Election 2020

Trump's Desperate Conspiracy Theories Won't Save His Presidency, but They Might Save His Ego

The only person he needs to convince is himself.


When Donald Trump claimed he would have won the popular vote in 2016 if it weren't for "the millions of people who voted illegally," he was only trying to magnify his victory over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Now that he seems to be losing a presidential election, his desperate scramble for explanations has produced conspiracy theories that make his 2016 fantasy pale by comparison. Here are a few of the things the president seems to believe, judging from his remarks at the White House last night.

Joe Biden can win only with "illegal votes."

"If you count the legal votes, I easily win," Trump said. "If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us. If you count the votes that came in late, we're looking to them very strongly, but a lot of votes came in late."

This is a testable claim. Trump is saying that Biden can win the election only if mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day, which he deems "illegal," are counted. Yet in Pennsylvania, whose 20 electoral votes would clinch Biden's victory, the former vice president has pulled ahead of Trump even without including late-arriving ballots. "The votes being counted in Pennsylvania do not include any mail ballots arriving after Nov. 3," New York Times reporter Nick Corasaniti notes. "Those are being kept segregated. This count is for votes in by Election Day."

Election officials in states run by Democrats are manufacturing votes for Biden.

"They're trying to steal an election," Trump said. "They're trying to rig an election, and we can't let that happen….The voting apparatus of those states [is] run in all cases by Democrats. We were winning in all the key locations by a lot, actually, and then our numbers started miraculously getting whittled away in secret….They want to find out how many votes they need, and then they seem to be able to find them. They wait and wait, and then they find them, and you see that on Election Night."

Trump's only evidence of the massive, orchestrated fraud he describes is that election results shifted as more votes were counted. But that is a common election phenomenon, and this year it has been magnified by Trump's attacks on voting by mail, which fostered a Democratic tilt in those late-counted ballots.

Contradicting his thesis that Democrats are manufacturing mail-in ballots to assure Biden's victory, Trump complained about vote counting in Georgia, which has a Republican governor and secretary of state. "In Georgia, I won by a lot, a lot, with a lead…getting close to 300,000 votes on Election Night," he said. "And by the way, [it] got whittled down, and now it's getting to…a point where I'll go from winning by a lot to perhaps being even down a little bit."

Exactly who is conspiring against Trump in Georgia? "The election apparatus in Georgia is run by Democrats," he said. That will be news to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Pollsters deliberately overestimated support for Biden.

"As everybody saw, we won by historic numbers, and the pollsters got it knowingly wrong," Trump said. "They got it knowingly wrong. We had polls that were so ridiculous, and everybody knew it at the time….As everyone now recognizes, media polling was election interference in the truest sense of that word, by powerful special interests."

While it is true that the "blue wave" predicted by many surveys never materialized, Trump is positing that a cabal of pollsters deliberately discredited their profession by conspicuously failing (once again) to anticipate the election results. Why would they do that?

"They thought there was going to be a big blue wave," Trump said. "That was false. That was done for suppression reasons."

Here Trump is making two contradictory claims. The pollsters "thought there was going to be a big blue wave," and they were mistaken. At the same time, they were wrong on purpose, because they wanted to suppress Republican turnout.

"These really phony polls…were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden and diminish Republicans' ability to raise funds," Trump said. "They were what's called suppression polls, everyone knows that now, and it's never been used to the extent that it's been used on this last election."

Did polls suggesting a Biden victory demoralize Republicans, as the president assumes? It seems at least as plausible that such polls would motivate Trump's supporters to vote. If pollsters really were determined to defeat Trump, shouldn't they have predicted a landslide for him, which would have suggested to his supporters that they needn't bother voting?

Even assuming that pollsters were willing to sacrifice their reputations in order to get Biden elected, and that they all secretly agreed to do so, Trump suggested that strategy was a spectacular failure. "We grew our party by 4 million voters," he said, and had "the greatest turnout in Republican Party history….We won by historic numbers." Yet Trump also said pollsters are "not stupid people," an assessment that seems to be at odds with his claim that they ruined their reputations for nothing.

Is anyone buying this? The headline of the New York Post story about Trump's comments—"Downcast Trump makes baseless election fraud claims in White House address"—suggests that his fact-free conspiracy theories have limited appeal. They certainly will not impress the courts as they consider the Republicans' post-election lawsuits. Maybe Trump is feeding anger and resentment among his most credulous supporters, but to what end? So he can keep his base energized in anticipation of a comeback in 2024, when he will be as old as the opponent he portrayed as dangerously past his prime?

Trump's 2020 excuses, like his claims about the popular vote in 2016 and the size of the crowd at his inauguration, serve no obvious purpose except to protect his supersized ego—in this case, to assure himself that he is a winner even when he loses. That explanation is consistent with everything we know about Trump from his decades as a public figure, including his "truthful hyperbole" as a businessman, his relentless boasting and self-promotion, his boundless vanity, and his legendarily thin skin. Unless he has been playing an extremely long con on us, it may be time to accept that Trump is exactly what he seems.