For the Zillionth Time, Being Fair Does Not Mean Treating All Views as Legitimate (Election Rigging Edition)
by Neil H. Buchanan
Donald Trump and his enablers are remarkably consistent in accusing others of Trump's own sins. This reaches absurd new levels when Trump's campaign tries to say that any bad things happening today are "Joe Biden's America," but there has long been a consistent drumbeat of projection coming from TrumpWorld.
Trump constantly calls for companies to be boycotted and disfavored people to be shunned, but it is the "radical left" that is supposedly canceling everything in sight. Trump pushes for big new military toys, but somehow it is the generals who have forced him to ignore the enlisted women and men. Trump does everything in his power (and then some) to put an internal coup in motion, but he and his minions claim that the Democrats' efforts to hold Trump responsible under the Constitution and statutes (including oversight and impeachment) are somehow evidence of efforts to negate an election.
Bill Barr, Trump's personal attorney (and nominally the Attorney General), is especially practiced at this strategy of engaging in radical action while attacking his opponents for their supposed radicalism. In a speech last Fall, Barr reportedly "warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions were the target of 'organized destruction' by 'secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia.'"
It is all culture war, all the time -- just as Republicans have long claimed that calls for income redistribution are "class warfare," which Warren Buffett rightly dismissed with this great line: "There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning." Pickpockets screaming about being robbed have more credibility.
As Election Day and its sure-to-be-ugly aftermath approach, the new Alice in Wonderland claim is that Democrats are the ones who will be unwilling to accept the election's results if Trump wins. That, unlike Trump, is rich. Even so, this claim is now being reported as a serious concern. What is going on?
An op-ed column last week in The Washington Post by election law expert Richard L. Hasen appeared under this headline: "Democrats may not trust the results of the election if Trump wins." To Professor Hasen's credit, his column is actually about why and how Trump should take actions now that would genuinely allay fears that he cheated his way into the presidency again.
I am thus not accusing Hasen of false equivalence, but the headline fits perfectly with the drumbeat coming from Trump and others that -- even as he tells his own people not to accept anything but a Trump win -- it is Democrats who will engage in armed insurrection after a Trump victory. Even though Hasen is trying to tamp down such talk, the bothsidesism all but leaps off the page. (Having had many of my columns republished with headlines that I did not approve, I do not automatically assume that any author is given the opportunity to pre-clear editors' choices.)
But is it not true that Democrats actually will assume that the election was rigged if Trump wins? Yes, that is true. Does that not then mean that Democrats are doing the same thing that Trumpists are doing, believing that only their preferred outcome is the fair outcome? No, it does not mean that at all.
Years ago at a different university, I had a student who did simply terrible work for my class. She was lucky to get a D in the course, but she nonetheless decided to fight the grade, going so far as to insist on a hearing in front of an Economics Department committee. Her argument was that I had never praised her in class, but I had said positive things about another student's comments, and lo and behold, that student had gotten an A. Hence, I was obviously biased against her. Well, "argument" is probably not the right word here, but bear with me. Several years earlier, at yet another university, a student's mother called to complain about her daughter's C+ in my course (based on an objective, non-essay exam), telling me that "my daughter does not get C's."
The point of this trip down Unpleasant Memory Lane is that people often jump to the conclusion that an outcome that they do not like is proof that the process of reaching that outcome was biased against them. As Trump says, "The only way I can lose is if they cheat." But again, I can say in all honesty that my students deserved the grades that they received after I evaluated their work fairly. On the other hand, if a student who had done great work throughout the semester had gotten a D and learned that the class's weakest student had gotten an A, he might reasonably assume that something nefarious was afoot.
In political commentary, reporters and others go to extremes to try to say that "everyone has a point," trying mightily not to say, "One side is simply wrong." Interestingly, this instinct is reflected in foundational legal concepts, such as the rules for summary judgments, where (as generations of law students have been taught) we evaluate a case "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."
The idea is that we are much more comfortable saying that we reject an argument only when it could not even plausibly be true. What that leaves out is that we do often go to trial, and we expect a dispassionate trier of fact to reach an actual conclusion. One side wins and the other loses. We have guardrails for situations in which the process is tainted or possibly tainted, but "I lost" is not enough to prove that "it was rigged."
