MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images
A national poll on Wednesday extended Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump to 11%. Quinnipiac University now has the president trailing 39% to 50%, continuing the trend of recent weeks that point to a heavy defeat for the incumbent in November.
Yet polls tell only half the story and, with Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget how good he is at the dirty end of a political shin-kicking. In The Times on Tuesday, Daniel Finkelstein reminded us about the President’s deep affection for his mentor Roy Cohn, the notorious fixer and mafia lawyer who taught Trump to “Admit nothing. Don’t give in. Don’t settle. Fight back.” Each one of those maxims has become a cornerstone of this uncooperative, aggressive, litigious, and punch-first presidency.
Trump might not be political in the traditional sense but as a developer in the mobbed-up world of New York real estate, he certainly knows how to fight when cornered. Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funds from two states, Michigan and Nevada, who are in the process of setting up “mail-in voting”. Those schemes seem reasonable in a post-Covid world and they should be uncontroversial given that Trump himself takes advantage of postal ballots in Florida where he is registered to vote. Yet Roy Cohn clearly didn’t teach Trump to care much about hypocrisy. Instead, he claimed via tweet that the states are “creating a great Voter Fraud scenario”.
The capitalised words are always important in Trump’s tweets since they highlight his inflection points, where he wants to turn an abstract concept into a proper noun. In going after the voting system in this crude way, Trump is following a tradition in U.S. elections where politicians care more about the system than they do the issues. It’s crucial to remember that American elections are usually far from fair. There’s no putting it more politely. They are currently stacked heavily in favour of Republicans.
The reason is historic. Fearful that the victory of the North in the Civil War would give the more populated states all the power, a federal system was devised to ensure that southern states gained an influence that exceeded their population. The result today is that the less densely populated states (often Republican) have as much as four times the electoral power than more populated states.
More shocking still is that a majority of the US Senate represents as little as 18% of the population, meaning that an individual voter in densely populated California has significantly less influence when it comes to deciding the distribution of Senate power than a voter in Wyoming.
This inherent bias has been exacerbated by generations of politicians tinkering with the system. The very idea of “fair” elections is now anathema to many Republican governors raised in a system where gerrymandering (moving borders to gain demographic advantages) is more of a feature than a flaw, and crude attempts at voter suppression have a long and storied tradition.
It’s magnified by an electoral system that doesn’t have a unified federal scheme that would ensure consistency. There’s certainly nothing like the single ballot we have in the UK, where we each mark a piece of paper that becomes the record of our vote. Instead, individual states have tended to favour electronic voting and over-engineered machines, including those that produced Florida’s infamous “hanging chads” of 2000.
Paradoxically, this diversity makes it harder for Russians to hack (there is no single system to break into) yet does mean that, with no paper trail, the legitimacy of state elections can always be questioned. And that is what Trump is already doing in Michigan and Nevada.
His reasoning is clear. Although unlikely to succeed, he would like to affect the vote in November. As much as COVID-19 may have fatally harmed his chances of re-election, it does present him with an opportunity. The bias that favours the less populated states means, crudely, that Democrats win the cities, Republicans win the rural areas.
Trump would gain a slight advantage in November if he could suppress the suburban (mainly black) vote in high population centres. The coronavirus could be one such means of suppression since it’s in the cities where people might think twice about queuing outside a crowded polling station. If Trump can deprive them of voting from home, he can reduce the Democrat turnout.
Fair? No. Democratic? Hardly. Entirely within the normal operating limits of American politics? Absolutely.
It’s also unlikely to succeed. Yet that’s the beauty of Trump’s tactic and the lesson taught by Roy Cohn. Always attack. This is a pre-emptive strike against the legitimacy of the election.
After his 2016 victory, Trump still claimed he was the victim of voter fraud. He even launched a “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” which he later shut down before it could conclude that it could find no irregularities. Back in 2017, the accusations obviously made the President feel better about the nearly three million extra votes for Hillary Clinton.
Next time, their purpose would be more than psychological. Trump will have a small window to question the legitimacy of the result and that’s after the election on 3rd November but before the Electoral College meets on 14th December. That’s when Trump could yet pardon himself, cause constitutional mayhem, and stir up all manner of hostility towards the incoming president.
And that, essentially, is what we’re witnessing with Trump’s tactics in recent weeks. Trump’s “base” doesn’t encompass those ordinary small “c” conservatives that make up the majority of the GOP but is really closer to those men and women he praises when they form armed militias and storm state capital buildings. Those are the people who wilfully ignore the historic electoral imbalance that favours the Republicans and instead claim that America is run by a cabal nesting inside the DNC.
Less about his path to victory and more about his life after the presidency, every claim of voter irregularity will enhance Trump’s victimhood as he moves forward in a world where he has no legal nor political protection beyond the baying mob at his back.