“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” This is what US President Donald Trump wrote in a message on Twitter on July 30, 2020.
What does it mean for the US president to propose that the November elections should be suspended? Trump’s tweet proclaims that the coming election will be “inaccurate and fraudulent.” Yet insofar as Americans do have problems with voting, they are the fault of the president and his allies. Trump is manufacturing a crisis: creating a problem, blaming others for it, and using it to claim power.
The greatest source of inaccuracy and fraud in American democracy is the disenfranchisement of Black voters. Half of the states in America have recently passed laws that seem designed to make voting more difficult for Americans who are not white. Anyone who wished for the United States to be a representative democracy would reverse this. In the past few months, more Americans than ever have become aware of the racism that excludes Black voices from politics. Yet far from seeking a solution to this problem, Trump has used protests as an excuse to deploy a new American secret police on the streets.
When in 2019 Congress passed a bill that would have ended these abuses and made it easier for all Americans to vote, it was blocked by the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s party, the Republicans.
The greatest source of inaccuracy and fraud in American democracy is the disenfranchisement of Black voters
A second threat to the November election is that of foreign intervention. Here again, Trump is the source of the problem, and has made it worse. In the 2016 elections, Trump knowingly gained advantages from a Russian internet campaign designed to get him elected. Russia released emails from his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and Russia influenced political conversations on social media. A leading political scientist, Kathryn Hall Jamieson, concluded that they likely tipped the election to Trump. As we know from historian David Shimer’s new book, Rigged: America, Russia and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interference, the Obama administration believed that Russia in 2016 also had the capacity to intervene directly in the tallying of the votes.
In office, Trump has denied that any of this took place and punished those who have drawn attention to the actual course of affairs. We now know that Trump in office has continued to solicit help from foreign governments to get himself reelected. By pardoning his ally Roger Stone, who served as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, Trump sent an obvious signal that he expects to benefit from Russian intervention in 2020. Congress passed a bill that was designed to make the American electoral system more defensible from Russian or any foreign intervention. This too was blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The issue that Trump mentions in the tweet, the high rate of postal voting, is also a result of his own actions. It is important to note, however, that there is nothing wrong with voting by mail. Trump himself votes by mail, as do many of his closest advisors. Voting with paper is much safer than voting digitally.
The reason why Americans want to vote by mail in 2020 is their own safety. The country is in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed 150,000 people. The scale of the suffering, death and fear is a result of Trump’s own decisions: to dispute the science, to send the signal that people should not wear masks, to oppose the systematic testing that is a necessary condition for treatment and for stopping the spread of the disease.
Insofar as the US postal service cannot handle the extra mail, that is also clearly Trump’s fault. He has attacked the postal service for years, and has recently appointed an unqualified donor as postmaster general. The new postmaster general has taken decisions that seem designed to make the postal service work poorly. Americans have already noticed that their mail is delayed.
Trump has made it clear that the task at hand is to keep him in office in some other way than by election
Given these contradictions, which are no secret to anyone, how did Trump mean for his message to be understood? Trump is not a fool. He knows that he has little chance of winning the election in November by normal means. By sending this message, he is conceding the election to his Democratic rival Joe Biden, and has begun the search for some other way of staying in office. His tweet is intended not for those who disagree with him, but for those are willing to follow him into tyranny.
In his tweet, Trump has made it clear that the task at hand is to keep him in office in some other way than by election. He knows that he lacks the power to delay the election himself. What he is seeking with this tweet are allies in the United States, or for that matter abroad, who will help to create a situation where an election seems impossible.
The tweet of July 30 is thus a turning point. Before that date, Trump supporters could tell themselves that they were involved in a normal presidential campaign. After that date, supporters of Trump must confront his open contention that the election in November will not count. This raises the question of just what it now means to be on the side of the US president. It means, of course, to be against democracy, and in favor of authoritarianism.
Anyone who supports Trump after July 30 has made a moral choice: for a person, and against the American constitution. Everyone who works for Trump’s campaign, donates money to it, or plans to vote for him has been put on notice: they are all now actors in a charade, keeping up appearances until November, providing cover for the real action, which will be somewhere else. Those three question marks at the end of the tweet are a signal that someone should find a non-democratic way of keeping Trump in power. There is notable agreement among American thinkers, from a leading left-wing public intellectual to a leading right-wing professor of law, that Trump’s tweet was “fascistic.” I have written in this vein myself. But this may be most profoundly true in a sense that thus far has been overlooked. As English historian Ian Kershaw showed, the Nazi style was “working toward the Führer”: understanding a message from a leader not as a series of logical propositions or empirical observations, but as a guide to how the world should be, as a hint as to what followers should do. In this case, the hint is that the elections should be spoiled: a hint that can be taken by Trump’s postmaster general, or by republican state legislatures, or by Americans with guns.
Anyone who tries to do Trump’s bidding and spoil the election will regret it
They are unlikely to prevail, however. It has taken a while, but by now many Americans, even if they do not quite understand the deeper meaning of Trump’s style, are aware that they need to be prepared for an election unlike any other. Anyone who tries to do Trump’s bidding and spoil the election will regret it. That is the other meaning of those three question marks: Trump is hoping that someone else will break the law so that he may stay in power, but he has no intention of taking responsibility for what happens next. He will leave it to others to cripple American democracy so that he may live in comfort. If Russia tries this, it will almost certainly face the full wrath of a Biden administration. If Americans try to “work toward the Führer,” their leader will betray them in the end.
That is the one way in which Trump is perfectly consistent: everything is about him, and everyone is to be sacrificed to him. Unlike the traditional fascists, he dreams of no grand and terrible cause. He simply expects others to suffer on his behalf.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is the author, most recently, of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. His new book, Our Malady, will be published in September.