You create a fiction: You tell the world that you are not losing, and that you have no intention of being defeated.
And so, on Wednesday, when a journalist asked President Trump if he would commit to making sure there’s a peaceful transfer of power after the election, Trump responded by saying, “We're going to have to see what happens. As you know I’ve been complaining about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster.” (The ballots are not, in fact, a “disaster.”) He went on to say: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, there will be a continuation.” Not surprisingly, the spectacle of the U.S. president announcing to the world that he plans to get rid of ballots so that there won’t be a transfer of power triggered massive outrage.
But Trump doesn’t have the power to get rid of the ballots. Trump doesn’t control state elections. While he can certainly try to bring legal challenges, those challenges would need a legal basis. He probably won’t succeed in trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden if he loses. Trump is still doing what he always does: attempting to make his imaginary world — where he’s all-powerful and could only lose if his opponents cheat — into reality, in hopes of rallying his voters and panicking the rest of us.
The Trump campaign is already musing about finding ways for the president to steal the election. An anonymous legal adviser to Trump’s camp told the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman that Republican-controlled state legislatures are contemplating sending Trump-supporting slates of electors in for the electoral college vote count, even if Biden wins their states.
That isn’t as easy as it might sound. While the Constitution gives states the authority to allocate their electoral votes as they wish, every state has laws giving that power to the voters. For that matter, each state has laws for how their elections will be monitored and certified, and how the electoral votes will be cast. The legislature cannot suddenly reallocate that power without amending their laws. If they want to amend the laws, they have to follow their states’ procedures — which includes the possibility that governors could veto such legislation, which would certainly happen in a state such as Pennsylvania, which has a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. Republicans there don’t have enough statehouse votes to override a veto. Similar problems would arise in other states.
GOP state legislators that could make a difference in the election would also have to want to defy the laws and ignore the will of their constituents. Even if they could, it’s not clear that state lawmakers would choose this route, which would effectively install Trump as a dictator. Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP political consultant, wrote in a book published this summer that “the vast majority of Republican elected officials know Donald Trump is unfit to be president.” Even Republicans willing to defy norms to get conservative judges might not want all power concentrated in Trump’s hands — which would mean putting themselves completely at Trump’s mercy and giving up all their own power.
But Trump’s campaign wants Americans to think that Trump can, with the snap of his fingers, order state legislatures to defy their own laws — and that they’ll do it.
When Trump makes an outrageous statement like, “we can throw away the ballots and avoid having to transfer power,” he triggers another outrage cycle. His critics, who have watched him breaking rules and defying norms for years, think he can pull it off. They panic and announce that Trump will steal the election.
And suddenly, Trump transforms himself from a loser to a winner by creating a fiction.
That’s partly why Trump “governs” by keeping everyone in a state of high emotions. He keeps his base energized. He keeps his critics enraged. Nobody can look away because they have no idea what he will do next. We forget what happened yesterday and can’t think ahead to tomorrow.
The outrage cycle entirely hijacks the national conversation. Everyone must now discuss whether Trump can get rid of ballots, and whether the state legislatures and the courts will really install Trump as dictator. Symbolic resolutions are passed; the White House doesn’t quite walk back the line. People become convinced that he can pull it off. The argument generally runs like this: “Trump ignored subpoenas! He got away with obstructing justice! Of course he can steal the election!” This is like arguing that a guy got away with speeding, so he can certainly get away with robbing 10 banks. But one genius of Trump’s endless cycle of outrage is that logic — like laws and the truth — gets undermined. It’s hard to think clearly when you’re sputtering with rage.
Thus Trump creates a fantasy world in which he is an unstoppable winner, and his critics inadvertently lend credence to the fantasy by acting as if it is true.
This is not to say Trump is not dangerous. He is. This is not to say Trump would not willingly lie, cheat, steal, and even let more than 200,000 Americans die if he thought it would get him reelected. He would.
But he does not control elections in 50 states and the District of Columbia. He cannot get rid of ballots. He does not decide who won the election. He does not choose when he leaves the White House. And on top of that, he loses constantly. Did Mexico ever build that wall? Did Democrats not win the 2018 elections? If Trump could fix elections, Nancy Pelosi would not be speaker of the House. In Wisconsin’s special election just this past April, Trump threw his support behind Dan Kelly while the GOP did all it could to suppress the Democratic vote. Kelly still lost.
If we play into Trump’s hands and act as if he has the power to throw out votes and declare himself the winner of the election, we help give credence to the lie that he is all-powerful, and thus help create a reality based on Trump’s wishful thinking. The way to keep his fantasy from coming true is to avoid panicking and contributing to the hysteria — and to vote him out.