Democratic primary voters care deeply about electability. What most want is simple: a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump in November. So they worry about whether former Vice President Joe Biden will inspire young people, and about whether Senator Bernie Sanders will scare away old people. They debate whether a political revolution is necessary to energize the base, or whether the revolution will dissuade independents. Will the historic candidacy of a woman or a gay man take off or implode?
But these concerns about policy and broad cultural appeal are secondary to the true “electability” crisis facing whichever Democrat wins the nomination: He or she will need to run against a president seemingly prepared, and empowered, to lie and cheat his way to reelection.
Factually, Trump’s position is rather weak. A stronger candidate would be flying higher, given the economic recovery that began (and yielded greater success) under President Barack Obama’s watch. While Trump remains an untouchable, vengeful god within the Republican Party and is competitive in crucial battleground states, he is relentlessly divisive. He must win back the suburban voters who handed the House of Representatives to Democrats in 2018—an especially difficult task now that he’s released an Achilles’ heel of a budget that would cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, and a host of other popular programs.
But—and this must be said out loud—the facts may not matter.
If past is prologue, Trump will say absolutely anything necessary to attract and maintain support, including patent untruths. His pathological lying has been well documented and yet never ceases to stun. By one count, he has told more than 15,000 lies since taking office. A small sampling: After falsely declaring that Hurricane Dorian was headed toward Alabama, he displayed a doctored map to cover his tracks, and his chief of staff made the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration release a statement defending his lie. Trump also recently claimed that he rescued health coverage for people with preexisting conditions—even though he has gutted the Affordable Care Act and is suing to overturn it. One day after tweeting, “We will not be touching your Social Security or Medicare in Fiscal 2021 Budget,” his budget revealed cuts to both.
How can Democrats run against a candidate who will simply deny his unpopular positions and make up nonexistent accomplishments? No amount of fact-checking can counter his constant stream of mendacity, which has become white noise in our political culture.
Lying, of course, is only one challenge. The Democratic nominee will also have to contend with cheating. After the 2016 election, the journalist Katy Tur offered an applicable analogy. She said that what made covering Trump as a reporter and running against him as a candidate so difficult was the way that scandals stuck—or didn’t stick—to him. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state was like a stain on her shirt that people couldn’t get past, because it was the only mark on an otherwise clean shirt. But Trump had so many stains that “you couldn’t tell if it was a stained shirt or if it was just supposed to be that way.”
The many ways Trump pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable political behavior, breaking norms and maybe even laws along the way to get what he wants, are so varied and numerous as to be blinding.
Sometimes his cheating is obvious, the equivalent of the kid in math class who leans over and copies your answers to the test. For example, he was impeached for tying aid to Ukraine to that country’s investigation of the Biden family—that is, for trying to hurt his then-likely rival in the 2020 election. He was nonetheless acquitted by a Senate Republican majority.
Vindicated, Trump will only get worse. He and the whole Republican Party seem intent on using the power of government to assist in the president’s reelection. Republican senators have already announced that they plan to look into the Biden family’s dealings in Ukraine, despite absolutely no evidence that Hunter Biden committed a crime or that the former vice president did anything but carry out U.S. foreign policy. Anyone who thinks these investigations are sincere should note that there is no comparable probe planned into the blatant corruption of sitting president Trump and his children.
Trump and members of the White House staff, meanwhile, are violating with impunity the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive-branch employees from using their position to influence an election. The president uses his personal Twitter account both for official business and as an arm of his political campaign; nobody bats an eye. The Office of Special Counsel recommended that senior adviser Kellyanne Conway be booted from federal service because she’s violated the Hatch Act so many times. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and one of his senior advisers, tweeted a campaign photo, and Sarah Sanders tweeted the campaign slogan (while she was still the White House press secretary). This White House believes—correctly, it seems—that it is entirely above the law.
These transgressions mark a dramatic departure from the norm. When I worked in the White House, there was a Halloween tradition of decorating the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where most staff worked, for their trick-or-treating children. In 2016, one of my speechwriting colleagues covered our office door with orange paper and glued on letters cut out of black and white construction paper that read, “Don’t Boo. Vote.”
It was a clever nod to President Obama’s oft-quoted line on the campaign trail urging people to make themselves heard at the ballot. However, the ethics lawyers in the White House counsel’s office demanded that the decoration be taken down, arguing (incredulously, in our view) that it violated the Hatch Act.
Perhaps the most troubling form of cheating is the most diffuse, and therefore the hardest to grasp. Trump’s reelection campaign, abetted by right-wing media and companies like Facebook that have absolved themselves of any democratic responsibility, is waging a disinformation war modeled on the efforts of dictators and unprecedented in its scale. As reported by this magazine, the campaign is prepared to spend $1 billion to harness digital media to the president’s advantage, including bot attacks, viral conspiracy theories, doctored videos, and microtargeted ads that distort reality.
The Trump campaign’s efforts are also bolstered by foreign actors. We know, and a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report confirmed, that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 election, and cybersecurity experts say that we should expect more and worse attacks in 2020. They could be as subtle as social-media accounts that stoke partisan differences or as blunt as software attacks on voter databases.
While Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not bring charges of conspiracy with Russia against Trump, he explicitly did not exonerate him. Unbowed, Trump openly repeated the very offense that got him impeached in the first place, inviting—in front of cameras—foreign actors like China to look into the Bidens.
At the same time, his campaign is fomenting distrust in the very system he is undermining. Using guerrilla tactics, his supporters jammed up the Iowa Democratic Party hotline on caucus night to sow chaos. Then, when the results indeed yielded chaos, Republican trolls, including Don Jr., tweeted out conspiracy theories about a rigged election. Worst of all, congressional Republicans are shamelessly blocking election-security bills, including two that would specifically fight foreign interference in American elections.
Should the lying and cheating fail—should the Democrat manage to win the 2020 election—Trump will have one more trick up his sleeve. Before the 2016 election, he suggested that he might not accept a defeat. So who’s to say that he will accept one in 2020? You don’t have to squint hard to see the clues: He retweeted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that he ought to have two years added to his term and “joked” about staying in office longer than eight years. If he loses in November, the litigious showman might claim that the election was rigged against him and theatrically contest the results in court.
The cumulative effect of Trump’s efforts, of all the stains on his shirt, is to disorient the media and the electorate. Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting about how aggressive to get on climate change or whether debt-free college should be means-tested—bless their hearts. These are worthy questions, but not the question of the moment: How should they fight against a president who has no moral or legal compass, and who will use the full might of the executive branch to win?
Electability, ultimately, cannot rest on the shoulders of whomever the party nominates, talented though that person may be. Electability does not depend, simply, on the nominee’s ability to earn the votes of a wide array of Americans in a few battleground states. It depends on all Americans’ willingness to demand an election that is, indeed, free and fair.