Here’s a trick question: who said the following, and when? ‘Serious questions have arisen about the accuracy and reliability of new electronic voting machines, including concerns that they can be susceptible to fraud and computer hacking.’ A box of Roses chocolates for anyone who guessed correctly. That was Dianne Feinstein, Democrat senator for California, speaking aeons back in 2006.
One decade later and another Democrat declared that she had lost the presidential election that year because Vladimir Putin had hacked the US voting system. A month after losing the 2016 race, a still-sore Hillary Clinton told party donors: ‘This is not just an attack on me and my campaign. This is an attack against our country. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.’
It turns out that more than two people can play at that game. Before the 2016 election, Donald J. Trump unveiled his escape plan in the event that he lost. ‘The whole election is being rigged,’ he told a rally in North Carolina in October 2016. ‘The whole thing is one big fix. One big ugly lie.’ Happily for him, in 2016 he didn’t need to keep making that claim because he won, transforming the ‘rigged’ election into a great, ‘beautiful’ one. Still, to be sure, in 2020 he made the same claims of corruption as he had in 2016, but this time — having lost — cried that the ‘fix’ had worked. And so he continued to claim this, right up to — and after — the moment that part of a crowd of his supporters, whipped up by these lies, stormed the US Capitol to reverse the result of the election.
It is a dangerous toy, this one that both sides have played with. Not least because fears of the vulnerability of the ballot in the US are clearly to some extent genuine. Indeed, a fear that the American voting system can be corrupted may now be the one thing on which Democrats and Republicans might agree. It’s just that whenever they win they choose to suppress those fears. Only when they lose do they talk about how vulnerable their system is to interference, foreign or domestic. It isn’t a great situation for the world’s most powerful democracy to be in: one in which the only votes you believe in are those that you have won.
Of course culpability for taking this problem to the next level must without doubt be awarded to Trump. As I wrote here in November, if Trump and nine out of ten of his supporters believed that the election in November was stolen, then it was up to them and their candidate to prove it. This they did not do. And yet, instead of resigning themselves to the fact that Joe Biden really did win, Trump has personally made sure that a very sizeable chunk (a majority in fact) of the American right have followed him down a stupid, self-destructive and time-wasting path.
The majority of Republican voters remain unreconciled to November’s result, with a slight majority (51 per cent) believing that their party leadership ‘didn’t go far enough’ in supporting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. There are going to be some very angry, disappointed and — to be uncharitable — annoying people in the years ahead. At least as annoying as the Democrats who wasted everybody’s time (including their own) for four years with Russia-gate. Like them, these newly deluded conservatives will keep popping up in our timelines, blighting our evenings and delivering a considerable opportunity-cost to American conservatism.
Still, it will not be enough to simply dismiss these people as mere irritants. Their fellow conservatives will have to find a way to talk these people down from the situation they have been talked into.
In one way that is easy. The people who think Trump won the election must now believe that they live in a corrupted or non-democracy in which Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and most of the rest of the Republican party are Democrat sell-outs. They must further believe that members of the Supreme Court who were nominated during Trump’s time in office owed some kind of fealty oath to him and that their failure to overturn the election (like almost every other legislative and judicial body in the US) shows they too are a sell-out.
Perhaps the most difficult corner for the Trump supporters to navigate is why Mike Pence — who rode out the glories and embarrassment of standing by Trump’s side for four years — should also have joined the great sell-out by refusing to do something unconstitutional as requested by his boss at the end. In other words, to believe that Trump won the election you must by now believe that absolutely every body and institution in American public life is lying and corrupt and that the only honest man left in the world is Donald J. Trump, with some overspill honesty left for Donald Trump Jr, his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, and a few other members of the immediate family.
That eventuality would appear to be a remote one. And there will be a temptation to laugh at these people and scorn them mightily during the period to come. Some Democrat politicians and broadcasters have already started doing that, claiming that all Republican voters are the problem, and using events at the Capitol to describe all Trump voters as racists and terrorists.
In fact, such talk is the problem. America’s troubles of recent years have not included any dearth of scorn or disdain. The hard task which both sides should try to address if they have any care for their country is to break the positive-feedback loops that comprise America’s political and social discourse. As I suggested here in November it could start with a cross-party effort to ensure that the results of the next election cannot be contested.
But it also goes deeper than that. The plausible reasons for Trump supporters voting for him in 2016 and in even larger numbers in 2020 should be contended with by the incoming administration. For their part the Republicans would do well to work out why they lost, which begins with accepting that they lost. As we know from Dr Freud, in order to be able to live again one must be able to bury those hopes that are dead. Unfortunately for the American right there is one obvious impediment to that mourning process, which is the ongoing presence of the man who has led the American right down this lamentable path and who is very much alive, if not well.
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