President Donald Trump governs—and manages his own life—as if all the world is a reality show. He writes the script and directs the play—and we all find ourselves trapped in a world of his creation. When Trump succeeds, it is because so many of his followers willingly and eagerly act their parts, and because so often Trump critics allow themselves to be pulled into the show thereby affirming Trump’s imaginary world.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Trump orchestrated an Election Night drama. We knew how it would unfold because Trump told us, and because Trump and his Republican supporters, in full view, set the stage for this particular episode. Democrats quickly settled on absentee voting as the safest way to vote during the pandemic, and increase turnout. Trump could not encourage his supporters to vote by mail while also minimizing the impacts of the virus, so he encouraged his supporters to vote at the polls and attacked absentee voting. He also undermined the functioning of the U.S. Postal Service, appointing Louis DeJoy as postmaster general in June. Upon taking the job, DeJoy immediately took steps that slowed mail delivery. At the same time, and without evidence, Trump denounced absentee voting as riddled with fraud and corruption. Meanwhile, Republicans in key states like Pennsylvania made sure that absentee ballots would be counted last. When Trump declared that the winner must be announced on the night of Nov. 3, it was clear how the drama would unfold: Trump would declare himself a winner before all the votes were counted. He would then claim that the absentee ballots were fraudulent, and that any votes counted after Election Night should be disregarded.
Trump made no attempt to keep the plot a secret. On Sept. 23, when asked about a transfer of power should he lose, he said, “there won’t be a transfer” if we “get rid of the ballots.” Republicans and the Trump campaign filed lawsuits literally designed to get rid of potential Democratic ballots. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for example, the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit demanding limits to absentee voting and limits on which absentee ballots could be counted. In Harris County, Texas, Republicans filed a lawsuit to throw out the 127,000 ballots cast in the largely Democratic district on the meritless argument that the voting hadn’t been done according to Texas law. (The petition was denied.)
When the polls closed on Election Day, Trump and his supporters followed the script. At 9:49 p.m., Trump tweeted that “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls close.” Because Trump’s tweet conflated votes counted after Election Day with votes cast after election day, Twitter hid the content of the tweet with the note that “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or civic process.” At 12:45 a.m., when key states were not finished counting their votes, Trump declared himself the winner.
The following day, as the counting continued and Trump’s lead in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan shrank, he declared that his leads disappeared because of “surprise ballot dumps.” He said, “They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So bad for our Country! And: “They are working hard to make up 500,000 vote advantage in Pennsylvania disappear — ASAP. Likewise, Michigan and others!” Trump complained that, “A very sad group of people are trying to disenfranchise” his supporters. At about the same time, Trump told his supporters in a fundraising email:
Just like I predicted from the start, mail-in ballots are leading to CHAOS like you’ve never seen, plain and simple! The Radical Left is going to do whatever it takes to try and rip a TRUMP-PENCE VICTORY away from you. . .
On cue, his supporters began rioting outside the counting areas, including in Arizona and Michigan. In places where Trump was ahead, his campaign filed meritless lawsuits to stop the counting. After Trump lost in Wisconsin, they demanded a recount.
The next day, another Trump campaign fundraising email told supporters that the Democrats were stealing the election:
President Trump was leading, often solidly, in many key States – in almost all instances Democrat-run and controlled. Then, one by one, his lead started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted. VERY STRANGE, and the “pollsters” got it completely and historically wrong!
It’s clear that Patriotic Americans want FOUR MORE YEARS of President Trump, but that won’t stop the Radical Left from trying to cause CHAOS and CONFUSION.
Throughout the day, protestors and counter protestors took to the streets in Portland, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and other cities. Mainstream news media, though, was prepared. When Trump shouted “fraud,” many refused to take the bait. They refused to cover Trump’s claims as if they were based in fact or even newsworthy. A headline from the Washington Post declared that Americans knew Trump Would Lie About Fraud. Now it Won’t Work, and from CNN: Trump’s Baseless Claims of Election Fraud Undermine US Credibility Overseas.
