In the chaos following Fox News’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adult doll Jared Kushner got to work. He picked up the phone to try to find a “James Baker–like figure,” per The New York Times, to lead the president’s legal strategy in states that he was losing by tightening margins.
That Kushner’s mind jumped to Baker was not surprising. The former secretary of state led George W. Bush’s ruthless legal strategy during the Florida recount, and in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, the nation was gripped by Bush v. Gore nightmares. With voting changes brought about by the pandemic and tight elections in several states, it was easy to imagine a kind of nationalized version of Florida in the 2000 election: Bush v. Gore 2, this time in a half-dozen states or more.
The president and his team, moreover, spent the weeks before the election flexing, particularly after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The GOP would aggressively challenge any alleged funny business that occurred—like Joe Biden getting more votes—with a raft of lawyers. This, after all, is what Republicans do, and Barrett and fellow Justices Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts all worked on Bush v. Gore.
But Kushner’s desperate search for a legal consigliere was also telling—and pathetic. Despite its posturing, the Trump campaign’s vaunted legal strategy appears to have been a paper tiger. A day after the election, the president was engaged in an absurd game of whack-a-mole, claiming that the vote must continue to be counted in states where he was losing and must stop immediately in places where he was winning. By midday, Kushner had, apparently, found his Baker: Borat 2 star Rudy Giuliani, who is, notably, not an election lawyer. Despite its chest-pounding threats, the Trump campaign’s attempt at recreating Bush v. Gore has, thus far, been a dud. First, the 2000 election played out as tragedy. Now it’s playing out as farce.
Nowhere has this been clearer than in the protests that have popped up in vote-counting locations in Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, among others. In 2000, the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” a seemingly spontaneous protest actually made up of GOP operatives (including Roger Stone), lawyers, and staffers, broke out at a pivotal moment in Florida’s recount. With Miami-Dade county about to embark on a recount that would have likely favored Democrat Al Gore, the rioters alleged that the election was being stolen. The stunt worked. Officials counted fewer votes than they originally intended to, and Florida—and the election—went to George W. Bush.
The Trump campaign and numerous GOP-aligned groups have tried a similar strategy in 2020, urging supporters to go to vote-counting locations and make their voices heard. The plan beyond showing up—and in some cases showing up heavily armed—is not at all clear, however. The president and his allies are insisting that the election is, once again, being stolen, but its messaging is characteristically all over the place. In Arizona, supporters gathered to chant “Fox News sucks”—the network has become public enemy number one on the right for calling the state for Biden earlier than others—and demand that the count continue, in the hopes that enough votes materialize to keep the state red.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, there have been wild allegations of voter fraud with no basis in fact—normal election results, like 80 percent of Philadelphia voters supporting Biden, are being presented as completely fraudulent. In fact, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature is partially responsible for the order in which votes have been counted: The state’s millions of mail-in votes were not allowed to be counted before Election Day, resulting in a process that has dragged on for days. In both cases, the president and his supporters demanded that vote counting stop right away.
The protests themselves have been characteristically Trumpian: both menacing and incoherent. Guns are everywhere. In Michigan, protesters tried to gain access to a room where ballots were being counted, banging on the windows and demanding to enter—like a dog chasing a car, it’s not clear what they actually intended to accomplish. In Arizona, an armed man threatened a reporter and a photographer covering the protest, saying he would find out where they live. Right-wing websites have circulated images of a man bringing in mysterious crates to Michigan’s mail-in vote-counting center: It turned out to be a cameraman carrying equipment.
No one epitomized the nature of these protests quite as well as a Nevada man who, wearing a tank top reading “BBQ BEER FREEDOM,” interrupted a press conference to scream, “The Biden crime family is stealing this election, the media’s covering it up! We want our freedom for the world! Give us our freedom, Joe Biden!” It was crazy—Hunter Biden is not leading recount efforts in Nevada, or anywhere else—but also encapsulated the right-wing ecosystem’s incoherent smorgasbord of conspiracy theories.
It was, all in all, not that different from what the president has been tweeting.
Dangerous forces are being unleashed. If Biden wins, which it seems likely he will, millions of Trump’s voters will insist that the election was stolen, that Democrats shifted ballots in the dead of night to push Biden into the White House. (Why a party of evil geniuses couldn’t rig up enough ballots to gain a Senate majority and not lose seats in the House does not factor into this analysis.) Trump is already being martyred by some in conservative media and will serve as a call to arms to block Biden administration initiatives and win elections over the next four years. For grifters on the right, this is a golden opportunity to raise money and profiles, all while peddling increasingly deranged and dangerous bullshit.
But it also points to the ineptness of the Trump campaign’s legal machinery and its poor standing in the election. Yes, it has been closer than expected. But the attempts to steal the election back have been farcical. Trump spent his presidency looking for a Roy Cohn. Now, with his back to the wall, he’s looking for a James Baker. But there is no Baker lurking in Trump World. There’s only Rudy.