To return to the central point of this column, when people are looking at an election in advance, they can make unbiased judgments about what is likely to happen and what is beyond farfetched. Most poll-based analyses that I have seen thus far, for example, simply rule out "Trump landslide" as a real-world possibility, limiting themselves instead to three scenarios: Trump barely wins, Biden barely wins, and Biden landslide.
A Trump landslide, then, would make people sit up and take notice. Nothing that we are seeing gives us any reason to think that it could happen, so if that is what is ultimately tallied, we would be remiss if we simply said, "OK, nothing to see here." Hillary Clinton's sliver-thin losses in three states in 2016 were within the realm of pre-election plausibility, so even though those outcomes were disappointing, they were not so outlandish as to make us think, for example, that the ballot counts had been manipulated.
To be clear, it is still possible to say that the 2016 election was "unfairly influenced" by any number of things. The three key swing states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- and others (especially North Carolina and Ohio) had all seen aggressive efforts by Republicans to suppress minority voting in recent years. Many, many people were so turned off by the media's slanted coverage of Clinton that they chose not to vote. Russia was working on its own and also was in communication with the Trump campaign to distort the election. James Comey pulled a James Comey.
Even so, once the election results were verified, there was no way to plausibly claim that the election had been rigged in any meaningful sense. Felonies were committed, but there was no evidence that the votes had been counted incorrectly. Similarly, if this year's Republican effort to put the deranged celebrity Kanye West on the ballot in some states succeeds in siphoning some Black voters from Biden/Harris, that is a dirty trick but not evidence of rigging. Classic schemes like mailers to minority voters with the wrong election date are similarly scummy, but they are not acts of rigging an election in the sense that is relevant here.
But why am I saying that it is unreasonable for Trump to say that "I can't possibly lose unless the radical Dems cheat" while also saying that it is fully reasonable for Democrats to say that "Trump can't win unless he cheats"? The answer is that an unbiased look at the evidence in the real world tells us that Trump is simply not in a position to win an unrigged election.
Trump has never been "above water" in public approval during his term. He won 46.1 percent of the popular vote, and he won the three key swing states by a total of 77,000 votes. His voters skew older, and several million have died since 2016. He has done nothing to attract new voters, and he has done countless things that repulse voters. The economy is terrible, and the country is living in a partial lock-down, even as we learn that Trump was fully aware of how dangerous the coronavirus was. Anti-Trump voters are more motivated than ever, and it is very unlikely that many will choose not to vote.
The best that Trumpists can offer at this point, as argued in a particularly idiotic op-ed written by someone at a right-wing think tank, is that some non-Trumpists may be "forced to vote for him this year." Why? If Biden wins, "[t]he corrosive left-wing extremism of 2020 would be ascendant, while a smiling President Biden assures the country that everything is fine. Trump, for all his flaws, could be all that stands between our imperfect democracy and the tyranny of the woke left." This is because "so much of the party’s thinking is driven by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)."
[Update: The Post's satirist Alexandra Petri has an especially brilliant response to this idiocy: "I can’t believe you’re forcing me to vote for Trump, which I definitely didn’t already want to do."]
Beyond being dishonest in the extreme, the point is that this is a for-mainstream-audiences distillation of Trump's only message: The left is coming to get you! Unfortunately for Trump, most people simply do not believe that this is more than a right-wing fever dream. Senator Tom Cotton called for Trump to give "no quarter" to protesters. Senator Bernie Sanders has condemned violence. Senator Elizabeth Warren is a more committed capitalist than most self-professed capitalists. AOC and Rashida Tlaib might have different policy views than their critics, but they are no threat to democracy.
But what if that argument starts to convince some people? Although I would find that dismaying -- just as I am dismayed (and completely flummoxed) by the polls consistently showing that more people trust Trump than Biden on economic issues -- a change in that direction would mean that Trump could win legitimately. As it stands, however, nothing about the 2020 election should give anyone reason to think that Trump can win in anything resembling a fair contest.
In short, there is nothing inconsistent about saying that Trump is dangerously wrong to argue that he cannot possibly lose without the other side cheating, but Democrats are not wrong to suggest the opposite. When news reports suggest that both sides are too partisan to imagine their side losing, this misses the fact that facts matter. Trump is badly behind and has given every indication that he is trying to cheat, which means that a reasonable person should be skeptical of a Trump win in a way that she should not be skeptical of a Trump loss.