What is the strategy — if indeed there is one — behind Trump’s increasingly looney-tunes conspiracy theories as he continues to push his baseless claims about election fraud? Note that in addition to Trump himself — who literally has not stopped talking about this since Election Day — three distinct groups have been promoting his bogus claims: first, multiple charismatic “prophets and apostles” (many of whom confidently “prophesied” a Trump victory and were proven to be charlatans), as well as a great many voices on the Christian Right. Second, voices on the political right, including: far-right media outlets such as Breitbart, OANN, Newsmax, and other voices such as Roger Stone; military veterans, including Michael Flynn, Scott O’Grady and Thomas McInerney; and finally, key members of the Republican Party, who either agreed with Trump’s assertions, or said nothing, simply letting his remarks go unchallenged.
Third, they’ve also been pushed by his legal team, headed up by the sweaty, eye-bulging disgrace of the former SDNY prosecutor and NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the “crack legal team” representing Trump in his increasingly failing lawsuits. But even far-right conspiracist attorney Sydney Powell proved to be too much of a liability, and she was finally dismissed — although she continues to appear in various places like GA, alongside equally nutty lawyer, and rabid Trump cheerleader Lin Wood. At one point near the end of December 2020, there was even talk of Trump appointing her a special counsel to investigate alleged electoral fraud, but apparently that effort fell flat.
Much ink has been spilled addressing the question: is Trump attempting a coup? Certainly, I believe that if he were able to overturn the election results, he would have done so. It wasn’t for lack of trying! Undoubtedly, there was a serious effort to reverse the election results; fortunately, Trump’s “crack legal team” proved to be little more than a group of bunglers. That, and there was actually zero legal basis for any of his bogus lawsuits filed in multiple states. The problem, however, is that the guardrails of democracy actually barely held; and moreover, as Ben Jacobs maintains in a NYMag article, there remains the spectre of Trump ensconced in Mar-a-Lago, continuing to push his bogus electoral fraud claims— and thus holding on to his ultra-loyal base.
Jacobs states that we need to look at Trump’s coup attempts as a “dress rehearsal” for a future demagogue who is smarter, harder-working and more organized than Trump. On the one hand, there is a possibility that Trump will eventually come to be seen as a pariah, as did Joseph McCarthy. This is unlikely, however, because statistics show that Trump has an undeniable hold on a huge number of loyal followers whose views are highly unlikely to change. Trumpism won’t go away just because he leaves office. On the other hand, moving forward, Trump could remain relevant and important to his base by continuing to promote the lie of a stolen election. Jacobs notes: “The alternative scenario proffered is that if false claims of a stolen election will persist like the ‘stab in the back’ myth after World War I in Germany, which wrongfully suggested that democratic politicians had betrayed the army and prevented victory.”
Riling Up the Base
Now that it’s clear that Trump’s attempt at a coup has failed, what is the point of continuing to spread lies about the supposedly rigged election? Beyond merely remaining relevant to his base — and thus keeping the door open to a 2024 run at the presidency — there are at least two aspects to Trump’s continued promotion of baseless conspiracy theories around Biden’s clear and evident victory. First, Trump’s endgame is this: he knows that his bogus lawsuits are being dismissed left, right and center. In a Reason article, Jacob Sullum points out that “state and federal judges have ruled on the merits of Trump’s legal arguments and rejected them, often in blistering terms. Equally telling, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits have failed even to allege the sort of vast criminal conspiracy he describes in speeches and tweets.”
Moreover, according to Michael Kruse in a November 13th Politico article, mere days after the election Trump experienced the typical media and political pushback to his increasingly unhinged tweets shouting in all caps: “WE WILL WIN”!” or that “ILLEGAL VOTES” and “ILLEGAL BALLOTS” had been cast, costing him the win. But to focus on countering Trump point-by-point, or fact-checking him, is to miss the crucial point of it all, says Kruse. It’s a feature, not a bug, of a well-known Trumpian tactic: create and then dominate the news cycle with outrageous claims and lies. Kruse explains: “The shocking lack of specifics, which Trump’s critics mock as laughably unserious for something so consequential, is not a deficiency. It is the feature of his strategy.
Trump is not making a narrow, surgical, legally feasible case to enhance his chances to still be living in the White House come January 21. (That’s…improbable.) He’s not doing this, either, to win the argument. (It’s almost mathematically impossible.) He’s doing it, say political strategists, longtime Trump watchers and experts on authoritarian tactics, to sow doubt, save face and strengthen even in defeat his lifeblood of a bond with his political base.”
Kruse has, I believe, hit the nail on the head here. Trump knows deep down that he didn’t win the election fair and square; he lost to Biden by over 7 million votes, and did not carry the Electoral College either. But if he keeps riling up his base with bogus claims of conspiracy theories, rigged, fraudulent and stolen elections, as pointed out above, it keeps him relevant by maintaining the fear and anger of his base. Essentially, he and his base need this narrative to keep going, and to fuel the outrage. But what fears exactly is Trump tapping into regarding his base? For years, he’s already done a fantastic job of stoking the fires of conspiratorial thinking, aided by factors such as the right-wing media and the cult of QAnon — which saw a huge surge in numbers of adherents since the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns began.
