For some groups, including Trump’s reelection campaign, fear is also useful for ginning up money. The above threats and myriad others have been cited in public speeches or fundraising emails with an explicit appeal: We need your money to prevent disasters such as a stolen election from befalling us.
None of this is unique to Republicans or the right, but it is an obvious undercurrent to the moment. The Washington Post’s examination of a private conservative gathering included numerous appeals from presenters to this alleged threat looming over the country, a threat manifested in fraud, deceit and civil unrest. A report in the New York Times considered the grass-roots effect of the same thinking: armed groups concerned about the election being stolen from Trump preparing for conflict.
Much of this fear is bolstered by claims that fundamentally aren’t true. I understand very well that a reporter for The Post saying the claims are false is unlikely to persuade the most fervent theorists, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are.
Here are five.
All things being equal, Trump would inevitably win reelection. Last month, pollsters for Gallup asked Americans who they expected to win the 2020 election. Overall, 56 percent of respondents said they thought Trump would. Among Democrats, a quarter figured Trump will win; among Republicans, 90 percent did.
It’s understandable that a quarter of Democrats might feel uncertainty about the results of the election, given the confidence they felt coming into Election Day four years ago. That 90 percent of Republicans think Trump will win, though, probably reflects something more expansive. Trump himself has insisted repeatedly that he’ll win in November, barring the contest being “rigged” against him. He has claimed that polling is wrong and that his support is undercounted, a claim that again leverages the broadly unexpected outcome in 2016.
But it is clearly not the case that Trump is the person most likely to win in November, assuming votes are cast and counted without interference. Former vice president Joe Biden leads Trump by a double-digit margin nationally with 19 days to go. Biden leads in most swing states and in states that Trump won by healthy margins in 2016.
Considered from a 10,000-foot perspective, the most likely outcome of the contest is that Trump loses, not that he inevitably wins. But it’s not just the polls (which we will look at more in a moment). The current polling tracks with everything we know about Trump’s presidency: steep partisanship in how he’s viewed, and Democratic energy aimed at weakening or rescinding his power.
From the first months of his presidency, his approval ratings were fixed in concrete. Democrats loathed him and Republicans loved him, with independents leaning more toward the former. For all of the tumult we’ve seen since, his approval ratings have barely budged, caught a bit below-center in a tug-of-war between two incredibly strong forces.
In special elections leading up to 2018 and in 2018 itself, this translated into political losses for Trump. A president overseeing an economy as strong as the one the country had in November 2018 was a president whose party would lose only a handful of House seats. A president viewed as negatively as Trump was, though, could expect to lose dozens — which is what happened.
Trump’s political opponents have taken advantage of opportunities to express opposition to his presidency, and no opportunity is bigger than this year’s election. Yes, having Trump on the ballot will spur more of his base to vote. But that base wasn’t large enough to get his approval rating over 50 percent at any point in his presidency, so it’s hard to see why we should assume it would necessarily be enough to get him easily reelected.
The polls are not trustworthy. Part of the belief that Trump is necessarily well-positioned to win is a rejection of the idea that polls are accurately capturing the state of the race.
This skepticism isn’t entirely without cause, of course. In 2016, Trump beat several state polling averages to eke out victories that gave him an electoral college majority. Those state polls suggested that Hillary Clinton had about a 3-in-4 chance of winning, but Trump hit the jackpot on his bet.
Now, the state polls are both more favorable to Biden and cognizant of where they erred in 2016. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are precisely accurate. No poll is, as any pollster will tell you. But even assuming that they are wrong by the same margins that they were in 2016, Biden’s path to the White House is wide.
Generally speaking, “the polls are wrong” criticisms aren’t rooted in an actual assessment of what the polls have gotten wrong or right. I can explore and have explored why polls are reliable, including that they accurately captured the late-election narrowing that allowed Trump to win four years ago. I can explain and have explained why the Trump campaign’s latest arguments against the polls are similarly wrong. I can articulate and have articulated why the idea that Trump’s support is being dramatically underestimated is unfounded.
