How delusional can we Americans be? Hardly anything brings out the loony like a heated election, especially when our nation’s tweeter-in-chief stokes the fires with misinformation from the White House.
As President Donald Trump tweets unsupported claims of widespread “voter fraud” to justify his stubborn rebuffs of presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, a poll of voters before and after the election shows response to his claims falls right where it’s been through the campaign – along a stark partisan divide.
An eye-popping 70% of Republicans don’t believe the 2020 election was free or fair, according to a poll by Politico and Morning Consult, compared with only 35% who felt that way before Election Day.
Meanwhile some 90% of the opposite party, which has been dancing in the streets with joy over Biden’s victory, felt quite the opposite about the election’s fairness, up from only 52% who expressed such expectations before.
I know polling has taken quite a beating from a frustrated public. But, as those problems are being addressed, public surveys are still useful in revealing broad trends such as rise of public suspicions and the collapse of public trust.
Signs of trust in elections rising and falling according to whose side wins should be no big surprise. But a bigger problem comes when, for example, a president leads his (or someday her) supporters to fan understandable disappointment into full-blown conspiracy theories.
Yes, I’m thinking of Trump holding up the transition process – including necessary briefings for Biden’s incoming national security and pandemic-fighting teams – as a virtual hostage while filing lawsuits and lobbing tweets of doubt.
Voter fraud is not a plaything. Having learned quite a bit about the topic as a young Chicago Tribune reporter, in a town that made the phrase “vote early and often” legendary, I take the charge very seriously.
And as an African American, mindful of how phony voter fraud charges have been used at various times since Reconstruction to suppress the Black vote, I take such shenanigans even more seriously.
So I don’t disagree with those who say the president, regardless of party, has a right to have such suspected skulduggery fully investigated.
But that right should not be abused because public trust can be damaged and even more suspicions raised.
Without trust, our representative democracy falls apart, opening all of us up to the dangers of corruption and autocracy.
Unfortunately, even as confirmed election fraud has declined, public trust has been severely undermined amid demagoguery, cynicism and actual political scandals in recent decades. The current president’s stubbornness doesn’t help.
Trump is waging his own little propaganda war by Twitter, even as one after another of his campaign’s lawsuits is rebuffed as groundless by the courts. In his quest to find support for his allegations, Trump has turned our judicial system on its head.
A notable example was the baseless whopper he tweeted this past week, quoting an allegation of tampering by a voting machine manufacturing company that supposedly “deleted 2.7 million Trump votes nationwide.”
That fiction, which scored a “pants-on-fire” rating from PolitiFact as “inaccurate and ridiculous,” was serious enough in its impact to be denounced Thursday by experts in a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, which also declared that the 2020 presidential election was “the most secure” in history.
“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” the DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in a strong rebuke of Trump’s tweeted claims.
But what’s a statement from government experts at a time when the president’s paranoid allegations of “deep state” conspiracies routinely undermine the credibility of those government experts who dare to reveal truths inconvenient to Trump?
That leaves the nation – and the world – in the familiar position of wondering when, where or if other Republican leaders will call for an end to his excesses.
For now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others in his party would rather have Trump in their tent. They hope he will help the GOP win two runoff Senate elections in Georgia, which voted in a very close race for Biden.
McConnell is not wrong to say the president has a right to have his vote fraud charges investigated, even if the charges are just another con from an expert at the game.
But the rest of us also have a right to a peaceful and orderly transfer of power in and out of our White House, regardless of who its current tenant happens to be.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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