Despite losing the popular election by somewhere around two million votes, Donald Trump nonetheless won the Electoral College. He is the President-Elect. Yet, in a tweet storm yesterday that was the opposite of being presidential, Trump claimed that if one deducts the votes of millions who voted illegally, he did not lose the popular vote. He even went on to announce real voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire, and California (with no evidence).
What Trump has done repeatedly is to use the meme of voter fraud to impugn elections and voters in this country. His rhetoric is Internet trolling at its best, but the consequence may be to once again distort policy, endanger political minorities, and imperil democracy.
In an article called The Meme of Voter Fraud, I define a meme is an idea or narrative that replicates and evolves without regard for its truthfulness. A meme appeals and spreads because it empowers the believer. It takes on the appearance of truth but it doesn’t need to be true to replicate. And as it fits the worldview of those who become invested in it, it galvanizes extreme responses in line with the meme—not the truth—and that runs the risk of leading people to endanger rights.
Like many before him, Trump’s tweet storm relies on the fallacious belief that elections remain under threat because of a mass (invisible, unproven) conspiracy of unworthy voters. Some scholars and policy makers have argued for over a decade (one example here) that this threat is real and present (despite the absence of evidence) to justify stricter regulations for voting. This claim has supported strict voter identification laws, the curtailment of early voting, and proof of citizenship laws.
During the campaign Trump used the meme of voter fraud to suggest his supporters should engage in voter intimidation, violence, and subversion of the rule of law. Recall that Trump claimed that fraud by millions of wrongful voters would thwart his candidacy. Both he and now Vice President-elect Mike Pence called for their supporters to monitor polls and challenge voters they suspect. And in that final debate, apparently because of his belief that the election was going to be rigged, Trump said he would keep us in suspense about whether he would accept the result of this election. His claim of yesterday closed the loop on this campaign-long narrative.
To claim a conspiracy of massive voter fraud, especially after one actually won the election, is preposterous. One famous recent study shows that credible in-person voter impersonation has happened only 31 times out of one billion votes cast this century. And professional election scholars agree that a vast voter fraud conspiracy to overthrow a national election a myth.
Trump’s narrative is in apparent response to the recount efforts spearheaded by the Green Party and their candidate Jill Stein. The Green Party is initiating recounts in key battleground states because of claims made by some experts of discrepancies between the electronic vote count and the paper vote count. And while some point out that any such recount would be pointless, others argue that thousands of Trump votes were padded, though neither the Clinton campaign nor the White House have claimed that there has been evidence of mass voter-caused voter fraud.
But Trump’s voter fraud argument does something far more dangerous than trigger a (likely needless) recount. It seeks to rig our thinking about democracy. Because a meme persuades through appeal and not logic, makes facts completely irrelevant when the story is too good. This doesn’t matter much with cat videos, but Mr. Trump’s rigged election meme are dangerous because they detach us from facts as our basis for making real-world decisions.
To believe that millions of certain voters are illegitimate simply because someone says so is to trade in an ideology of exclusion. America did this for the majority of its history with the effect of excluding women, African Americans, and naturalized immigrants in favor of property-holding white men. Court decisions, constitutional amendments, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 democratized voting and made clear that just because of one’s identity, one was not a fraudulent voter.
To make that rigged election claim today is harken back to this racist, sexist vicious voter narrative. We saw this in Trump’s claims for voter vigilantes, in his claim of ready defiance to the election results, and now in his lie that he’s more of a winner than he actually is.
If history teaches us anything, it is that his rhetoric will serve as excuse to vilify the people he deems his enemies and the institutions designed to serve all the people. This rhetoric will continue to paint a target on his political opponents generally (since apparently all the alleged illegitimate votes were cast by his opponents). The rhetoric will reinforce the racist, sexist ideology of exclusion, thus compounding the doubt minority voters and other who have suffered historical disenfranchisement suffer.
His claim of voter fraud in the millions also suggests that election structures that validate and tabulate our elections have no legitimacy. This suggests that thousands of election officers across this country either were duped or were in on the scheme. And this rhetoric demeans the already-imperiled Voting Rights Act and other laws that make our elections democratic. Why support the VRA and other inclusivity promoting measures if they allegedly lead to polluted election results?
These are the consequences of this baseless rhetoric.
To make specious allegations of fraud undermines the legitimacy of our political institutions and, ironically, the legitimacy of Trump’s own election. It tears down the political system purely to pursue apparent pettiness. And like any meme, this rigged election rhetoric seeks detaches us from facts and enables those who wish to resort to racialized and gendered violence to exclude the “vicious voter.” This is not—and should not be—the American way.