Trump Did Not Say He Wants to Delay the Election

He is still trying to rig it, though.

Earlier today, President Donald Trump let loose with a tweet that (once again) reverberated around the internet. Here’s the tweet:

The statement caused many people to (once again) question his sanity, his intelligence, and his intentions. Many, many people took it as Trump trying to delay the election. Going through Facebook, I saw a lot of comments along the lines of “Trump is trying to delay the election.” And many media outlets followed suit. Here was NPR’s headline and story:

And here’s ABC News:

In both cases, they state that Trump is “floating” or “suggesting” delaying November’s election, and they both remind the reader that the President of the United States actually has no such power to do this. The laws covering federal election dates can only be changed by Congress, and the states themselves run the elections, independent of the federal government. So, their stories say, essentially, “President Trump is suggesting delaying the election, but he can’t actually do that.”

Fortunately for democracy, I guess, a number of Republican leaders have spoken out against delaying the election. So far, I have seen statements made by Republicans including Senators Mitch McConnell (KY, and also leader of the Senate Republicans), Lamar Alexander (TN), Ted Cruz (TX), Lindsey Graham (SC), Marco Rubio (FL), and Chuck Grassley (IA). House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) said “never in the history of the federal elections have we ever not held an election, and we should go forward with our election." To their credit, they recognize the danger we would be putting our democracy in were we to delay the election for anything short of something as big as, say, a massive invasion of the US by foreign troops. Barring anything like that, November’s election will not be delayed.

But this is all beside the point, because Trump did not say he wants to delay the election. Read the tweet again. The idea that the election be delayed is not even a real suggestion; it is quite literally a question that he asks. What Trump is talking about is not the date of the election; his focus, his main concern is on vote-by-mail (VBM). This is what he’s actually tweeting about. He first makes his statement, that VMB is a process that is full of not just potential, but actual fraud, and so this year’s election will be “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” After stating this “fact” he presents his suggested potential solution, delaying the election. But delaying the election is not what he’s aiming for.

The last thing Trump actually wants is to delay the election and put in place mechanisms that would ensure that the election is free of voter fraud. What he’s aiming for is to question the entire process. He wants the vote to take place on Election Day, but he needs some way to cast doubt on the results if he loses. The best line of attack, as he sees it, is to cast doubt on VBM, because then, if he loses, he’ll have a line of attack on something that isn’t easily defended. Neither you nor I nor anyone else will be able to say on November 4th, “There are no fraudulent ballots in the VBM ballots”, because of course, we won’t know. We know from history that all voter fraud is extremely rare, both in-person and VBM, and it’s rare precisely because one has so little to gain from it. (We also, of course, know that most of the voter fraud that’s made the news recently has been committed by Republicans, whether it’s the ballot-harvesting scandal in North Carolina’s 9th district in 2018, or Republican Congressman Steve Watkins (R, KS-2) being charged with voter fraud earlier this month, or Trump’s likely voter fraud violation when he registered to vote in Florida and declared the White House as his legal address while simultaneously claiming he lived in Palm Beach County, FL.) That is why attacking VBM works for him: it’s easy to criticize and hard to defend.

What Trump is doing is trying to rig the election by casting doubt on any result that leaves him as the losing candidate. He is proactively making the argument as to why the election results shouldn’t count. And his people are backing him up: his campaign spokesman, Hogan Gidley, today in the Wall Street Journal, said that Trump was “just raising a question about the chaos Democrats have created with their insistence on all mail-in voting.”

As Trump likely sees it, he has nothing to lose: as long as he doesn’t win, whether the election is a blowout loss for him or not, his best strategy is to delegitimize it ahead of time. If he wins, then he can claim “we won despite their attempts to rig the election”, and if he loses by a narrow margin, this gives him the ability to question the results and move into place the apparatus of the Republican Party to question the results in every state he loses, especially any key states that he loses by a narrow margin.

It also doesn’t matter to him that this might hurt the Republican Party in some states, like Florida, where the Republican Party relies on VBM ballots from many voters who cannot get to the polls on Election Day. In the same WSJ story cited above, Rohn Bishop, the chair of the Republican Party of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin is quoted as saying that he doesn’t “understand why we’re turning Republicans away from a legitimate way to cast a ballot”, and that Trump’s anti-VBM advocay “has the potential to be ruinous."

What Mr. Bishop needs to realize is that, like everyone else who gets into bed with Trump, Trump will use you until he doesn’t need you. Whenever your interests clash with his, he will, without the slightest hesitation, put his interests first. And as long as he sees it in his interest to question VBM, Republican candidates be damned, he’s going to rail against VBM.

The fact that this strategy undermines the entire American electoral process is also irrelevant to Trump. He doesn’t need facts, he just makes up whatever “facts” he needs to in order to make the argument he wants to make. In this case it’s VBM.

What can the rest of us do? Regardless of whether we want Democrats to win, or just want to maintain US democracy, there’s only one option: turn out in force and vote for Joe Biden. A blowout loss will not stop Trump from complaining. I think most of us realize that he will continue to demand that he be the center of attention for the rest of his life. But a blowout loss will mitigate his ability to monopolize the spotlight. His supporters, at least some of them, will continue to try and beat that drum, but probably enough people will want to move on that his voice, while not being drowned out, will at least be diminished. And most importantly, the press will move on. So that is what we need: a complete and total Biden victory. Anything else is trouble for American democracy.