Ballot counting in the 2020 presidential election continues, although it sure looks like Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris are going to win. What has stood out on November 5 was the degree to which Trump and his team have governed by creating their own reality. Now that that image is being challenged, they are flailing.
Knowing he would lose the popular vote, Trump intended to win by arguing that Democrats had “stolen” his victory. Before the election, he talked about the dangers of mail-in ballots, setting up the idea that they would somehow be fraudulent, although there is no evidence of that. He expected—correctly, as it turned out—that mail-in ballots would be heavily Democratic while Republicans would vote in person on Election Day.
That set up a scenario in which the election results on November 3 would give an advantage to him, but as the hours wore on and the mail-in ballots got counted, the Democrats would gain ground. So he talked repeatedly of ending the count on the night of November 3, although ballot counting has always taken days.
He planned to challenge the counting of the mail-in ballots in the courts, all the while telling his supporters that Democrats were stealing his victory. If he could gin up enough chaos, he could buy time to throw the results into doubt and, perhaps, get the Supreme Court to enter the fight. There, he hoped for victory with the help of the three justices who owed him their seats.
He planned to subvert the election, staying in power thanks to his extraordinary ability to control the narrative, making people believe things that are not true.
The only thing that could stymie that narrative was overwhelming turnout from Democrats. To make that impossible, Trump’s team arranged to keep voters from the polls in places like Florida, and Texas, and enlisted Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to delay the mails so ballots would not be delivered in time to be counted.
But, in the end, their plans could not completely suppress those Americans fed up with the Trump administration. As I write this, Biden and Harris are winning the popular vote by more than 4 million votes, and the numbers are rising. If it weren’t for our antiquated Electoral College system, this election would already be over, decisively.
Instead, we are still waiting on the outcomes in Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Alaska. The unraveling of Trump’s plan to claim victory has been mesmerizing.
Until Tuesday night, everything seemed to be going according to plan. In the evening, Trump won Florida by about 375,000 votes, a victory certainly helped by the disfranchisement of 1.5 million ex-felons, whose voting rights Floridians had voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to restore. Florida’s 29 electoral votes made it look like Trump was on track to win, opening up room for him to declare victory even though many of the states he would need to win for real were still counting. If he could claim victory early on, any later correction would look like the election was being “stolen.”
But before he could take a victory lap, the Fox News Channel called Arizona for Biden long before anyone else did. Arizona had been a Trump state in 2016, so this meant a flip and undercut Trump’s claim to a commanding lead. Trump was furious. He and his aides worked Twitter and the phones, trying unsuccessfully to get FNC to retract the call and, when that failed, to discredit it.
As Trump fumed, the Biden campaign was watching its candidate’s numbers tick upward—again, as expected—and Biden gave a short statement Tuesday night saying the campaign felt good about where it was, and encouraging patience as election officials counted all ballots.
Trump then made a statement at 2:30 am Wednesday morning, claiming victory, demanding that officials stop counting mail-in ballots, and promising to take the election to the Supreme Court to decide. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he said. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win the election.”
But key Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, noted that a number of Republican Senate candidates ran more strongly than Trump did, meaning they no longer need him. They have clearly decided that Trump is no longer useful to them, and they went before television cameras in the morning to contradict him. They said that all ballots should be counted.
Since then, the president has been flailing. His legal team has been filing lawsuits to challenge ballot counting, but the suits are frivolous and keep getting thrown out. They are designed not to win legal points, but rather to do what Trump has always done politically: create a narrative that makes his supporters believe something that is not true. So, for example, his team has sued to have Republican observers in ballot counting areas, only to have to admit to a judge that they already have observers there. They are not righting a wrong; they are trying to set Trump’s supporters up to believe a lie.
Remember when, during the impeachment hearings, the Republicans dramatically stormed a hearing to demand they have access… when, in fact, members of the committees already had access and had been attending? Then, as now, it is all about creating a narrative.
By Thursday, November 5, Trump’s surrogates were escalating their attacks on the election process. The usual suspects—the Trump children, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and so on—have tried to cast doubt on the election, insisting that election officials should not be counting mail-in ballots that were cast on or before November 3 … except in Arizona.
Some were even more explicit about overturning our democratic process. Trump legal adviser Harmeet Dhillon told Lou Dobbs on the Fox News Channel: “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court- of which the president has nominated three justices- to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through.” Former White House chief strategist Steven Bannon went further, calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray to be beheaded “as a warning to federal bureaucrats. You either get with the program or you are gone.” Twitter banned Bannon permanently.
Trump addressed his sliding fortunes on November 5 with a statement that will go down in the annals of the American presidency alongside Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech trying to regain control of the runaway Watergate story. In front of a wall of flags, speaking a low voice and tripping over his words at times, he rambled through a wild attack on the election, claiming it was being stolen from him. MSNBC cut away from his remarks almost immediately, noting they were lies; ABC News made it about five minutes. Fact-checker Daniel Dale tweeted: “I’ve read or watched all of Trump’s speeches since 2016. This is the most dishonest speech he’s ever given.”
It felt Shakespearean, like the desperate attempt of a man who has lost control of the narrative to try to claw it back, even as we all know it’s gone beyond all recovery. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper said, it was “sad and truly pathetic…. That is the most powerful person in the world, and we see him like an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over. But he just hasn’t accepted it, and he wants to take everybody down with him, including this country.”
In the wake of Trump’s statement, more Republican officials condemned his attack on democracy. Then 19 former U.S. Attorneys, all of whom served under Republican presidents, released a statement condemning Trump’s “premature, baseless and reckless” attacks on the election process. “We hereby call upon the president to patiently and respectfully allow the lawful vote-counting process to continue, in accordance with applicable federal and state laws, and to avoid any further comments or other actions which can serve only to undermine our democracy,” they wrote. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier told his audience that “We have not seen the hard evidence” of the fraud Trump’s campaign claims.
The Secret Service sent reinforcements to Wilmington, Delaware, on November 5 to surround Biden in a protective bubble, in anticipation of what many expect to be a victory speech some time on Friday, November 6.