Last year, the book “How to Rig an Election,” which one of us co-authored, revealed how authoritarian leaders around the world manipulate elections to keep themselves in power. Sometimes these strategies are obvious, including stuffing ballot boxes and arresting opposition leaders. But often they are more subtle.
Trump is already using four of the strategies in that book, as we’ll examine below.
1. Discredit the system
Smart dictators know to get their excuses in early so that they can delegitimize the election should they lose. Authoritarian populists such as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan typically claim that nefarious forces – foreign governments, nameless “enemies of the people” – are trying to undermine them. This then lets leaders break the law themselves: If the system has been “hacked,” there is no moral imperative to play by the rules.
Trump has followed this pattern since before he became president: by suggesting that he wouldn’t accept the results of the 2016 presidential election should he lose; by falsely claiming afterward that millions had voted illegally; and in claiming the 2018 midterm elections included “massively infected” ballots. Trump has taken a similar approach to the 2020 presidential election, claiming that mail-in voting will be “rigged.” All this enables him to blame any electoral misfortune on the system.
Ironically, leaders who use this strategy often deliberately maintain weak electoral systems. This makes it easier for them or their allies to intervene to “fix” the vote if other manipulations don’t deliver a victory. Consistent with this strategy, Trump has done little to protect U.S. election equipment and infrastructure – despite evidence that foreign governments targeted “voter registration systems or state websites” in at least 21 states in 2016, while researchers have demonstrated the vulnerability of electronic voting machines to hacking.
2. Divide and rule
When faced with flagging public support, dictators commonly seek to revive their fortunes by playing divide-and-rule politics. In Kenya in the 1990s, President Daniel arap Moi’s government used divisive campaign messages and incited violence among different ethnic communities to rally its supporters and intimidate rivals, and so was able to hold onto power despite his unpopularity.
While democracies’ election campaigns always involve criticizing the opposition, Trump acts more like a dictator than a democratic leader by deliberately exacerbating social tensions and routinely encouraging violence against his political opponents. For instance, he recently retweeted messages saying things like “the only good democrat is a dead democrat” and sent in the National Guard to clear peaceful protests over the police killing of George Floyd. This is dangerous for democracy, which requires precisely the kind of “mutual toleration” that Trump has consistently undermined.
3. Suppress the vote
Demonizing the opposition works with another strategy used by dictators around the world: voter suppression. In Zimbabwe, the government of ex-dictator Robert Mugabe went to great lengths to systematically disenfranchise a million people, preventing them from voting for the opposition.
Trump and Republican leaders in states the party controls have behaved similarly. Since Barack Obama’s election, more than 30 states have introduced measures that make it more difficult to register to vote, despite widespread evidence that voter fraud is minuscule. These measures disenfranchise those who don’t have easy access to the newly required documentation – usually poorer, black and Latino voters, who tend to vote Democrat. While state governments enacted these measures, their actions were pushed and justified by Trump.
4. Distort the truth and attack the news media
All these strategies are furthered by disseminating falsehoods. Making up lies about rival candidate and protesters can be a powerful way to discredit them, as President Daniel Ortega has shown in Nicaragua. Creating a “post-truth” world in which a leader’s supporters do not believe facts that portray them in a negative light insulates their support base from critical media coverage and makes it easier to claim victory in elections the leader actually lost.
Trump has used this strategy frequently both before and since becoming president. He put himself on the political map by aggressively promulgating birtherism, and since then has routinely spread false stories about his political opponents. In addition to promoting his own falsehoods, Trump has worked to undermine public confidence in the traditional news media, even referring to the media as “the enemy of the people.”
The risks ahead
Biden warned that Trump might refuse to leave the White House after losing. But another possibility is that Trump will win, but only because of his efforts to manipulate the election. This would be similar to Brian Kemp’s recent gubernatorial victory in Georgia, which he may have won because of his voter suppression efforts as secretary of state. Such strategies are so effective because they hit the “sweet spot” of electoral manipulation, conferring a massive advantage on the incumbent without, in most cases, actually being illegal.
Another possibility is that the election’s outcome will not immediately be clear, as happened in the recent Iowa Democratic primary and in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Here’s how that might go. Because of the pandemic, large-scale mail-in ballots slow vote counting in one or more key swing states. In the resulting vacuum, Trump declares victory prematurely. When mail-in ballots counted later hand victory to Biden, Trump questions those ballots’ legitimacy, undermines news media stories about election results, demonizes his opponents as corrupt, and uses all this to encourage Republican state legislatures to send their own set of electors to the Electoral College instead of those chosen by the state’s citizens.
What would happen then? No one knows.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article gave incorrect dates for Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi’s efforts to manipulate elections. We regret the error.