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The Damage Is the Point

Trump may not be able to extend his reign, but he can aid and abet his party by further curtailing the right to vote.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s efforts to block or overturn the election results have failed at every turn. His lawsuits are being dismissed by incredulous judges; his personal campaign to short-circuit the Electoral College is going nowhere fast. The list of Republican senators who have implicitly urged Trump to accept his loss is only growing: Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Ohio’s Rob Portman, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito. “When you are in public life, people remember the last thing you do,” Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said in a similar statement on Monday.

Some will remember Trump’s last acts in office because they’ll have to endure the aftermath. Since the election, Trump has done incalculable damage to public confidence in the American democratic process. He hasn’t persuaded the courts or the state legislatures that he was denied reelection by a massive (and fictitious) conspiracy of voter fraud and electoral manipulation. But he has apparently convinced a broad swath of his followers that Biden’s victory is corrupt and illegitimate. According to Pew, only 21 percent of Trump supporters say they think the November elections were run and administered well, and only 35 percent said they were “very confident” their vote was counted.

There is still no pathway for Trump to remain president after January 20, 2021. But his ill-fated attempts to dispute the election serve another purpose. The Republican Party, at an institutional level, wants voters’ faith in American elections to be conditional. GOP lawmakers have spent the last 20 years raising and amplifying fears about voter fraud, which is a virtually unknown phenomenon in American elections. The chaos Trump has wrought from the 2020 election has handed them a ready-made pretext to go further next time.

Part of the problem can be traced back to 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted a core provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Republican-led states quickly embarked on a spree of election-law changes that would have otherwise needed the assent of the federal courts. In 2017, a federal judge struck down North Carolina’s voter-ID law after finding that state lawmakers tried to “target African-American voters with almost surgical precision.” By 2019, states formerly governed by the Voting Rights Act’s most severe restrictions had closed more than a thousand polling places, often with a greater impact for communities of color.

The unspoken but unmistakable goal of these efforts is to make it more difficult for traditionally Democratic communities to cast ballots while not hindering those where Republicans typically do well. After Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in 2016, for example, former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel attributed the upset victory to the state’s own voter-ID law, which likely kept thousands of the state’s residents from casting a ballot. In 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott restricted the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county, meaning that voters who live in Texas’s sparsely populated rural counties had the same number of drop boxes as voters who live in Harris County, where more than 4.7 million people live.

These efforts reflect a broader Republican project that prioritized securing their own electoral power over reflecting the popular will. In 2019, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that federal courts can’t overturn partisan gerrymanders, effectively giving Republican-led state legislatures free rein to entrench themselves in office. The Trump administration also spent most of the last four years trying to structurally tilt the 2020 Census in its favor, first by adding a citizenship question that would reduce participation rates and then by trying to produce a count that excluded undocumented immigrants for reapportionment. The Supreme Court narrowly rejected the former in 2018; it will consider the latter in December.

The conservative legal movement has also produced judges who often resist efforts to make it easier for voters to cast a ballot and side with those who made it more difficult. While the federal district courts often ruled against Trump in election-related cases before November, for example, Republican nominees on the federal appellate courts turned them into far more favorable terrain for his litigation. And in the Supreme Court, it was the court’s conservative bloc that most often voted to block lower-court rulings that relaxed barriers to voting. Some of them, including Justice Brett Kavanaugh, even advanced radical legal theories to support their positions.

In a sense, Trump and his allies are following these trends to their logical conclusion. His lawyers asked judges to throw out or block statewide election results in multiple states, including Nevada and Pennsylvania. But Trumpworld’s ire all too often fell on major cities with large concentrations of Black voters, such as Detroit and Philadelphia, which they baselessly described as hotbeds of corruption and electoral fraud. At one point, local GOP officials in Wayne County, Michigan, even suggested certifying the results in the mostly white suburbs but not Detroit itself. It was not quite a call for the return of Jim Crow, but it strayed uncomfortably close to a case for Black voters’ ballots not to be counted outright.

Trump’s post-defeat attacks on the election are both awkwardly and fortuitously timed for Republicans. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, many states adjusted their election laws to make it easier for voters to cast a ballot by mail or to vote early in person—a concession, if nothing else, to public health realities. Those changes helped produce the highest voter turnout rates in a century, buoyed not only by intense partisan interest in the outcome but also by more opportunities for voters to participate. Trump’s victories in Florida and Texas show that greater levels of voter participation are not inherently fatal for Republicans. But his attacks on absentee voting have already led state lawmakers in some areas to reverse course.

The short-run effects of Trump’s convoluted schemes to stay in power have only served, as Axios’s Glen Johnson noted last week, to shine a bright light on just how “obvious and unassailable” Biden’s victory really is. The true damage to democracy will likely be meted out between election cycles, as Republicans harness their base’s paranoia and discontent to undermine confidence in this year’s result and sow the ideological seeds necessary to maintain a broad campaign both against expanding voter access and to suppress the vote more widely. Pundits who might wonder when the GOP might move on from Trumpism are missing the point: Their aim will be to perfect it.