Republican Party. There are no shortage of examples of this, from gerrymandering to financial graft to census rigging to voter suppression. “The greatest threat to our democracy today,” Zevitsky and Ziblatt wrote last September, “is a Republican Party that plays dirty to win.”
But even with the power and lawbreaking gusto of the Trump family behind it, the GOP finds it exceedingly difficult to game this system entirely, in part because their recent rule has been so dishonest, so onerous, and so frankly homicidal that it’s historically unpopular—and this is maximally visible with the voting public. “To deter an autocratic ruling party from committing electoral fraud, the opposition must be endowed with a high enough number of ‘radical voters’” who “should possess an unwavering commitment to defeat the autocrat above the disagreements they might have on other issues,” Stanford political scientist Beatriz Magaloni wrote in a 2007 paper. Give Donald Trump credit: Few things might have alerted and concerned the American electorate the way he has by topping off three-and-a-half years of rump autocracy with a vocal desire to strangle the U.S. Postal Service in order to prevent the counting of mail-in ballots.
As Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote, “Politicians who fail to win elections must be willing to accept defeat, go home, and get ready to play again the next day. This norm of gracious losing is essential to a healthy democracy.” Trump may be a simpering moron, but like the Republican Party, he has a genius for sore losing. The difference is that Republicans have rarely run around calling an election rigged before it took place while they tried to rig it. There was the orchestrated 2000 Brooks Brothers riot to influence Florida’s presidential vote tally, a ruthless but fruitful strategy whose vague memory animates both parties’ now familiar preparations to litigate election results. But that plot, again, was built around the traditional work of trying to rig a favorable election result, not trying to invalidate the act of voting in advance of an election.
Trump—the perpetual loser who needs to feel like a winner—wants elections only to the extent that they beatify him. Last month, when he mused about postponing Election Day, something he can’t actually do, one Democratic strategist responded that Trump was trying “to jerry-rig the system to somehow spit him out as the winner.” But Trump increasingly speaks as if he sees losing as likely. Speaking to Sean Hannity in late June, the president conceded that Joe Biden was kicking his ass simply by hanging around. “He’s gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe,” Trump said, almost wistfully. He’s not unrealistic, just narcissistic. The existing U.S. electoral system looks bleak for him, so he’s forcing Americans into a choice between him or the system. If he can’t win a fair election, he’ll just make a fair outcome impossible and stride into the camera frame, insisting that he alone can fix it.
Trump is not merely attacking faith in American democracy; he’s attacking the very idea that democracy is an achievable and desirable mode of governance. The world’s dictatorial dirtbags, from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong Un to Rodrigo Duterte, were savvy to this from the start of Trump’s candidacy. Like all the slightly smarter, slightly skeevier businessmen and politicos who have cleaved to Trump’s underbelly like remoras on a great white, the global autocratic class recognizes that this ill-informed, insecure simpleton is their greatest hope, the hot gale that blows open political doors for the jackboots to march through. Despite the stiff competition this year, Trump remains the world’s most incompetent authoritarian—as well as its most dangerous.