The conventional way to describe the 46-minute rant about election fraud that Donald Trump posted on Facebook yesterday would be to say that the president is out of his mind. But to me, it seemed like Trump was completely in his mind, which is in many ways more alarming. His is a mind that refuses to admit defeat or accept responsibility, a mind that resorts to ever more elaborate and implausible excuses for losing. For weeks now, he has been inflicting these self-flattering fantasies on the entire country, aided and abetted by cowardly Republicans terrified of alienating his supporters, culminating (I hope) in the clumsily edited, scattered oration that he offered up yesterday for true believers, which he billed as possibly "the most important speech I've ever made."
The style of the video—which jarringly jumps back and forth between segments in which Trump is looking directly at the online audience and segments in which he is looking to his left—reflects his disjointed argument, which fires one dud charge after another, trying desperately to substitute quantity for quality. I will not address all of his specific allegations, which range from randomly mailed absentee ballots to a zombie horde of dead voters. But a few of the highlights will give you the flavor of the president's evidence and reasoning.
The origin of Trump's dismay at losing his bid for reelection is also the heart of his argument that he actually won: On election night, he saw his initial leads in several battleground states diminish and disappear as more votes were counted. In the president's mind, such reversals could only be explained by his opponent's cheating, and that conviction evolved into the elaborate conspiracy theories spun by the likes of former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who alleges a vast, international scheme involving Democratic and Republican election officials across the country, Dominion Voting Systems, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Although Trump recently distanced himself from Powell, he and Rudy Giuliani, who is leading his campaign's legal team, continue to embrace key aspects of her story, as was evident in yesterday's speech.
By the president's account, Dominion voting machines across the country were rigged to change Trump votes into Biden votes on a massive scale. "In one Michigan County," for example, "they found that nearly 6,000 votes had been wrongly switched from Trump to Biden. And this is just the tip of the iceberg." Trump was referring to a tabulation error that was quickly corrected and had nothing to do with fraud-facilitating software. "An inaccurate vote count in Michigan's Antrim County was never an official result and was due to a human error by the county clerk, not a failure in Dominion Voting Systems software," PolitiFact notes.
More generally, Trump's own Department of Homeland Security called the 2020 election "the most secure in American history," saying, "There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised." Trump's own attorney general this week said "we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election," adding that the Justice Department had investigated claims of rigged voting machines and "so far we haven't seen anything to substantiate that."
Trump held up (and lovingly caressed) cardboard charts showing early morning spikes in tabulated ballots that he thinks conclusively show Biden stole the election. In Wisconsin, he said, "we were way up on election night," but "they ultimately had us miraculously losing by 20,000 votes….To this day, everyone's trying to figure out where did it come from? But I went from leading by a lot to losing by a little."
Might there be a noncriminal explanation for that development? Trump does not even entertain the possibility. But in Wisconsin, absentee ballots, no matter when they arrive, cannot be legally counted until Election Day. And largely because Trump actively discouraged Republicans from voting by mail this year, describing that method as inherently insecure and fraudulent, those late-counted absentee ballots were skewed toward Biden, especially when they came from heavily Democratic cities.
"The shift began overnight in Milwaukee, the state's largest Democratic stronghold, which gave Biden a net gain of about 9,000 with its mail-in votes," the ABC station in Chicago reported. "When the 169,000 mail-in votes from the city of Milwaukee were reported in the early hours of Wednesday, Biden led Trump by 182,896 in the city. Mail-in ballots from Kenosha County and Brown County, which includes the city of Green Bay, grew Biden's lead to about 20,000. The mail-in ballots in those counties also leaned heavily Democratic. Trump had held a steady edge before the mail-in ballot tallies came in."
Trump wants us to believe that Biden stole the election through a carefully planned, sophisticated operation that systematically increased Biden's tallies and reduced Trump's. At the same time, he wants us to believe these clever conspirators were so inept that they left obvious, incontrovertible evidence of their crimes, evidence that his lawyers have not managed to produce in court.
"Tens of thousands of times all over the country," the president claimed, eager Trump voters showed up to cast their ballots for him, only to be told that they had already voted. The implication, I think, is that absentee ballots for all these voters were intercepted and filled out by pro-Biden operatives. Or maybe Trump was suggesting that Democratic election officials who were determined to deny him his rightful victory arbitrarily turned away Republican voters. Or possibly he meant that the anti-Trump plotters fraudulently recorded his supporters as voting for Biden by nonexistent absentee ballots. However you interpret Trump's unsubstantiated allegation, it is hard to believe that the sneaky Democrats he blames for faking Biden's victory would have done so in such an easily detected way.
