Trump Is Trying to Trick Americans Into Giving Up on Democracy

For the election to succeed, voters must think and act as if it will succeed.

An illustration of a ballot
The Atlantic

Democracy depends on belief in democracy—on an extraordinary leap of faith by ordinary people that their rulers will abide by the rules, that their votes will count, that their compatriots won’t tear the country apart, that lies won’t become truth. When the checks and balances have all given way, the last barrier to an authoritarian regime is public opinion. It will stand or fall on November 3.

According to a new poll by the international organization More in Common, the only issue that matters to Americans across the political spectrum is the integrity of the November presidential election. In the same poll, more than three-quarters of Americans—again, from left to right—still express a belief that citizens can change society through their actions. And yet similarly large majorities expect high levels of voter fraud or voter suppression in November; trust in government, the media, and one another is abysmally low. Another recent poll, by YouGov, finds that just 22 percent of Americans expect the election to be free and fair; when told that experts say the election cannot be rigged, only 19 percent believe it. Americans are in the desperate position of clinging to something precious that they expect to betray them.

Democratic faith turns out to be as fragile as it is necessary, and Trump specializes in undermining it. When he repeatedly asserts massive fraud months before Election Day, announces that he won’t respect results that go against him, and refuses to promise a peaceful transfer of power—the litmus test of democracy—he is forcing Americans into a mental trap that can resemble madness. The president says that the election is rigged, and he also insinuates that he will rig the election. To believe him is frightening; to discount him is foolish. Either way, Trump becomes ever more powerful, while the people—on whose consent his power entirely depends—slip into passivity and paralysis, or are pushed into rage, even political violence.

This is exactly the atmosphere of chaos in which Trump thrives. He makes it almost impossible to hold on to the idea that the election can be free and fair. But the survival of democracy, which lives and dies in our minds before anywhere else, depends on that idea. For the election to succeed, we have to think and act as if it will succeed.

Stealing an election remains extremely difficult, and almost impossible if the vote isn’t close. The Brennan Center for Justice has just released two reports that detail a number of improvements made by states, after failures during the primaries, to ensure voting accessibility and integrity. For example, 11 states have recently relaxed their rules to allow all voters to submit their ballot by mail; just five of the 50 still require a justification. “Litigation attempts by the Trump campaign and Republican committees to block state election officials from allowing everyone to vote absentee have so far been uniformly unsuccessful,” one of the Brennan Center reports says.

Prepaid postage and extended deadlines for absentee ballots, secure drop boxes, expanded early voting, new requirements for backup paper ballots, improved cybersecurity and vote-counting machinery—these and other recent fixes don’t get as much attention as scandals like the Florida legislature’s disenfranchising new law that forces ex-felons to pay court fines before being allowed to vote, or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s absurd ruling that, to be counted, absentee ballots must be sealed inside two envelopes. Still, the Brennan Center reports suggest that local election officials are not hopelessly corrupt. In states like Ohio and Utah, Republicans have pushed back against Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots will lead to fraud. Most election officials care about the legitimacy of the vote in their area.

Lawrence Norden, an election-security expert at the Brennan Center and a co-author of the other report, works closely with local officials. Their greatest worry, he told me, is lack of resources for Election Day. Budget cuts and congressional inaction have left them struggling to hire poll workers, provide protective equipment, and pay for other essentials. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has donated $250 million to fill the gaps—helpful, but hardly adequate or the proper role for a billionaire whose company bears some responsibility for undermining public confidence in elections.

Beyond Election Day, a close presidential contest could, as my Atlantic colleague Barton Gellman lays out in his November cover story, devolve into a series of power grabs and countermoves that plays out in state legislatures, courts, and ultimately Congress. The National Task Force on Election Crises has issued a pair of memos on the legal and political battles that might follow the election. One argues that state legislatures don’t have the power to replace the popular vote with a slate of appointed electors just because the state’s results are slow in coming, or contested: “An actual election failure would be extraordinary and would need to involve circumstances well beyond delays or disputes regarding vote counting to justify legislative intervention.”

Norden, who sits on the task force, worries about mechanical failures on Election Day, violence at the polls, and a protracted fight afterward. But his greatest fear, he told me, is that nightmare scenarios will become self-fulfilling prophecies: “The more people doubt the integrity of the system, the more people doubt that there can be a legitimate election, the easier it becomes to grab power and say, ‘We just don’t know who won, we can’t know, and therefore I’m entitled to do what I want.’” He added, “The most important thing we can be focused on right now is making sure that the system works. The more we focus on doing that, the less likely it is that the nightmare scenario plays out.”

Here’s one version of a self-fulfilling prophecy: What if Trump’s talk about getting rid of ballots and rushing an accommodating justice onto the Supreme Court depresses turnout by convincing some Americans that their vote won’t matter? G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist, studied results from a YouGov poll of 5,000 people and found no significant correlation between faith in the electoral process and likelihood of voting. Still, Morris acknowledged to me, “This is not a decided issue.” A study of 12,000 nonvoters by the Knight Foundation last year found, unsurprisingly, that they are more likely than habitual voters to think that “the system is rigged.” A motivated voter is unlikely to be discouraged by Trump’s threatening statements, but they could deepen cynicism and distrust in the 100 million Americans who routinely fail to exercise their most important democratic right.

Trump uses words the way Russian intelligence employs “active measures” operations: not to inform or persuade, but to poison the mental atmosphere, to confuse and agitate the public until it begins to lose faith in rational discourse and, ultimately, in democracy. Whether or not this continuous ink spray could actually lower voter turnout, Morris said, it will degrade “our belief in each other as common citizens of a republic.” Sizable numbers of Americans in both parties are now willing to tolerate political violence in the aftermath of an election, according to a Democracy Fund Voter Study survey last spring: 20 percent of Republicans in the event of alleged vote fraud, 20 percent of Democrats if Trump loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College. Americans are edging toward civil conflict.

In the coming weeks, anyone who cares about our democracy has to hold two conflicting ideas in mind while remaining sane. The first is that Trump should be taken at his word when he warns that he will do whatever is necessary to stay in power. This dark prospect requires a constant state of alertness, a refusal to seek comfort in hoping for the best or looking to Trump’s party or his judges for some glimmer of salvation. At this stage of his presidency, naivete is unforgivable.

But the second idea, even more demanding, is that our votes still matter. Not just that they’ll be counted, but that they are sacred, if anything in a secular democracy can be called by that word. This idea means refusing to give way to panic or despair or, most crippling of all, the sullen resentment into which subject populations are worn down by authoritarian rulers. The more we dwell on what Trump might do, the likelier he’ll be to get away with something. He’ll have become the omnipotent central character in the drama, occupying the place that rightfully belongs to a democratic people, who are reduced once more to watching in outrage. We have to believe that power still lies in the people, or else we’ve already surrendered it.

For weeks, Belarusians have filled the streets of their cities to insist that their votes are sacred. Beatings, grenades, flashbangs, arrests, torture, and disappearances by the state have neither deterred them nor driven them to violence. Some commentators have said that the United States is not yet Belarus. This is true enough, though we are closer than seemed imaginable just a few years ago. The real question is whether Americans have what it takes to be Belarusians.