The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Losing an election, Trump chooses to slander American democracy

President Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday.
President Trump speaks at the White House on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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PRESIDENT TRUMP did the country the favor of explaining ahead of time how he planned to falsely allege the rigging of the election for his opponent. Thursday evening in the White House, he followed up with a series of preposterous, inflammatory lies about the vote-counting process. “There’s been tremendous corruption and fraud going on,” he said.

Let’s be absolutely clear: There is zero — zero — evidence of fraud or corruption. What Mr. Trump sees as nefarious is something more mundane though undoubtedly painful for him: He is losing. On election night in some states, he held a lead in partial counts. Then, as mail-in ballots were counted, his lead was “whittled away,” as he said. The explanation is obvious to everyone except, apparently, the president. He railed so much against mail-in voting before the election that few Republicans voted that way. Most of the mailed ballots therefore favor Democrat Joe Biden. Now officials are counting the votes — with observers watching, contrary to another Trump lie; with both Republican and Democratic election officials participating, contrary to another Trump lie; and in accordance with the rules, contrary to yet another Trump lie.

For news networks and platforms, these relentless, bald-faced falsehoods present an almost insuperable challenge. Hashtags exhorting readers to “stop the steal” exploded in popularity after Mr. Trump used Twitter to accuse Joe Biden of trying to “STEAL the election,” and then took to television to claim baselessly that he had won and that any other outcome would constitute a “fraud.”

Speaking for the first time since election night, President Trump made a litany of false and misleading claims about voting and election results on Nov. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Purveyors of propaganda within Mr. Trump’s circle needed no further cues. Eric Trump shared a fake “ballot-burning” video originally from sources affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory; he also announced, “We have won Pennsylvania!” even as evidence to the contrary flowed in. Newt Gingrich launched allegations of vote theft on “Fox & Friends”; Rush Limbaugh shared a viral lie about more votes than registered voters arriving in Wisconsin; hyperpartisan outlets such as One America News declared a second term for the incumbent (“MSM hopes you don’t believe your eyes”).

News networks, platforms and other intermediaries to the public can try to contain the damage. Twitter’s aggressive labeling of misleading posts coupled with its sharing restrictions have proved fairly effective, though catching those who echo the original falsehoods is tougher. Facebook’s label-only strategy has been somewhat less effective but still useful. YouTube has lacked a policy almost entirely.

Television networks also are struggling with how to handle an unprecedented assault on democracy consisting of patently incorrect but newsworthy claims. Thankfully, anchors have mostly been forceful at pushing back: Fox News’s Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, among others, have set the facts straight on many of the fanciful fraud accusations. Of course, these efforts would be more effective if their network contended with its own disinformation superspreaders, including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, by challenging their mendacity in something closer to real time. As Mr. Trump spewed lie after insidious lie from the White House press room Thursday evening, many networks cut away entirely. CNN continued to air his remarks, most of the time with a chyron pointing out their bogusness; Fox News’s chyron at one point simply quoted Mr. Trump saying, without proof, “WE HAVE SO MUCH PROOF.”

We hope, even after so many disappointments, that other Republican leaders will stand up to this most vile attack on the integrity of American democracy and say, “Enough.” Whether they do or not, we are confident that election officials across the country will continue doing their job: counting every vote. We are confident, too, that most Americans will see these lies for what they are: desperate and despicable.

Read more:

Edward B. Foley: Trump wants the courts to stop the counting. He’s going to be disappointed.

Paul Waldman: A quick guide to Trump’s legal efforts to throw out votes — and why they’ll fail

Colbert I. King: Whether he goes or stays, Trump has done damage that can’t be forgiven

The Post’s View: Election Day promises to be full of misinformation. Here’s how we can all stop its spread.

Megan McArdle: How Twitter and Facebook’s attempt to squelch a dubious Biden story backfired