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Opinion Stop pretending Trump and his supporters care about ‘voter fraud’

Former president Donald Trump. (Randall Hill/Reuters)
5 min

Can we please stop pretending that Republicans echoing Donald Trump’s lies about 2020 are motivated by a genuine desire to crack down on voter fraud?

Two new developments should bury this absurdity once and for all: One involves a Republican candidate for Senate who is already preparing to contest a future election loss. The second involves Trump pulling an endorsement to punish insufficient devotion to his 2020 mythologizing.

What’s at stake is whether Republicans operating in this Trumpian mode will keep getting away with feigning good-faith concern about the legitimacy of our election system, when something much more nefarious is plainly at work here.

Let’s start with Adam Laxalt, the leading GOP Senate candidate in Nevada. The New York Times has obtained audio of Laxalt declaring that he’s already assembling a legal team to combat inevitable election fraud in his race — 231 days before Election Day.

In a private meeting, Laxalt told attendees that Trump had failed to sufficiently fight 2020 fraud. Trump’s campaign was “late” to the fight, Laxalt said, vowing not to make that mistake himself.

“We’re vetting which group we think is going to do better,” Laxalt said, apparently referring to the team he’s putting together. Laxalt claimed things are “different” now than in 2020, in that there is far more awareness of “election fraud” than before.

Why is Laxalt doing this? The Times piece notes that the 2020 voting in Nevada was vetted to an extraordinary degree, but reports that Laxalt’s claims are “yet another indication of how vital the specter of voter fraud remains to the Republican base.”

Why should we grant this implicit presumption? Yes, many Republican voters might still “believe” extensive fraud occurred. But is this really why Laxalt is declaring his intention to combat an election loss in advance?

Laxalt has a revealing history. As NBC News reported, Laxalt worked hard to try to overturn Trump’s Nevada loss as a senior member of his campaign. Earlier this year, Laxalt was caught on tape raising doubts about voting in urban areas, while explicitly pronouncing voting in heavily Republican areas “legitimate.”

What Laxalt is doing should be clear: He’s suggesting future election losses should be subject to nullification by whatever means are necessary or available, regardless of whether “fraud” actually happened or can even be convincingly alleged. The feigned anticipation of “fraud” is simply the pretext for this declaration.

Which brings us to the other development. Trump just pulled his endorsement from Rep. Mo Brooks, a GOP candidate for Senate in Alabama, to punish Brooks for advising Republicans to put the 2020 election “behind you.”

Trump raged that Brooks no longer cares about 2020, describing it as “rife with fraud.” You’ll recall that Brooks was a major advocate for Trump’s effort to overturn that outcome. No matter: His devotion to the New Lost Cause wavered ever so slightly, and that was it.

It may be that Trump yanked his support because Brooks is losing his primary, and Trump doesn’t want his endorsement to appear powerless. Yet even so, there’s a dead giveaway in Trump’s statement about Brooks: It declares that in combating election fraud, “tremendous progress has been made that will help us in 2022 and 2024.”

What sort of “progress” is Trump talking about? Let’s suggest he’s referring to his efforts to install numerous loyalists in positions of future control over election administration. Notably, Laxalt says much the same thing, arguing that things are better now.

In short, both appear to be gearing up to contest future election losses in court and perhaps beyond no matter what, simply by virtue of them being losses, even in the full knowledge that they are in fact procedurally legitimate.

All this gets sanitized by the presumption that good-faith but misguided concerns about voter fraud are the primary motivation here. As historian Thomas Zimmer suggests, it’s more plausible that in some essential sense, the “Stop the Steal” movement, which continues today, is deeply animated by the idea that democracy itself renders fundamentally illegitimate outcomes when the other side, chosen by the “wrong” voters, wins power.

This bears directly on whether we will see real accountability for Trump’s effort to destroy our political order to remain in power illegitimately. The argument that Trump and his co-conspirators actually believed the election had been stolen, and were merely trying to right that injustice, has emerged as central to their defense, even though the facts strongly suggest otherwise.

Something similar is happening with the claim that Trump and his supporters sincerely care about voter fraud, and are merely trying to build in protections against it, or merely want to fortify GOP voters’ confidence in our elections. It allows them to lay the groundwork to try to pull off successful election subversion next time, while piously posing as innocents.

However unlikely such a scheme is to succeed, let’s at least call this out for what it is.