What we might call alternate news outlets in the rightwing bubble, however, were so persuaded that mass fraud was being committed that one poll worker in Georgia had to go into hiding when his life was threatened after a video was posted to Twitter falsely claiming that he was throwing away ballots. In fact, he had crumpled the instruction sheet that came in the ballot packet—not the ballot itself. According to election officials, he was one of fastest and most accurate workers. But after the video included his name and was followed by death threats, he was unable to return to work.
Trump reacted to the news that he was losing the election by launching more meritless lawsuits across the country intended to challenge the election. Because these lawsuits have no chance of prevailing and installing him as president, one commentator suggested that the lawsuits are a “diversionary tactic.”
I suggest that through these lawsuits, he is setting the stage for the next act: Trump deprived of the presidency through massive corruption and a sinister Democratic plot to steal the election. That’s why a flood of disinformation was launched, including social media messages targeting Latinos as the votes were being counted, intended to make Spanish speakers question the integrity of the election and persuade them that Trump is being robbed of victory.
If Trump leaves the White House with millions of Americans believing that he was ousted by a Democratic coup involving fake mail-in ballots, he can keep his followers riled. If he can keep his followers riled, he can keep everyone riled. As long as he keeps everyone riled, we all remain caught in the Trump Reality Show.
What We Learn from the Election
Trump critics spent much of Trump’s presidency believing that if they just put the truth before the American people, Americans—in overwhelming numbers—would reject Trump. Trump’s critics expected the Mueller Report to open the eyes of Trump’s supporters, but his supporters steadfastly repeated Trump’s claims that the entire investigation was a “witch hunt.” For many Democrats—because they knew it was unlikely the Republican-held Senate would vote to remove Trump from office—the impeachment hearing was motivated by the belief that exposing how Trump manipulated the levers of government for his own personal benefit would erode Trump’s support. The impeachment hearing, however, did nothing to move the needle on Trump’s approval.
After four years of Trump as president—including Trump telling more than 20,000 documented lies and disastrously mishandling the pandemic, Trump critics expected voters to, by and large, repudiate Trump’s divisiveness, his brand of white nationalism, and his shattering of norms. Instead, as of the counting on Nov. 7, more than 70 million Americans voted for Trump—indicating that a substantial percentage of Americans prefer four more years of Trump to a Biden presidency.
Trump’s critics need to understand that, while some Trump voters are victims of a well-oiled propaganda machine, many of them willingly and eagerly embrace the lies. Trump’s lies paint an appealing picture: America was once great. There was opportunity for people like them. Then others—enemies of America—infiltrated and took what rightfully belonged to real Americans. (Those others are overwhelmingly nonwhite and the Democrats who embrace them.) Trump tells his supporters there is a natural hierarchy, they are at the top, and if they don’t have all they are entitled to have, it’s because others—their enemies—are trying to take what is theirs. Who are these enemies? Minority communities, migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border, and of course, the Democrats who support them.
The lies Trump peddles are steeped in American folklore and history. Trump tells a modern version of the Plantation myth and the nineteenth century myth of paternalism. The myth goes like this: American society is structured with White men at the top and Black women at the bottom. It is the role of the White man to care for and provide for his inferiors. Trump and the Republican Party have also long peddled a modern version of the cowboy myth which tells us that [White] men who work hard and are self-reliant do not need government help. (For more about American myths, such as the cowboy and plantation myths, see Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War.)
Some of Trump’s surrogates—those who know Trump is lying and, yet, still help spread the lies—defend Trump’s lies as metaphoric. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has argued that Trump’s lies actually point out deeper truths. An example of such a lie is birtherism: It is a provable lie, but points to what Trump supporters see as a deeper truth, that a Black man with a foreign sounding name isn’t a “real” American, and he is, therefore, not entitled to be president.
