Trump’s election bashing may portend scary things for 2020

By Mark Sullivan

Donald Trump spent much of Friday raising the possibility of voter fraud in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, where votes are still being counted in some key midterm races. Using the bully pulpit to undermine the electoral system is either very reckless, or very diabolical, and certainly not good for voter confidence in future U.S. elections.

Of particular interest to the president are the vote counts in the Florida Senate race between Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott, and in the gubernatorial race between Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, and former Representative Ron DeSantis, a Republican.

“All of the sudden they’re finding votes out of nowhere and Rick Scott, who won–you know, it was close–who won by a comfortable margin, every couple of hours it goes down by a little bit,” Trump said at the White House on Friday.

That day, Scott, whom Trump enthusiastically supports, accused liberals in Broward county of “trying to steal this election,” but provided no evidence to back up the claim. A recount has now been called in the Florida Senate and gubernatorial races, as well as in the race for state agriculture commissioner.

Trump actually started tweeting about the undecided midterm races Thursday night, proclaiming “Law Enforcement is looking into another big corruption scandal having to do with Election Fraud in #Broward and Palm Beach.” Nine tweets later, by mid-afternoon Friday, he finished his tirade with a tweet about “electoral corruption” in Arizona.

Trump has a history of questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process. When the odds seemed heavily against him winning the 2016 election, he began saying at rallies that the election was “rigged,” and pledged not to concede if Hillary was declared the winner. Even after he’d won he used an executive order (and taxpayer money) to organize a since-disbanded commission to investigate his own unsubstantiated claims that Hillary’s popular vote victory was padded by fraudulent votes.

More recently, before the midterms, Trump raised the specter of voter fraud and artfully turned it into what many thought sounded like an attempt to scare minority voters away from the polls.

Such comments are especially toxic in the current environment. The electoral system is already under attack. Aside from creating division and rancor, one of the chief goals of the Russians in the 2016 presidential election was to erode confidence in the U.S. electoral process. The elimination of protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court have opened the door to all manner of voter suppression at the state level.

And Trump’s comments might portend things to come. We’ve become desensitized to the president’s near-daily dramas, missteps, obvious lies, and conspiracy theories. We may become desensitized to attacks on the electoral system, too. Worse, people might start to believe, as they have come to believe Trump’s claims about the “fake news” media, that the voting system really is somehow compromised.

As the former Obama advisor and Pod Save America host Dan Pfeiffer suggested on Twitter, it’s not farfetched to believe that Trump might resort to attacks on the electoral system if things don’t go his way in the 2020 presidential election.

One frightening scenario: The day after losing the election in 2020, he goes on live national television from the Oval Office to declare the election illegitimate. He offers a number of boogie men on which to place blame, including Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Russia (reluctantly), North Korea, Iran, or China. He declares that he will stay in power until the Department of Justice can launch and complete a massive voter fraud investigation.

Such a message from the White House would be extremely hard to control, especially if the Justice Department were sympathetic to Trump’s claims. Even if every major media outlet went on the air to assure the public that the electoral system is sound and that Trump’s claims weren’t true, a substantial part of Trump’s 60 million or so supporters would likely believe the election was indeed illegitimate. Messages of support would spread through the filter bubbles of millions of right-wingers on Facebook. That’s a whole new level of dangerous from what we’re seeing in Florida and Georgia right now, and something our democracy might not know how to deal with.

The White House’s constant attacks on the credibility of the news media might also come into play. The media acts as the intermediary between the electoral system and the public. With much of the public already conditioned to mistrust the media, Trump might spread the claim that he lost the presidency because the mainstream media had conspired to misreport election results. It’s likely that many of his supporters would believe him.

The federal government knew of cyberattacks directed against voting systems in 2016 in at least 18, and possibly up to 21 states, according to a May Senate intelligence committee report. So naturally many security people were watching the 2018 midterms closely for signs of interference. No major attacks occurred–as far as we know. As one security person told me, a successful attack is by nature one that’s never discovered. Some analysts believe Russian hackers may have tried out some new tactics during the midterms, but will not reveal their whole playbook until the 2020 race.

In 2020 an actual hack needn’t have occurred to seriously undermine confidence in the election. Just creating the perception that something nefarious had taken place could have catastrophic results. That’s why Trump is dangerous. With his back against the wall and his political life on the line, he might just be capable of something like that.

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