The Coming Voter Suppression Efforts

Donald Trump’s recent claim that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally for his opponent in the election is patently, ridiculously, offensively untrue. Its absurdity is so great that it requires no refutation. You know this, I know this, and believe me, Donald Trump and his advisors know this. But the truth value of the claim is not really the point.

I have seen too many people citing Trump’s ridiculous claim as evidence that he is governed by vanity, and even despite having won the election wants to erase the indignity of having lost the popular vote; or that the claim is proof of his unstable mental condition or loose grip on reality; or that it is symptomatic of his and his administration’s penchant for mendacity. Unfortunately — despite the fact that Trump may indeed be vain, mentally unstable, and a liar — the ridiculously exaggerated claims of vote fraud are about something else, something much more serious.

The claim that millions voted illegally will be used as the pretext for an “investigation” that will be led by the administration, perhaps with the collusion of Congressional Republicans. This investigation will “find” whatever Trump and Steve Bannon want it to find — to wit, that millions did vote illegally and that this is a problem requiring a federal solution. This will then become the justification for a massive voter suppression effort backed by all the powers of the federal government.

It will mirror recent voter suppression efforts in certain Republican-governed swing states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina. Like those, it will target vulnerable populations — nonwhite and poor populations, primarily, who vote inordinately Democratic — seeking not so much to explicitly disenfranchise as to raise bureaucratic, procedural, and financial roadblocks to voting. Unlike those it will be backed by the powers of the Federal government and happen in all 50 states. It will be a voter suppression effort on steroids.

Republican members of Congress, some of whom are still vacillating between support for Trump and opposition to some of his more controversial actions and proposals, will embrace Trumpism wholeheartedly once they realize that it will make their own seats unassailable and their majority, and their majority committee assignments, impregnable.

For Trump and his inner circle, meanwhile, who surely realize despite their bluster that their election victory was paper thin and based on lucky Electoral College math, such a plan is the only way they can hope to stay in office for a second 4 year term — which, rest assured, they are already thinking very hard about how to accomplish. It is what I would do if I were them. It is also in keeping with the tactics of Vladimir Putin — the man who Trump and many of his advisors openly admire, whose regime many of them have financial connections with, and who openly interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

Do not forget that Putin was elected in the context of a short-lived but genuine Russian experiment with pluralistic democracy. Although imperfect, like all democratic systems, and fragile, for many reasons, the brief Russian democracy did indeed feature multiple parties and free and fair elections. It was Putin’s great accomplishment to subvert this system and get around the very real and formidable constitutional barriers to dictatorship, to create not only a formidable authoritarian regime in Russia, but now, it seems, the great hope and aspiration of authoritarian rightists who are unfortunately gaining strength across the globe, including, sickeningly, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So no, Trump’s contemptible voter fraud claims are not about him being weird or stupid or crazy. They are much worse than that. They are unquestionably part of a very conscious strategy to undermine and eventually dismantle American democracy.

The administration currently in power, along with, let’s face it, many millions of ordinary Americans, does not believe in pluralist, egalitarian democracy as the basis for our society. Like critics of democracy throughout history, they see democracy as weak, ineffective, and effeminate, and authoritarianism as powerful, efficient, and manly. That is the ideology we are up against, that is the ideology that millions of American voters have, intentionally, knowingly or otherwise, invited in to the most powerful position in our political system.

The assault on democracy comes at a promising, auspicious time, and I am sorry to say that I rate its prospects of success as being quite high. Americans have been cynical, scornful, and dismissive about the idea of democracy for some time. Making the perfect the enemy of the good, we have mistaken democracy’s inevitable imperfections — it is, after all, nothing more or less than a human institution — for proof that it cannot work or does not exist. We have allowed a justified concern for the role of money in some aspects of politics to morph into an unjustified derision for politics overall. We have allowed a culture of contempt to develop about our professional politicians and our political parties — both of whom are necessary for a democracy to function.

The enemies of democracy welcome this contempt and thrive on this derision. It is truly the fuel that powers Trumpism.

I don’t know what we the people can or should do to oppose what is coming. Marches and protests are terrific things, I support them, they build morale and solidarity, but they are not the same as actually winning elections and passing laws. Calls and emails to elected representatives are absolutely essential, but if what I expect comes to pass, the proportion of Congressional representatives who have any interest in constituent relations will soon decline precipitously. I am not counseling despair or inaction; there is always hope; but I think it is important to have a realistic and unflinching assessment of where we are. And my study of American history, particularly the Jim Crow period, tells me that organized and government led policies of voter suppression can be incredibly successful and difficult to resist.

But I do know one thing for sure. For those of us who are opposed to what is going on in the United States right now, the worst thing we could do — the absolute worst, tragically stupid, soul-shatteringly misguided thing we could do, would be to argue amongst each other. To argue and bicker about which is more important — race issues, or womens’ issues, or economic inequality, or immigration, or the environment, etc, etc, insert the things of most concern to you here.

Because the fact is these things are all important and they are all united and simultaneously transcended by the issue of democracy.

Throughout our history as a nation, there have been genuine victories for social progress, on these and many other issues, interspersed with many setbacks. In the cases where victories have been won, democracy has been the tool used to win them. It’s not that it’s such a great, super tool, it’s unglamorous and slow and often frustrating. It’s just that it’s the only tool that’s ever actually worked.

If we don’t find a way to preserve American democracy — and more than that, to rebuild it, and to find some genuine love and appreciation for it, in all its prosaic, homely, quotidian messiness — we are soon going to long wistfully for the days when addressing womens’ equality or racial equality or economic equality were actually things we could even contemplate our political system doing.

The next four years — we are in Day 6 of the Trump presidency as I write this — will not just be about opposing certain egregious nominees, or certain repugnant policies, as important as those things obviously are. Much less will it be about making fun of Donald Trump’s hair, or his insecurities, or his coarse and vulgar ways, or his many outrageous and repugnant utterances.

The next four years will be about resisting the coming assault on democracy; about trying to preserve what we have too little appreciated; and if we should be so fortunate as to succeed, to foster a new birth of freedom and rededicate ourselves to that old musty moth-eaten and rather quaint but still oddly miraculous and beautiful concept of government of, by, and for the people.