The simplest thing to do, though, is to point to Trump’s insistence during the 2016 primaries that polls showing him with a broad lead were accurate. And they were! A lot of pundits were dubious that they would hold, but they held, accurately tracking the opinions of Republican voters. Over and over at his rallies, Trump would pull the latest primary polls out of his pocket and rattle off their findings. He understood they were right and treated them as such.
Then the polls started saying Trump was unpopular, and Trump started saying they were wrong.
Mail-in ballots — and elections generally — are subject to rampant fraud. Because Trump clearly privately understands he’s trailing Biden and because many of Biden’s votes will come in the form of mail-in ballots, the president has embarked on a truly staggering effort to undermine confidence in those votes.
He has done this before, of course. In 2016, he repeatedly claimed people regularly cast illegal ballots while voting in person, alleging in August of that year that this was the only way he would lose Pennsylvania. When he won several states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan by narrow margins, his campaign sought to block recounts that might have eroded or reversed his leads. In a court filing in Michigan, his legal team explicitly argued that there was no evidence of fraud in the election and, therefore, no need to recount the ballots.
Since he lost the popular vote, though, Trump began claiming that there was in-person fraud — millions of votes from immigrants in California, for example. Just enough, conveniently that he could purport to be the real winner of the popular vote, which, of course, he wasn’t.
There was and is no evidence of any significant fraud affecting the 2016 contest. Saying there is no evidence that millions of ballots were cast illegally in California is like saying that there’s no evidence that the sky is composed of four large blue cats; the assertion is so ridiculous that even addressing it seems a waste of time.
But all of this context is important for considering Trump’s newfound and inconsistent claims about mail-in votes. There is no evidence of rampant, systemic fraud in mail-in voting, something we’ve covered over and over. Here’s perhaps the most comprehensive look at the subject, and here’s a quiz helpfully differentiating between things that look like they might lead to fraud (dead people on the voter rolls and so on) and things that have been shown to be vectors for fraudulent voting.
To put a fine point on it: Trump is saying mail-in ballots are fraudulent because he wants to be able to say they should be discounted. In 2016, he did this after the fact to save face over losing the popular vote. This year, he seems to be doing it proactively to be able to contest vote-counting after Election Day. In neither case, though, is his assertion valid.
There is a concerted effort to steal the election from Trump or to rig it against him. The claims above overlap with a broad assertion that there’s a grand conspiracy to prevent Trump from being reelected.
At times, Trump has argued that polling is meant to suppress the enthusiasm of his base, a claim that is wrong both directly — reputable polls are simply measuring support — and indirectly, given that he was saying this in June, well before anyone was voting and, therefore, well before enthusiasm about voting mattered. At other times, Trump has alleged that incidents like ballots being improperly discarded in Pennsylvania are evidence of a broad Democratic plot to wrench the election away from him. That incident, later shown not to have involved fraud at all, was never connected to anything resembling a national anti-Trump conspiracy, despite one alleged in vague strokes by Trump himself.
There is certainly a widespread effort to deny Trump reelection. Biden’s campaign and the Democratic Party, among others, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars with that specific aim. But there is no evidence that there are efforts to secretly change the rules to disadvantage Trump. Yes, some states have introduced expanded mail-in voting, but that’s a function of the coronavirus pandemic, not of trying to defeat Trump (much less, as some have claimed, to allow for rampant systemic fraud, which, again, doesn’t demonstrably exist).
As has been a theme for Trump since the outset of his first presidential bid, anything that disadvantages him in any way is often dismissed as part of a broad effort to see him fail. To Trump and many of his allies, Trump necessarily sits at the center of the political universe and anything that happens in that universe is focused on undercutting him or his allies.
A good example of this has been the emergent focus on social media companies over the past few years. After their platforms were used to sow hateful rhetoric and disinformation in the 2016 campaign, Facebook, Google and Twitter faced calls to introduce new guide rails muting virulently negative speech and blocking false information. When Twitter implemented efforts to reduce the volume of trolling posts, for example, conservatives affected by the change insisted it was a function of their politics, which was not obviously the case. The purported bias of social media companies became a rallying point, bolstered by dubious claims and reports.