Scholars Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, in “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue,” explain that people who want to destroy the “political establishment” willingly embrace a liar because they understand that the lies themselves destroy. Why do they want to destroy? Scholar Richard Hofstadter describes the “paranoid style in American politics”—those who believe that the “real” America is being taken from them, that the government is being controlled by unworthy people (others), and that they must win at all cost to prevent calamity. Republican congressman Matt Gaetz expressed this view when he said that if Republicans don’t dig in and fight against the Democrats’ attempts to steal the election, Republicans will “never win another election again.”
Hannah Arendt, in the Origins of Totalitarianism, explained that followers of mass totalitarian leaders accept lies as a tactical weapon:
The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
In other words, the Republicans and Trump supporters who know Trump is lying about the election will push the lies as a tactic for winning. If other supporters believe Trump, and later discover he was lying, they will admire his tactical cleverness.
Sociologist Max Weber, in Politics as Vocation, offers additional insight into why so many willingly fall in line with Trump’s lies. Weber outlined three sources of authority for government:
- Traditional, the authority underlying monarchies;
- Legal-rational/rule of law, the authority underlying democracies;, and
- Personal charisma the source of authority underlying totalitarian and fascist regimes. (Today we might use the term demagogue or cult leader.)
The legal-rational, rule of law source of authority depends on facts. In contrast, personal charisma is based on the myth that the leader embraces the destiny of the nation, and that his instincts are superior to the elite scientists and academics. Trump naturally steps into this role. While Trump draws his authority from what Weber calls personal charisma, Biden represents legal-rational rule of law.
What Comes Next?
The shock for many Trump critics is that Trump voters willingly and knowingly reject rule of law and embrace the cult leader. Democracy is hard, frustrating, grinding work, requiring compromise and give-and-take. It requires sharing power with everyone, even those we dislike or disagree with. A leadership cult offers an appealing alternative: The strongman can sweep away obstacles (like norms and laws and ballots) and get things done. There is no need to include others in the process. The leader will keep them in their place.
The secret to why many of Trump’s supporters are not fazed by his brazen rule-breaking, even now, is that they cheer the rule-breaking. Yale history Professor Timothy Snyder explains that there is a “honeymoon” phase with a new autocrat when his supporters are drawn to his strength and willingness to trample conventions. Those who prefer a leadership cult don’t mind that Trump uses the office of the presidency to enrich himself. They equate the charismatic leader with the office he holds and believe whatever benefits the leader benefits the nation, and vice versa.
Trump transformed the Republican Party into a leadership cult, but antidemocratic forces have been at work in the Republican Party for some time. Political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in How Democracies Die, argue that Newt Gingrich began paving the road to Trump when, in the early 1990s, he advised Republicans to refuse to compromise. Democracy requires compromise. “Our way or the highway,” is autocracy. Historian Christopher Browning called Mitch McConnell the “gravedigger of democracy” for his obstructionism and disregard for democratic norms. Once it was clear that, under Trump, the Republican Party was embracing white nationalism and was no longer a traditional conservative party, those who we might call true conservatives (people with traditionally conservative views who prefer a government based on rule of law) fled the Republican Party.
At the same time, the right-wing media bubble has been able to weaponize the internet to effectively spread lies. Former President Barack Obama explained in 2018, one of the biggest challenges to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. The divide between fact-based America and myth-based America has grown.
As of Nov. 7, Trump continues to deny that he lost the election and claim he is the victim of fraud perpetrated by Democrats Many of his supporters believe that the election was stolen from him. Conspiracy theorists continue to advance outlandish theories that Trump will triumph when the world sees that crooks stole the election from him.
The history of the Republican Party over the past few decades—combined with the failure of the voters to deal Trumpism a decisive blow—tells us that even when Trump ceases to be a force in American politics, the dynamics that propelled Trump to power and allowed him to wreak havoc on democracy and rule of law are not going away on their own. For much of the 20th Century, Americans divided themselves into “liberals” and “conservatives.” It now appears that American politics, moving forward, may instead be divided into those who prefer a fact-based world, and those drawn to myth. Those who prefer facts assume that rule of law democracy is everyone’s preferred form of government. It will thus be important for rule-of-law advocates to understand the perennial appeal of myth, and the motives of those who reject democracy and prefer a form of autocracy.