In a last-minute press conference Thursday evening, President Trump directed his full ire at the last bonds holding American democracy together: the integrity of the vote.
Sowing doubt about the fairness of the election for his political benefit from the presidential pulpit, President Trump said, “if you count the legal votes, I easily win.”
He added, almost predictably: “If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”
The President’s affect at the presser was mostly listless, projecting a lack of energy and apparent exhaustion with the situation. But his claims are incredibly corrosive to the core of American democracy: that both parties to an election respect the process and its results, allowing a shared sense of reality and legitimacy regardless of who wins and who loses.
Trump has spent the past few days stomping that concept into the ground, holing up in the White House to deride the election as “illegitimate” through surrogates, twitter, and, Thursday evening, a press conference, at which he appeared for the first time in more than 24 hours.
Specifically, President Trump has been trying to argue that votes from Democratic-majority areas are fraudulent, and that the slow counting of mail-in ballots represents some kind of a conspiracy.
Though there is no evidence to support any of these claims, and many news networks cut away while he was speaking, millions will believe the President, and will spend years thinking that the 2020 election was somehow stolen. Trump, himself, is the first President to use the position of his office to cast doubt on the very process that delivered him there, creating a deep fissure in the American body politic.
“I challenge Joe and every Democrat to clarify that they only want legal votes, because they talk about votes and I think they should use the word legal, legal votes,” Trump said.
President Trump is playing on years of fear-mongering by the GOP around the myth of widespread voter fraud, but is taking it both to a new level and, arguably, its logical conclusion by stating that the entire system is corrupt and irredeemable.
The President singled out “mail-in” voting in particular as being the source of much of the delays and uncertainty around the tally. Of course, Trump has done more than anyone to sow doubt in the process.
He’s also been abetted in that by Republican state legislators who refused to enact minor reforms that would have sped up the counting process, giving Trump these critical extra days to take a sledgehammer to public confidence in the election.
Trump also cast completed vote tallies in many states showing a Biden victory as the Democrat simply “claiming certain states” — not an objective fact stemming from the decision of millions of voters.
He added that he had won both Michigan and Wisconsin — two states that have finished counting and definitively gone for Joe Biden.
The only body that could decide the process now, Trump added, would be the Supreme Court.
“We can both claim the states but, ultimately, I have a feeling judges are going to have to play a role,” Trump said.
For Trump, anything short of a victory is theft.
“We can’t have an election stolen like this,” the President said, as hundreds of thousands of votes from Democratic areas remain outstanding.
His remarks are likely to deepen the extreme polarization that led to his own election, creating a constituency of voters who believe that a potential Joe Biden administration is inherently illegitimate and lacks any sort of popular mandate.
It also comes as Trump’s son and others suggest that the President, should he lose, may run again in 2024.
Trump added, baselessly, that he had “won many critical states,” though the states that are critical for his re-election — Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia — are all slipping out of his reach.
“It’s amazing how mail-in ballots are so one-sided,” Trump added.
His remarks — casting doubt on the integrity of the election and the processes that went into it — were long expected, and follow on years of similarly irresponsible behavior.
But in stranding millions of his own voters in an alternate reality in which the election was stolen, Trump has dropped a bomb in the country’s political system, leaving the U.S. with a constituency primed to disbelieve in the basic fabric of our democracy.
“There have been a lot of shenanigans,” Trump said, “and we can’t stand for that in our country.”