Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election is probably the least surprising news of 2020.
After all, he began sowing the seeds of doubt about the result long before the first ballot was cast. Lest we forget, he also claimed the 2016 election — the one he won — was rigged against him.
That doesn’t make Trump’s accusations true, or even remotely credible. It’s just a thing he’s doing, until he moves on to the next thing, because this is what he does. It’s incredibly dangerous and damaging to democracy.
The current president, and one of America’s two mainstream political parties, have adopted the position that they’re willing to overturn the will of voters if an election does not go their way.
Republicans are supporting Trump’s efforts to cast aside ballots, discredit the vote, and have state legislators appoint pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, in defiance of what voters in those states actually voted for.
That’s not how this is supposed to work.
The effort seems unlikely to succeed from keeping Joe Biden from ascending to the presidency, but it has been highly effective at casting doubt on the legitimacy of an election that was in fact legitimate.
To know where Trump is going with all of this, you need only look at where he has been before.
This is all playing out in the same way as Trump’s racist smear about Barack Obama’s place of birth.
Remember that for the better part of Obama’s time in office, Trump spread the lie that the 44th president wasn’t born in the United States, and therefore wasn’t eligible to be Commander in Chief.
Birtherism was born.
The claim was never grounded in fact, but Trump pushed the lie, spread innuendo, insisted there was evidence, and even claimed to have investigators digging into the matter. He found supporters willing to spread the nonsense through conservative media networks like Fox News.
None of that changed the fact that the basic premise just wasn’t true. It was all about delegitimizing Obama.
Which is exactly where we are all these years later, with Trump’s fresh lie that the election was stolen from him.
Trump whipped up the claim when things weren’t going his way, and then in the absence of evidence began trying to manufacture doubt.
In addition to making these claims himself, either on camera or over Twitter, Trump’s campaign is using the courts to launder disinformation by filing lawsuits that rack up attention before they collapse for lack of evidence and quietly fade away.
As each successive day goes by, Trump and his supporters find some new outlandish claim to stretch the lie a little further.
On Thursday, a dripping Rudy Giuliani and lawyer Sidney Powell wove a narrative of conspiratorial gibberish that included mentions of the deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, communist operatives from Cuba, George Soros, ANTIFA, and the Clinton Foundation as being linked together by some incomprehensible master plan to steal the vote on a widespread scale.
Facts aren’t the end goal here. The Trump-friendly media and social media realm are repeating these false allegations to cement the idea of voter fraud in the minds of impressionable supporters.
An Ipsos poll conducted this week found that roughly half of Republicans now believe that Trump “rightfully won” the election, but that it’s being stolen from him because of widespread voter fraud.
Which brings us back to birtherism.
In August 2016, just a few months before the election that cemented Donald Trump as president, 72 per cent of registered Republicans still doubted Obama’s American citizenship, despite the fact that he had produced his birth certificate to prove that he had, in fact, been born in Hawaii.
A little more than a month after that poll was taken, Trump finally admitted that he had been misleading the American public the whole time. At a hastily assembled press conference at his newly opened Washington hotel, Trump told reporters, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”
In admitting the truth, Trump chose to fabricate a whole new conspiracy, falsely blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the birther controversy, before attempting to take credit for putting it all to rest.
“I finished it, I finished it,” he said at the time.
It’s possible to see Trump’s lies about massive voter fraud ending much the same way.
Perhaps, when he is out of room to maneuver, Trump will make a tacit admission that there was nothing there, after an insistence that “some people” were alleging things that needed to be investigated.
By then, the damage will be done.
Biden won the popular vote by more than six million more votes, and beat Trump in the electoral college, yet it won’t matter to millions of Americans. Opinions will be baked in, and Joe Biden will forever govern under a cloud of false suspicion.
Donald Trump has shown that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.