“We’re making HUGE progress.”
“This Election isn’t over.”
Such is the communication from the Trump campaign more than two weeks after Election Day, more than a week and a half after news networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect after he eliminated the last mathematical path to a Trump victory.
For those rooted in reality, the Trump campaign’s missives — coming at a steady pace of more than a dozen a day, even now — might seem comical, the petulant last gasps of a rejected leader, one final grift to empty the pockets of his most stalwart supporters. Yet experts say they’re far from a laughing matter; rather, they are part of the president’s latest assault on the norms underpinning American democracy.
The language of the e-mails and text messages emerging from the Trump campaign, which continue to falsely cast the election as stolen from Trump, “creates mistrust in democratic institutions, makes his supporters think that the structure of democracy can’t be trusted, and that unless Republicans win, it’s illegitimate — which is anti-democratic,” said Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor who wrote “How Fascism Works.”
A stark illustration of the real-world consequences of Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud run amok and corrupt election processes surfaced Wednesday, when the top elections official in Arizona issued a statement saying she has faced “ongoing and escalating threats of violence” against herself and her family.
“[T]here are those, including the president, members of Congress and other elected officials, who are perpetuating misinformation and are encouraging others to distrust the election results in a manner that violates the oath of office they took. It is well past time that they stop. Their words and actions have consequences,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat.
The Republican Secretary of State in Georgia also has said he’s faced death threats as Trump and other Republicans have questioned the validity of vote counts in his state and his failure to expose fraud they claim, without evidence, was rampant in that state, among other places Trump lost.
And a Monmouth poll released Wednesday found that 32 percent of Americans believe that Biden’s victory was secured by voter fraud. Among those who voted for Trump, more than three-quarters believe Democrats stole the election from the president.
Opening one of these frequent post-election missives from the Trump campaign is to descend into a right-wing fever dream in which a vast conspiracy of Democrats, leftist radicals, and the mainstream media are working to steal the election from Trump. And unlike Twitter, where the platform has stepped up efforts to label the president’s baseless claims as misinformation, there’s no third party warning supporters about the content pumped straight into their inboxes and phones.
“This is sheer MADNESS!” claims one “urgent message” signed by the president, sent to supporters Tuesday. “The Fake News is trying to keep these unprecedented stories of VOTER FRAUD quiet, but it’s important for the American People to know the TRUTH.”
“The Radical Left Democrats, working with their partner, the Fake News Media, are trying to STEAL this Election. We won’t let them. Joe Biden only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING. We have a long way to go — this was a flawed ELECTION,” Trump thundered on Wednesday, including some bold words to underscore the purported defect of the contest in which he was defeated.
Invariably, these e-mails also ask for money — donations to help fill the coffers of Trump’s “Official Election Defense Fund.” The fine print, however, suggests most of the money raised is going not to the various efforts to challenge the election outcome, including lawsuits the Trump campaign and its allies have filed around the country. Instead, much of the money solicited by these e-mails in the past week is going to a new PAC started by Trump, which Washington observers suspect will be used to fund his post-White House political life. Before that, significant chunks were being directed to pay down the Trump campaign’s existing debt.
There are texts, too. “Mike Pence: The President cannot deliver the American Comeback if we stand idly by while our Election system is undermined. Donate & FIGHT BACK,” read one example.
At times, the language of these fund-raising requests ricochet between righteous outrage and some sort of direct marketing scheme. “Claim your 1000% offer” many of the recent messages demand, promising that somehow a supporter’s donation will be multiplied — though by whom exactly is not made clear.
It’s not just Trump signing his name to this correspondence. His adult children, vice president, and other allies make regular appearances.
Experts say both the steady drumbeat of false claims of a stolen election and the animosity expressed toward perceived enemies — Democrats, the media, voters in cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, which both vote Democratic and have significant numbers of residents of color — represent an unprecedented and dangerous new frontier in political messaging in this country.
“I have never seen the level of vitriol lobbed at opponents in fund-raising,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University expert in the use of digital and social media in presidential campaigns, who noted she’s been studying fund-raising e-mails and letters from campaigns for two decades. “Never have they been so derogatory and have used such extremely strong and hateful adjectives.”
She pointed to several messages that use language such as “The Left HATES YOU, Victoria,” to use a recent e-mail this reporter received. “They want to keep you DOWN and keep you SILENT because they are afraid of YOU and everything you stand for.”
“The whole premise of this is so much us versus them in a level of extreme language that I’ve never seen in political fund-raising,” Stromer-Galley said.
Yale’s Stanley highlighted language in both Trump’s e-mails and other post-election rhetoric singling out cities like Detroit, with large populations of Black voters, as corrupt, saying it is a concept he discusses in his book on fascism. “This is just classic, the idea that the genuine voters, the legal voters, live in the heartland, in the rural areas, outside the cities . . . [that] are filled with leftists and communists and minorities, and their votes are not really genuine or legitimate. That is at the core of this kind of us-them distinction of far-right authoritarianism or fascism,” said Stanley.
That Trump is soliciting money to fuel lawsuits is not on its own unusual. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush formed committees to fund-raise around their legal challenges and recounts in 2000.
But Trump’s drumbeat of communication, scholars warn, is potentially creating an alternative reality where some portion of his supporters may continue to believe the election was stolen, that Democrats cheated, that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president — none of which is healthy for democracy.
A New York Times reporter recently asked House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy if President-elect Biden will help tamp down the country’s political fires, at least at first.
“It depends how it turns out. If you have 70 percent of Republicans who thought he cheated, he’s still going to have a hard time,” McCarthy said.
None of that seems to matter to Trump, of course. He ends his presidency as he began it, focused on numero uno.
“One thing has become clear these last few days,” several fund-raising e-mails purportedly from Trump have said, “I am the American People’s ALL-TIME favorite President.”
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