As Trump and his allies have increased their false rhetoric about mail-in voting, Twitter and Facebook have been more aggressive about flagging or muting the claims being made. It becomes a feedback loop: Trump says something false, it’s flagged, the companies are accused of bias, and people try to amplify Trump’s original false claim. That cycle hit a new apex this week, when the New York Post published a report that raised numerous red flags suggesting a disinformation effort. Twitter and Facebook limited the ability to share the report, a decision that will certainly be debated over the next few months. To Trump’s defenders, though, the throughline was clear: Prominent platforms were primarily focused on hurting Trump and conservatives.
It’s worth stepping back: It is unlikely that the only thing standing between Trump and four more years as president was people being unable to read the New York Post’s report. The idea that Trump’s real and imagined opponents are engaging in devious activity to illicitly harm him is simply unsupported by the evidence.
Democrats are acting like dictators, with antifa poised to launch a violent uprising against the right. When we learned last week that members of an armed anti-government group in Michigan allegedly planned to kidnap and potentially assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.), the link between the suspects’ purported rhetoric and Trump’s was obvious. Trump had disparaged Whitmer repeatedly, calling for the state to be “liberated” from restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus (restrictions that, at the time, his administration ostensibly supported). He amplified assertions that Whitmer was acting like a tyrant, something the plotters allegedly said themselves.
Trump’s reaction to the plot wasn’t to express appreciation for law enforcement’s having stopped it. Instead, he didn’t react until Whitmer publicly linked his rhetoric to the plot. Then he disparaged the governor on Twitter. In an interview on Thursday, Trump said that Whitmer “wants to be a dictator in Michigan,” a reiteration of the sort of rhetoric for which he was being criticized.
The president has repeatedly claimed that states with Democratic governors have maintained coronavirus restrictions to hurt the economy and, therefore, his reelection chances. This, again, is a function of his seeing himself at the center of the political world: It’s not about preventing new infections; it’s about governors being willing to punish their constituents simply to hurt him. Regardless, it’s wrong. Most states have significantly scaled back restrictions, at times helping spur surges in cases. But Trump sees it as useful to cast the governors as opposed to liberty and democracy because he wants to pressure them to open up more, however that affects public health. It’s not that governors are holding back to hurt him. He’s mad that they’re not prioritizing helping him.
Trump also thinks it’s useful to claim that there’s a violent, terroristic group of antifascists developing plans to foment widespread violence. Antifa does exist as a loose-knit ideology with some adherents who have engaged in violence. But there’s no evidence that there exists a significant national threat of vandalism or violence from its adherents. Trump likes to talk about antifa, because it lets him cast the left as dangerous in the same way that he usually depicts immigrants, but even his allies at the Justice Department haven’t managed to uproot any such threat.
Nonetheless, Trump supporters and others have focused on this idea that antifa is looking to hurt or destroy them. Over the summer, a number of obviously ludicrous assertions were being made about antifa plotting horrible acts against rural towns, suburban areas or cities. Some of those assertions were spread by Trump himself. This idea has at times served as a justification for his supporters to stock up on firearms and be on the lookout for enemies, an obviously fraught escalation.
All of this, in fact, points in the same direction: Nefarious actors are lying and plotting and scheming to hurt Trump and hurt his supporters and thrust the United States into a totalitarian state. Amplifying such fears helps Trump motivate his supporters and solicit campaign contributions. It aids his organizational allies by similarly encouraging membership and fundraising. But it’s all a house of cards.
There is a reason we moved from “Trump will win” to “antifa will burn down your suburban home” in addressing these theories. They tend to escalate, with each ensuing theory extending off a theory the listener already accepts as true. It’s not the case that having little confidence in the accuracy of polls means you’re inevitably going to buy an AR-15 to repel black bloc/antifa invaders threatening your front lawn, but fostering misinformation in the microcosm often leads to macrocosmic problems.
But fear is useful, so it is used.