Now that Donald Trump looks unlikely to prevail in his attempts to remain in office, the liberal pundit class faces a dilemma. The Trump hysteria perpetual motion machine has provided a lucrative business model. Now, the media must figure out how to persist through the lean years to come. One option will be to dwell on the dangers posed by Trump’s die-hard supporters.
One indication of this likely pivot came in the form of an op-ed by New York Times contributor Jochen Bittner. Rather than cite the immediate risk that the “stop the steal” effort will keep Trump in office, Bittner focuses on its potential long-term damage. He asserts a parallel between the “stolen election” narrative now popular in the GOP and the “Dolchstosslegende” (“stab in the back myth”) propagated by the German Right after the First World War, according to which Germany had never lost the war militarily and was instead deceived into surrendering by a Jewish leftist conspiracy. The end result was the mood of mistrust and paranoia that led to the rise of National Socialism. The belief that Democrats stole the presidency, Bittner cautions, could help forge a similarly dangerous “myth of betrayal and injustice” among Trump’s faithful.
As it happens, though, a similar sort of myth arose four years ago. The assertion that Trump’s 2016 victory was fraudulent because it resulted from Russian intervention and/or sophisticated technological manipulation found adherents among the most revered members of Congress, renowned Democratic operatives, and the most prominent liberal pundits in the land. It’s true that Hillary Clinton, unlike Trump, swiftly conceded and never attempted a legal challenge, but as recently as last year, she described her onetime rival as an “illegitimate president.” Others in her party responded similarly to later electoral losses: well after her defeat in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams continued to insist that she had, in fact, won her close race against Brian Kemp, and that “democracy failed Georgians.”
The tendency to cast doubt on the opposing party’s victories goes back much further. Of course, the century began with the Bush v Gore case, which Democrats continue to view (perhaps reasonably) as a “judicial coup.” What’s less well-remembered is that many of the same accusations currently levelled by Trump and his allies — improbable turnout and margins, dubious vote-counting machines — were made by Democrats against the Ohio GOP in the wake of George W. Bush’s 2004 victory there. For their part, Republicans all the way up to John McCain raised the spectre of fraud in the lead-up to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Likewise, after the latter’s victory in 2012, almost half of Republicans believed the election was “stolen.”
What we’re currently witnessing, then, is a typically Trumpian escalation of ongoing trends rather than anything altogether new. Will this ratcheting up of long-standing “stolen election” rhetoric lead to the delegitimisation of the electoral system, as Bittner and others have recently warned? The answer is less certain than it might seem. Over the past two decades, as we’ve seen, an aura of illegitimacy has hung over every major election; and yet, measured by the record-breaking rate of participation this year, people still seem to believe their votes count.