The immediate and obvious reaction to President Trump’s assertion during a campaign rally on Tuesday night that “if you go out and you want to buy groceries, you need a picture on a card, you need ID,” was bafflement. Perhaps with a bit of face-palming thrown in.
One is under no illusion that Trump frequents the Food Emporium to pick up milk and eggs for his family. Grocery stores and the DMV are probably in a long-running competition for which one Trump has managed to avoid for the longest period of time. He made headlines during the campaign for never having changed his kids’ diapers; does one really think he’d engage in an even more mundane domestic activity like trying to find ripe avocados? Or, I suppose, apples?
George H.W. Bush’s infamous moment of fascination at barcode scanners in a store in 1992 identified him as hopelessly out of touch with the electorate. For Trump, that has long been a point of pride: His life of luxury positioned him, he argued in 2016, as being uniquely situated to rip apart the temples of the elite from within. His supporters would be more baffled by a familiarity with grocery shopping than an aversion to it.
It’s important not to lose sight of the point Trump was making, though. His argument, broadly, was that photo identification was needed for common tasks and, therefore, should not be considered burdensome when required for voting. It was a sales pitch for voter ID laws, legislation that ostensibly aims at undercutting rampant voter fraud (which is not a problem) and which often has the happy-for-Republicans side effect of tamping down Democratic turnout in elections (which, Democrats would obviously argue, is).
Without wading into the debate over whether voter ID laws have utility on the merits, consider how Trump tried to sell it: with an immediately obvious untrue example. Even if his argument was that you needed an ID to buy alcohol, which is likely where his defenders will soon land on the subject, the analogy breaks down rapidly. Laws stipulate that minors can’t buy alcohol for largely obvious reasons, but minors persist in trying to do so. One person buying alcohol at the age of 18 can have negative repercussions that one person voting illegally almost certainly wouldn’t.
It’s also the case that many 18-to-20-year-olds, perhaps most, are eagerly trying to obtain alcohol. Voting is quite a bit less popular. When the dork in “The Breakfast Club” said he got a fake ID so that he could vote, it was funny, because, obviously, kids don’t care about voting. Without a coordinated effort to swing hundreds or thousands of votes, voter fraud means someone is violating federal law on the off-off-off-chance that their vote will be the deciding one to elect a county supervisor. Not the sort of anti-establishment rule-breaking in which teens are clamoring to engage. For those a-ha-ing at the “coordinated effort” line, please note that repeated investigations have found no evidence of any such coordinated efforts in practice in recent years (this isn’t Chicago in 1960), much less successful ones.
We should not, however, be surprised that Trump’s pitch for voter ID laws was based on an obviously inaccurate argument. Trump’s administration is riddled with untrue and bad-faith arguments in support of his preferred policy initiatives. His campaign was launched on the basis of one such argument, that immigrants from Mexico were a huge criminal threat in the United States, which was untrue then and is untrue now. On Wednesday morning, The Washington Post updated its list of untrue or misleading claims made by Trump. It stands at 4,229 — 7.5 false claims each day of his presidency.
The ID-to-buy-groceries line is more misleading than anything, of a piece with other assertions from Trump’s administration. On Tuesday, it was reported that an effort to overturn fuel efficiency standards for cars — a boon to the energy industry that’s been at the center of much of Trump’s decision-making as president — was being pitched as a public-safety move. Better fuel efficiency means more driving, after all, and the more you drive, the more at risk you are of a deadly car accident.
This is actually the argument.
It is similar to the argument made earlier this year in defense of Trump’s most-beloved industry, coal mining. As coal-burning power plants are increasingly shuttered because of pollution concerns or converted to cleaner, cheaper natural gas, reports emerged that the administration planned to use a Cold-War-era law to argue that keeping coal plants open was critical for the national security of the United States. The obvious intent was to bolster a revenue stream for an industry that Trump has repeatedly embraced, but the argument used was something both odd and trickier to defend on the merits.
Of course, then, Trump is arguing that voter ID laws are needed because (insert tangential and possibly erroneous reason). His administration repeatedly embraces misinformation. That this bit of misinformation was immediately and obviously untrue to any listener doesn’t change any of the calculus underlying Trump’s pitch.
It does make one wonder the last time Trump went grocery shopping.