The Trump legal team has leaned heavily on an affidavit by Detroit election worker Jessy Jacob, who alleged several serious improprieties in Wayne County, including voter coaching, failure to check voters' identification, and backdating of absentee ballots. "This is something that is so unconstitutional," Trump said in his speech, "and she estimates that thousands and thousands of ballots were improperly backdated by her and many others." But Wayne County Judge Timothy M. Kenny found that the backdating claim was based on a misunderstanding of election procedures, while other charges leveled by Jacob were so lacking in detail that they were unverifiable.
Trump also trotted out his campaign's claim that Pennsylvania's policy of allowing voters to correct technical errors on their absentee ballots violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection because some counties gave voters that opportunity and others did not. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in a blistering opinion written by a Trump-nominated judge and joined by two other Republican appointees, unanimously rejected that theory. "The Campaign cannot win this lawsuit," it said. "The Campaign's claims have no merit."
Trump noted that "even judges so far have refused to accept" that he actually won the election. Since courts are the forum in which Trump has to back up his charges of massive election fraud with credible evidence, the fact that judges have been unimpressed is hardly a niggling detail. Again and again, Trump's lawyers have failed to substantiate the claim that fraud accounts for Biden's victory. "Charges of unfairness are serious," the 3rd Circuit noted. "But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here."
Trump suggested that the plot to steal the election (as opposed to, say, the COVID-19 pandemic) explains why Biden refrained from in-person campaigning. "My opponent was told to stay away from the election, don't campaign," he said. "'We don't need you. We've got it. This election is done.' In fact, they were acting like they already knew what the outcome was going to be. They had it covered. And perhaps they did, very sadly for our country."
Perhaps they did? Trump is asserting a massive, easily provable conspiracy that involved manipulating hundreds of thousands of votes. At the same time, he is only surmising that there must have been a conspiracy, given what he views as Biden's suspicious pre-election confidence.
A good rule of thumb with Trump is that the truth is exactly the opposite of whatever he says, and the usefulness of that rebuttable presumption was on full display in his speech. "I don't mind if I lose an election," he averred. "We had a tremendous victory, and everybody knows it," he asserted. "This election was rigged," and "everybody knows it," he claimed. "The evidence is overwhelming," he insisted. "This is about restoring faith and confidence in American elections," he declared. If any of those things were true, Trump never would have recorded this speech.
Trump thanked Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) for defending him against allegations that his 2016 campaign illegally colluded with Russian operatives. This is the same senator who, responding to Trump's complaints about prolonged vote counting this year, said, "Taking days to count legally cast votes is NOT fraud." Rubio is also the same senator who casually described Biden as "the president-elect" two weeks ago.
Other Republican members of Congress have been more direct. "When Trump campaign lawyers have stood before courts under oath," Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) noted on November 19, "they have repeatedly refused to actually allege grand fraud—because there are legal consequences for lying to judges." Shortly after the election, Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Pa.), noted that "the president's allegations of large-scale fraud and theft of the election are just not substantiated." After the ruling against the Trump campaign that was upheld by the 3rd Circuit, Toomey said, "President Trump should accept the outcome of the election and facilitate the presidential transition process."
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R–La.) chimed in a couple of days later. "President Trump's legal team has not presented evidence of the massive fraud which would have had to be present to overturn the election," he said. "I voted for President Trump but Joe Biden won."
The same day, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.) offered Trump some advice. "My hope is that President Trump will take pride in his considerable accomplishments, put the country first and have a prompt and orderly transition to help the new administration succeed," he said. "When you are in public life, people remember the last thing you do."
Trump is not the sort of person who takes such advice to heart. But while I have never liked Trump and have frequently criticized him, this final phase of his presidency crystallizes the aspects of his personality that are not merely ugly or laughable but dangerous in anyone who wields political power, whether as the mayor of a tiny town or the head of the U.S. government's executive branch. Trump's utter disdain for the truth, combined with his mercurial nature and complete lack of principles, makes it impossible to have a rational conversation with him, let alone trust him with the ever-expanding powers of the presidency.
When P.J. O'Rourke endorsed Hillary Clinton on libertarian grounds in 2016, he called her "the second worst thing that could happen to this country," adding: "She's way behind in second place, you know? She's wrong about absolutely everything. But she's wrong within normal parameters!"
I did not vote for Clinton, but the last four years certainly have validated O'Rourke's expectation that Trump would be wrong outside of normal parameters. I did not vote for Biden either, and I am confident that he will be terrible, but in predictable ways. And he will lie, also in predictable ways. But I am pretty sure he will not create an alternate universe and insist that all right-thinking Americans live in it to satisfy the demands of his ego. In terms of decency, competence, knowledge, and honesty, Trump has set a bar so low that almost any randomly chosen hack can easily step over it.