What the video wasn’t was a compelling argument for the idea that the 2020 presidential contest was somehow marred by fraud. It was, almost literally, a distillation of the past four weeks of rants, allegations and accusations, including countless examples of claims which have already been soundly debunked. That sudden surge of votes seen in Wisconsin, something so compelling in Trump’s eyes that he brought a visual aid to demonstrate it? We dispatched that on Nov. 11: It was just the county of Milwaukee reporting its results. Whether it’s more worrisome if Trump knew it had been debunked or if he didn’t is up to you to determine.
Since polls closed Nov. 3, Trump’s public response to his loss has been one of exasperation, the spoiled child suddenly told that he can’t do something he wants to do. Some part of this is political, an effort to lash out at President-elect Joe Biden and to impose an emotional cost on Democrats broadly. But there’s obviously something deeper and more psychological at play, a darker shadow of refusal and frustration and fury that can’t as easily be countered with simple rationality.
For all of the reporting about how Trump understands that he lost the race and is discussing a potential run in 2024, the speech released Wednesday did not convey any calculated assessment of the situation. It was a cri de coeur that, given the season, begs comparisons to the Festivus airing of grievances from George Costanza’s father on “Seinfeld” — another older Queens man unable to gracefully accept the nature of the world around him.
Introducing that comparison, though, risks diminishing the danger of Trump’s commentary.
Again, there wasn’t anything new to it. It was a pastiche of so much that we’ve heard so often. It presented no coherent case for the existence of fraud, instead substituting a volume of accusations for an abundance of proof. Having hundreds of people make unfounded allegations isn’t proof of wrongdoing, as any review of those sheaves of affidavits collected by Trump’s campaign from various supporters makes clear. Having one person make hundreds of unfounded allegations isn’t proof either — but Trump’s goal isn’t proving each point. It’s getting Americans to accept maybe just one or two, so that they’re receptive to his broader point: Something Must Be Done.
That something isn’t clear. At first it was to block the counting of ballots that were showing he lost key states such as Pennsylvania. Then it was to block the certification of votes in states such as Michigan. Then it was to try to get state legislatures to appoint new, Trump-friendly electors to the electoral college. Then it was to get a case to the Supreme Court where something magical would slice through the Gordian knot tied by American voters.
In the speech, Trump made vague demands that someone — anyone — intervene.
“This election was rigged. Everybody knows it,” he said. “I don’t mind if I lose an election, but I want to lose an election fair and square. What I don’t want to do is have it stolen from the American people. That’s what we’re fighting for, and we have no choice to be doing that.”
“We already have the proof. We already have the evidence, and it’s very clear,” he continued. “Many people in the media — and even judges — so far have refused to accept it. They know it’s true. They know it’s there. They know who won the election, but they refuse to say you’re right. Our country needs somebody to say, ‘You’re right.’ ”
He’s not right. His purported evidence is nothing more than a dusting of allegations from motivated parties claiming that something unprovably wrong occurred. The media does know who won the election: Joe Biden. But, for whatever reason, Trump cannot bring himself to say that.
There’s a new burbling among Trump’s supporters that follows his claims to their logical endpoint. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his former attorney have endorsed the idea that Trump should somehow try to step outside the boundaries of the Constitution to force some sort of re-vote supervised by the military: an overt coup to supplant Trump’s lazier attempt. Trump didn’t endorse that idea in his speech, but, given what he’s already endorsed, we shouldn’t assume the thought hasn’t crossed his mind.
The essential question of the moment is how far Trump wants to go. Was this his way of sulking? Was the speech a lengthy vent, an airing of grievances without peer in American history? Or was it a sign Trump will continue to want to push the understood boundaries of what our electoral system allows?
The second most important question is whether his enthusiastic base of supporters will recognize the difference between those two motivations.