Last month, Donald Trump Jr. squinted grimly into a camera—his hair slicked, his voice hoarse—and issued a call to arms for MAGA nation.
“The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father,” he declared in a video posted to the Trump campaign’s Facebook page. “Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.” To defeat these scheming radicals, he warned, they’d need “every able-bodied man [and] woman” to join an organization called the Army for Trump: “We need you to help us watch them.”
Like so much of Donald Trump’s presidency, the recruitment video straddled the line between menacing and self-parodic. Don Jr.’s claim was preposterous on its face (no, a massive voter-fraud conspiracy is not under way in America), and his militaristic rhetoric had the faintly silly quality of cosplay. But the “election-security operation” he was pitching is actually a key element of the Trump campaign’s closing strategy—and its capacity to wreak havoc next week could be significant.
In the coming days, thousands of pro-Trump poll watchers are set to fan out across battleground states—smartphones in hand—and post themselves outside voting locations to hunt for evidence of fraud. This “army” has been coached on what to look for, and instructed to record anything that seems suspicious. The Trump campaign says these videos will be used in potential legal challenges; critics say their sole purpose is to intimidate voters. But in recent conversations with a range of unnerved Democrats and researchers, I was offered another scenario: If the president decides to contest the election’s results, his campaign could let loose a blizzard of misleading, decontextualized video clips as “proof” that the vote can’t be trusted.