Originally published: 2020-08-23 08:00:50
The soaring oratory had been replaced by visible anguish. Barack Obama stood in Philadelphia, where the signing of the constitution laid the foundation stone of American democracy, and warned that his successor is ready to tear it all down to cling to power.
Last week’s unprecedented attack by a former president on an incumbent at the virtual Democratic national convention crystalised fears that Trump poses a more severe danger to the 244-year-old American experiment than any foreign adversary.
Whereas in 2016 Vladimir Putin’s Russia meddled in an election, now it is the current occupant of the White House who seems hellbent on subverting an American election.
“The greatest threat facing the nation was an insider threat and still is,” Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, told the MSNBC network this week. “The insider threat is sitting in the Oval Office.”
Trump will this week be nominated by the Republican party for a second term as president. He will give his acceptance speech from the White House, a break from tradition that signals the formidable tools of incumbency at his disposal. This time, critics say, Trump is running two campaigns.
One is a brutally partisan attempt to demonize his opponent Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour on a major party ticket, whom he has already dubbed “mean”, “nasty” and “a mad woman”. The other is an insidious and potentially catastrophic campaign against the integrity of the election itself.
The Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not the only adversary Trump is targeting in this election. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The boundary-pushing president has spent four years eroding the rule of law, upending constitutional norms and slandering the intelligence community. In recent months, faced with dismal polls that show him losing, he has worked to spread disinformation, sow distrust in democratic institutions and plant doubts over whether the election will be a free and fair capture of the popular will.
Trump has floated the idea of postponing the election because of the coronavirus pandemic, though he has no power to do so. He has repeatedly refused to say whether he will accept the result, prompting a once unthinkable debate over how he might be physically removed from the White House. At a campaign stop in Wisconsin last week, he warned baldly: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
He has also targeted the postal service. With the pandemic making physical distancing imperative, a record number of mail-in ballots is expected, meaning that the outcome is unlikely to be known on election night. Trump recently admitted that he was blocking money sought by Democrats for the postal service so he could stop people voting by mail.
His allergic reaction to mail-in voting is based on the false premise that it is riddled with fraud, an assertion debunked by numerous factcheckers and academic studies Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah – already carry out elections almost entirely by mail.
Mail boxes sit in the parking lot of a post office in the Bronx, New York, earlier this month, amid reports that many had been removed. Photograph: Bryan R Smith/AFP/Getty Images
Democrats claim that the president’s true motive is to disenfranchise millions of their voters; surveys show significantly more Republicans than Democrats say they would feel safe showing up to vote in person.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, South Carolina, said: “This is an attempt to do election interference 2.0. This time it’s done by this administration and not a foreign adversary. Not only is Trump trying to undermine the integrity of the election, he’s trying to strike fear and chaos into our election.
“We should not be trying to cripple the post office or eliminate what I view as part of the nerve centre of every community. My mother, when I was a child, worked at the postal service so I know what it means for people of colour. What they’re doing to dismantle the postal service has double, sometimes triple impact on communities that have already been left out and left behind by other factors.”
Amid a national uproar, the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor, announced this week that he would suspend cuts to the service until after the election to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail”. Democrats called it a necessary but insufficient first step in ending Trump’s “election sabotage campaign” – which has once again succeeded in dominating the media agenda, a potential self-fulfilling prophecy.
The assault demonstrates that Republicans belong to “the party of voter suppression”, Seawright added. “I’m black and so all of my life, including my sharecropper grandparents’ lives, they have been trying to do everything they can to limit our participation in the election process. This just elevates my concern going into this election. The playbook is pretty much the same.
“It’s just different players implementing the strategy, and the strategy has been recalibrated this time as vote by mail. Keep in mind we’re still in the middle of a pandemic where showing up to vote in person could mean life or death for some people. But black people have put their lives on the line to vote before and, if we keep going down this road, I think we are willing and able to do it again because this election is just that important.”
Voters wait in line to deposit their vote-by-mail ballot at the Broward county supervisor of elections office in Florida’s primary election on Tuesday. Photograph: Larry Marano/Rex/Shutterstock
This week a bipartisan Senate intelligence report revealed the extent of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. It found that Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, worked closely with “Russian intelligence officer” Konstantin Kilimnik. US intelligence has warned that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 election with the aim of getting Trump re-elected.
But such threats currently appear less fundamental than that posed by a president gone rogue – a man who this week welcomed the support of believers in a baseless righting conspiracy theory that holds the world is run by a shadowy cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
It’s very clear that Trump will use every lever of governmental power to stay in office
Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster, asked: “Who needs Vladimir Putin when we have Donald Trump? If you were Vladimir Putin and you wanted to disrupt this election, what would you do? You’d spread disinformation. You’d make people doubt the legitimacy of the vote. You’d peddle conspiracy theories and you might want to mess with mail-in voting. That’s all happening without him. Our president is doing that.”
Sykes, founder and editor-at-large of the Bulwark website, warned of a “very ugly” post-election period. “It’s very clear that Trump will use every lever of governmental power to stay in office. There’ll be many mail-in votes and the mail-in votes will be very different than the same-day votes.
“What he will do – and it will be very much on brand for Donald Trump – is declare victory on election night and then, as the mail-in votes are counted, he will insist that that they are not legitimate, that the election is being stolen from him, and I think that has the potential to create massive doubt and chaos.”
Such a scenario promises to dwarf the acrimony, chaos and confusion of the disputed 2000 election between Republican George W Bush and Democrat Al Gore, which went all the way to the supreme court.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to Gore, said: “I’m not worried that it won’t be held and I’m not worried that we won’t get, in the end, an accurate result, assuming that we can straighten out this post office thing or just be patient as the votes are counted.
“I am worried that what Trump is doing means that afterwards, if he loses, we will have a bitterly divided country with about 30% of the population angry, alienated, perhaps in the streets, something we’ve never seen here before. If Trump loses, he’s not gonna be Al Gore who believed he won the election but who, after the supreme court decision, conceded for the good of the country.”