Since the US election has been called for president-elect Joe Biden on Saturday 7 November, President Trump and his allies have unleashed an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the electoral process—touting baseless accusations of widespread voter fraud and falsely proclaiming that the presidency has been illegally stolen from Trump by Democrats.
Initially, Trump’s refusal to concede was seen by many as an expected reaction by America’s petulant 45th president that did not pose an actual threat to the peaceful transition of power. But as an growing number of GOP leaders, right-wing media pundits, and Trump supporters across the nation continue to publicly support the president’s delusional allegations of election fraud and misconduct, the danger this false narrative poses to the future and safety of American democracy grows.
As president-elect Biden was declared the victor or began securing a significant lead in key swing states—including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania—the Trump campaign and Republican lawmakers filed a slew of lawsuits alleging a variety of baseless cases of voter fraud or election malpractice. Some of the legal cases claim that Republican overseers were blocked from ballot-counting sites, while others alleged that ballots were tampered with or attempted to challenge the legality of some states’ decision to extend the deadline for accepting ballots that were postmarked by election day but received a few days later due to significant delays in the US Post Office.
Many of the lawsuits filed by Trump and other Republicans have already been dismissed for lack of evidence or for hinging on theories that have been debunked, and a significant portion of the sworn affidavits procured by the Trump campaign to boost his claim of fraud have pointed out to insignificant irregularities or procedures that are typical in elections and do not alter the overall outcome of the count.
Despite there being no evidence of election malfeasance, and although Trump’s threadbare legal cases bear increasingly smaller prospects of success, they are nonetheless proving to be effective in dragging out the election process and delaying states’ certification of the results, sowing confusion and mistrust among Republicans, and promoting the bogus narrative that Biden is not the rightful winner of the race. The lawsuits could also, potentially, cause certain states to miss the deadline for slating electors (who cast the ultimate votes on 14 December).
It seems, however, that Trump’s most dangerous attack on American democracy is the sinister disinformation campaign he and his team have launched, which seeks to undermine the electoral process and portray it as fraudulent and illegitimate. Trump’s disinformation campaign began long before the election, as he drummed up factually inaccurate claims that mail-in ballots were inherently susceptible to fraud and tampering. Now, as his loss became crystal clear, Trump took to Twitter and his podium at the White House to openly declare that Biden’s apparent victory resulted from fraud and that a Democratic-led conspiracy was trying to illegally wrest the presidency from him.
The president’s narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly, is being promulgated by right-wing media outlets and news networks. Among the right-wing media pundits echoing allegations of fraud are Fox News nighttime hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, all of whom have been hyping the baseless allegations of voter fraud and irregularities.
On his show, Carlson drummed up the now-debunked claims that ballots were cast under the identity of dead people, stating “In some ways, it’s an inspiring story. The triumph of voting over death.” Other right-wing media platforms spreading disinformation concerning the election are One America News (OAN)—who’s CEO tweeted on Tuesday that “With all the states that have been found to have illegal voting, it’s looking like not only will Biden NOT be elected as the AP claimed, but chances are GREAT @realDonaldTrump will be confirmed as President again,”—and Newsmax, a right-wing outlet rising in popularity which has refused to call the election for Biden.
Social media has thus far been a key tool for disseminating conspiracy theories regarding the election, with a tirade of tweets discounting its outcome emanating from the Twitter accounts of the president, his allies, and some right-wing public figures. On YouTube and Facebook, videos and posts delegitimising the election’s results have garnered millions of views and have been shared hundreds of thousands of times. According to a Guardian analysis of posts with the most interactions, 16 out of the 20 top public Facebook posts featuring the word ‘election’ since Election Day include “false or misleading information casting doubt on the election in favor of Trump.”
In addition to unfurling this belligerent disinformation campaign, the Trump administration has taken steps to withhold millions of dollars worth of government funds from the Biden transition team. As of this reporting, the White House has also refused to grant the Biden transition team crucial security clearances and has barred them from conducting background checks and financial disclosures for prospective appointees. Such refusals to acknowledge and work with the Biden transition team could lead to major delays and obstacles in the new administration’s ability to function after assuming office, and thus threaten the safety of the American people. It could also, as reported by the Washington Post, lead to delays in approving and administering COVID-19 vaccines when those will be ready for distribution.
As the days go by, an increasing number of GOP lawmakers, including the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, rally behind Trump and boost his bid to challenge the election results, lending their credibility to baseless allegations of fraud. It is clear that, recognising where Trump’s supporters’ loyalty lies, Republicans choose to side with Trump, at least publicly, as part of a long-term political strategy. Of particular concern to them is the upcoming January Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will determine whether or not the GOP retains control over the upper chamber.
But as they cling to their seats and calculate the future moves of a party now indefinitely beholden to Trump, Republican lawmakers willingly jeopardise the people’s trust in America’s electoral process, and thus erode the already withering pillars of democracy in this nation.
Regardless of whether or not Trump vacates the Oval Office come January, the damage has already been done. A recent poll now shows that 70 per cent of Republicans don’t believe the election was free and fair; that’s millions and millions of Americans for whom trust in the electoral process has been compromised. This isn’t to say that US elections aren’t without significant flaws, namely widespread disenfranchisement, out-of-control gerrymandering, and unfettered corporate spending on political campaigns.
However, the accusations levelled by the Trump campaign, which by now have been completely espoused by his base, against the election results are not rooted in legitimate criticism; they are a deliberate attempt by a disgruntled leader to manipulate his supporters and inculcate a mistrust in the system among them by tapping into their frustration around a lost election.
It’s a terrifying reminder of how dangerously malleable our sense of reality is in this ‘post-truth’ era, where a defeated president can be viewed by millions as the rightful winner of an election simply by the power of his tweet.