The sorts of fears Trump is so adeptly tapping into include the following: the belief that nefarious forces are really in control of things — the mysterious “they” who secretly run the world by pulling unseen strings. This includes shadowy forces such as the “deep state”; Communist China, secretly working in tandem with Cuba and the ghost of Hugo Chavez; voting machine companies such as Dominion; and that it all somehow came together in a vast, secret conspiracy to steal the election — that he rightfully won, of course.
All of these conspiracies anger Trump’s base as well, since a great many believe he was robbed of a rightful win. The data backs up this claim, too. According to Chris Kahn in a November 18th article on the Reuters site, “About half of all Republicans believe President Donald Trump ‘rightfully won’ the U.S. election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud that favored Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.” According to an early December FOX News poll, 77% of Trump voters believed that the election was “stolen”; 68% of Republicans believed it was too, along with 56% of white evangelicals.
The problem with this development? Trump’s continued defiance, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, and his promoting of unfounded conspiracy theories are undermining Americans’ faith in democracy itself, and free and fair voting — which is, of course, the very bedrock of democracy. As a result of Trump’s relentless onslaught on democracy, more Americans are now suspicious about the American election process itself than they were just four years ago. As pointed out above, although this most recent coup attempt failed, what’s to stop a more organized authoritarian from succeeding in the future?
Looking at the numbers off the back of the Reuters poll, it demonstrates the vast polarities between Trump’s base and the rest of the nation. About 73% of all Americans believe that Biden rightfully won the election fair and square, with about 5% thinking that Trump actually won. But among Republicans, even for those who may grudgingly admit Biden won it, there’s still a high degree of suspicion concerning how Biden actually achieved his victory. According to Kahn, “Fifty-two percent of Republicans said that Trump ‘rightfully won,’ while only 29% said that Biden had rightfully won.” A full 68% of Republicans, when queried as to why they had concerns about the election results, stated that they believe the election was “rigged.”
A Chance to Cash In
And of course for Trump — the career grifter, money launderer, tax cheat and con man, there’s a second angle to the whole conspiracy narrative too: a possibility for personal profit. According to Kruse in the Politico article, Trump is rightly concerned about his financial future and legal exposure, once his presidential immunity disappears. After he leaves office, Trump faces multiple investigations concerning his shady business practices and tax dodges, and owes hundreds of millions to outfits such as Deutsche Bank and potentially the IRS.
But ever since the election, even as he continued to promote his baseless conspiracy theories about the “rigged election,” he was equally quick to start sending out texts, emails and letters to his donors for his “legal defense fund.” Since then, he’s already raised some $200 million from his supporters allegedly for this purpose. The problem? If one reads the fine print, it’s easy to see that this is a classic Trump con. EJ Montini points out that “the election defense fund had fine print noting that ‘donations would largely go towards 2020 debt retirement.’ Meantime, Trump’s current Save America ‘leadership’ PAC, established Nov. 9, now gobbles up 75% of donations, over which Trump has control.” In other words: the fine print reveals that Trump is actually in control of the funds, which can be used for a wide variety of other things personally than fighting election fraud or paying his legal bills.
Michael Kruse, in his Politico article, interviewed Lawrence Douglas, Amherst professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, and author of a book that came out in May about Trump titled Will He Go? On this issue of Trump’s future profitability, Lawrence told Kruse: “If you hold out that possibility, it guarantees that he just kind of remains relevant, remains in the spotlight, remains a source of chaos, disorder and division, which is what he seems to thrive on.” Douglas’s point ties in the above issue of Trump’s manipulation of the media. Trump is an absolute master of dominating the news cycles. His baseless conspiracy theories have been widely reported and discussed, which is exactly what he wants. As Michael Cohen pointed out in his book Disloyal, one thing that assisted Trump mightily in the runup to the 2016 election was the “free press.” Not free as in “freedom of the press,” claims Cohen, but rather free as in “free media coverage.”
Over the last four or five years, as a candidate and later as president, every time Trump said or did something outrageous, racist or blatantly false, the media jumped on it and ran with it — and that became the storyline of the day. Entire news cycles have been devoted to a single Trump tweet. That is, until Trump tweeted out, or said something the next day even more outrageous. He is a master of creating and dominating the news cycle, and absolutely loves the fact that he can manipulate the press so easily, and remain in the spotlight. Plus, he’s used this tactic incredibly effectively to distract the nation from the latest scandal or outrage he’s committed, and it works every time. Trump is using the same playbook now, and once again, the media — and especially his base of loyal donors — are falling for his tactics.