Election 2020

Can Donald Trump Really Be This Clueless About How Elections Work?

The president's complaints about "a major fraud" present a familiar puzzle.


Donald Trump's angry, rambling, incoherent, and boastful Election Night speech presents a familiar puzzle: Does the president sincerely believe the weird stuff he says, or is it all part of a clever populist strategy? The distinction should matter to journalists, because it is the difference between a lie and a delusion. By "delusion" I do not mean to imply a psychiatric diagnosis—just the common human tendency to believe things that are not true when they fit one's self-image or preexisting opinions.

While everyone is prone to that temptation, Trump rarely seems to resist it. If a state's early election returns show him behind but he eventually wins, as happened in Florida last night, it is only because it took time for voters' love of him to be revealed. But when Trump has an initial advantage that disappears as more votes are counted, he concludes that "a fraud" has been perpetrated on "the American public."

For Trump, the ordinary ups and downs of Election Night are immediate cause for suspicion, except when they favor him. "We were getting ready for a big celebration, we were winning everything, and all of a sudden, it was just called off," he said. "We won states. And all of a sudden I said, 'What happened to the election? It's off.' And we have all these announcers saying, 'What happened?' And then they said, 'Oh.'"

Trump's explanation: "You know what happened? They knew they couldn't win, so they said, 'Let's go to court.'"

As is frequently the case with Trump, it is not exactly clear what he was talking about. But it seems he was referring to Democrats' support for expanding mail-in voting, which Trump has been attacking as inherently fraudulent (except in Florida!) for months. "I've been saying this from the day I heard they were going to send out tens of millions of ballots," he said. "Either they were going to win, or if they didn't win, they'll take us to court."

When Democrats challenge voting procedures, in Trump's view, they are trying to "disenfranchise" his supporters. When Republicans challenge voting procedures, they are trying to protect the integrity of the electoral process, even when they are seeking to invalidate ballots that people cast in good faith based on the rules announced by government officials.

Likewise, when Democrats "go to court," it is only because they know "they couldn't win" otherwise. When Republicans go to court, as Trump said he will do if the election does not turn out the way he wants, they are preserving democracy.

This kind of partisan hypocrisy goes both ways. Both major parties can be expected to scramble for whatever advantage they can get, while impugning the other side's motives and presenting their own as purely in the public interest. But Trump elevates that tradition to a new level: He routinely and recklessly accuses Democrats of criminal activity as well as sneaky legal maneuvers.

"We did win this election," Trump declared. "So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop."

At that point, of course, voting had stopped. It was the counting that continued, which is how elections work. If the delay in declaring a winner is longer than usual this year, "a major fraud" is hardly the most parsimonious explanation, given the closeness of the race, historically high voter turnout, and a surge in mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic—factors that were expected to lengthen the wait.

"We don't want them to find any ballots at 4:00 in the morning and add them to the list," Trump said. "OK? It's a very sad moment. To me this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. And as far as I'm concerned, we already have won it."

Trump continued that theme on Twitter this morning: "Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled. Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted. VERY STRANGE, and the 'pollsters' got it completely & historically wrong!"

Twitter attached a warning to that post: "Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process." But even without the company's pious pronouncement, any mildly skeptical person would recognize that Trump's conspiracy theory has no basis in fact.

Last night, for example, Trump claimed "we won" in Michigan because he was ahead of Joe Biden by "107,000 votes" with 81 percent of ballots counted. But that still left hundreds of thousands of ballots that could shift the advantage to Biden. Likewise in Pennsylvania, where Trump claimed "we're winning" by "a tremendous amount."

As I write, Trump is ahead by more than 460,000 votes in Pennsylvania, but more than a third of the ballots have yet to be counted. If mail-in ballots favor Biden—a partisan tilt fostered by Trump's unfounded scaremongering about this voting method—Biden could still end up winning the state's electoral votes.

Biden is beating Trump by just 45,000 votes in Michigan, with more than 200,000 ballots left to be counted. Would Biden be justified in demanding that the count stop now, while he is ahead?

"They are finding Biden votes all over the place—in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan," Trump complained today. "So bad for our Country!" To which Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) dryly replied: "It's called an election."

So we come back to the question we started with: Can Trump really be this clueless? After nearly four years of this president's self-flattering nonsense, I am beginning to suspect the answer is yes.