On January 23, 2017, his first full day of work as president, Donald Trump hosted leaders of Congress at the White House. The expectation was that he would use the occasion, as previous presidents had, to lay out his policy agenda and jump-start his administration. But instead of focusing on his legislative priorities, the president launched into a diatribe about the race he’d just won, claiming without a shred of evidence that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes had been cast.
The lawmakers, not yet accustomed to the peculiar illogic of this White House, were still capable of being shocked. Maybe they shouldn’t have been surprised. During the 2016 campaign, perhaps assuming he would lose, Trump had insisted that the coming vote was “rigged.” (In a presidential debate, he refused to say he’d accept the results of the election if he lost to Hillary Clinton.) Winning didn’t dampen his conspiracy theorizing; he just transformed into the ultimate sore winner. Weeks after he won the election, Trump tweeted that the media were ignoring serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California. (The media were indeed “ignoring” his claims—because there was no evidence for them.)
Continuing to make these assertions as his presidency got under way, in May 2017 Trump established a voter-fraud task force, installing as its de facto leader Kris Kobach, then the secretary of state of Kansas, who had long crusaded for more restrictive voting laws, citing widespread fraud he couldn’t prove. Trump disbanded the task force in January 2018, continuing to claim fraud but producing no evidence.
The initial spark for Trump’s claims seems to have been his insecurity about the fact that, although he won the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. He has worked hard to sow doubt about that result. But questioning the legitimacy of elections serves his political goals as well. Claims of noncitizen voting complement Trump’s calls for stricter immigration enforcement. And even though overwhelming evidence shows that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans across the country have spent years calling for harsher voting laws, which make it disproportionately harder for Democratic constituencies to vote (Trump’s electoral strategy hinges on maximizing white turnout and depressing minority votes.)
But no other mainstream GOP figure has been so willing to make the brazen claims Trump has about the integrity of American elections generally, or about the democratic process itself. Better to risk weakening the whole electoral system, the president seems to believe, than to concede that Hillary Clinton got more votes than he did in 2016; better to do all he can to stoke fears about immigration and fraudulent voting than to worry fussily about corroding the legitimacy of our political institutions.
Distance from the 2016 election has not quieted the president on these issues: As vote counting finished in 2018, he again declared that elections were being stolen. If Trump loses the 2020 presidential election, no one should any longer be surprised when he declares that the result is not valid, further shredding the political fabric he’s spent the past few years tearing.