But there was no such call, and there was no such front page. Erroneous projections of a winner in Florida did occur then, given the ultimate margin of a few hundred votes. But the post-Election Day period that year was defined by uncertainty, not by the declaration of a winner. This year, the determination that Biden won is based on his large (and often growing) leads in enough states to give him a majority of electoral votes.
One could attribute Murtaugh’s tweet to a simple mistake were it not for the fact that Murtaugh, the Trump campaign and its allies in conservative media have all been actively and earnestly engaged for days in bad-faith and obviously untrue efforts to undercut the results of the election. One could be generous in assessing the incident were we not seeing another iteration of a long-standing tactic from Trumpworld: assuming a false claim and then whipping up as many suspicious allegations as possible to make the claim seem feasible.
We could easily walk through all of the ways in which the latest blizzard of nonsense is just that. That claims of dead people voting in Pennsylvania and Michigan were untrue. That a wild conspiracy theory about a nefarious vote-changing machine derived from a well-known hoaxster. That “statistical analysis” of suspicious voting patterns is a misunderstanding of statistics. That improper votes alleged in Nevada are often just military ballots. Few of these claims have made it to court; the claims that did have already been robustly rejected, including the idea that election observers were prevented from watching vote-counting. State officials have repeatedly indicated that they’ve seen no evidence of suspicious activity.
What’s happening at the moment is precisely what Trump promised would happen. For months, recognizing that Biden supporters were more likely to cast ballots by mail, Trump alleged that these ballots were suspect, which they are not. He claimed repeatedly that he would lose only if fraud occurred, which was also untrue. The media repeatedly pointed out that these assertions were both false and intended to challenge a legitimate result, but Trump supporters didn’t hear it, either because it wasn’t included in Sean Hannity’s Fox News programming or because they chose not to.
Now Trump’s campaign is eagerly looking for any evidence it can muster to validate its assertions in any way it can. It has set up a hotline for people to submit allegations of fraud even while presuming that fraud has occurred. (The hotline has become a popular target of prank phone calls.) It started from Trump’s conclusion that the only way he could have lost was through fraud, and is now trying to build a path to reach it — or, at least, to obscure the reality of Biden’s win.
To do so, the campaign is being aided by the same galaxy of public voices and pundits that have bent over backward for four years to decontextualize, rationalize and bolster Trump’s obviously false claims. There’s a great deal of currency on the right in rushing to “prove” the things that Trump alleges and we’re still at the tail end of that gold rush.
The best example is the Trumpworld response to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. There remains no good evidence that the probe was launched to try to undercut Trump, but such motivation is taken as gospel by the president’s acolytes. That evidence has emerged both from a Department of Justice investigation and research from a bipartisan Senate committee showing an exchange of information between Trump’s campaign manager and an alleged Russian agent is set aside in favor of text messages exchanged by two FBI officials. That a key adviser to Trump credibly claimed to have foreknowledge of the release of material stolen by Russian intelligence goes unmentioned while a warrant obtained against someone no longer on Trump’s campaign team is embraced as proof the president was targeted.
This all begins from the assumption that Trump did nothing wrong and was unfairly targeted by the administration of President Barack Obama. Everything else follows from that, every sketchy allegation is viable solely because it bolsters the argument it’s supposed to be proving. This group of pundits and right-wing writers asserts that it was the mainstream media that got the Russia investigation wrong while assuring themselves and each other that they are the true seers, the ones shining a light in the darkness. Their agreement with one another forms an airtight bubble with Trump resting comfortably at its center.
The result, though, is a galaxy of voices whose credibility is largely limited to that bubble. It's many of those voices who are now working to bolster Trump's assertions that the election was tainted, finding an appreciative audience within Trump's universe but well-earned skepticism from outside of it.
There may yet emerge isolated examples of illegal voting in the 2020 election. No one has ever said such things never occur — see North Carolina in 2018, for example — just that there’s no evidence of a systemic, robust effort to cast illegal votes. No evidence, that is, of anything that would call into question the results of the election.
It’s worth pointing out that the construction of rationales for Trump’s claims usually occurs outside of his control. Trump says something for which there’s no evidence, and his team goes to work ginning up whatever evidence it can. Fake newspaper front pages, claims about “unmasking,” that sort of thing. In the past, we’ve seen this effort to prove Trump’s point result in Trump’s becoming more entrenched.
So far, as The Post’s Aaron Blake wrote Sunday, the president’s effort to win election through the courts has lacked the expected Trumpian fervency. But perhaps we’re still at the front end here, with his team scrambling to find the thing that will eventually serve as the latticework for the rest of his claims. It need not be directly related to actual fraudulent ballots at all, it just needs to be grist for the pro-Trump bubble. And if it emerges, the Trumpworld effort for him to retain power may become a lot more energetic.