And yet, this moment is not entirely about him. The question was never going to be how Trump responded to a defeat. The question was how Republicans would respond to Trump’s response. After four years of turning a blind eye to the president’s subversive rhetoric and manic behavior and relentless dishonesty, the ultimate test for the Republican Party was whether it would accommodate the president’s rebellion against this country’s democratic norms or denounce it.
The Republican Party has failed that test.
“President Trump won this election,” Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, declared Thursday night during an appearance on Fox News, as some 140 million ballots tabulated nationwide showed Trump badly losing the popular vote, trailing in most battleground states and nowhere near clinching a majority in the Electoral College. “Everyone who is listening: Do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”
What “this” was McCarthy referring to? Not simply the steady erosion of Trump’s lead in a handful of pivotal states, as the tabulation of millions of mail votes plodded along. No, McCarthy was casting doubt on what was causing those margins to close. He was insinuating that something sinister was afoot in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania. He was nodding to the notion that partisan observers — “poll watchers,” as they’re often called — weren’t being allowed to monitor the process. And he wasn’t alone.
“Philadelphia elections are crooked as a snake,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Sean Hannity on another Fox News segment Thursday evening. “There’s the process of observing an election that’s being violated.”
Hannity asked if Pennsylvania lawmakers should invalidate the results because GOP poll-watchers weren’t being allowed to monitor the count in Philadelphia. “I think everything should be on the table,” Graham replied.
The only problem? Observers were allowed to monitor the count in Philadelphia.
This is not in dispute. The Trump campaign’s own attorneys, in a court appearance Thursday, acknowledged that more than a dozen of their designated poll watchers were physically present throughout the day at the main ballot processing site. The bipartisan elections commission in Philadelphia issued a statement Thursday confirming as much: “The Trump campaign has had certified canvas observers in the Convention Center to view the counting operation all day long today as it has since the pre-canvas began on Tuesday at 7:00 a.m.” The lone point of contention was how far the poll watchers were required to stand from the ballot counters, a bit of logistical nuance that somehow spawned a sweeping claim that observers had been kicked out altogether.
None of this stopped Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — the man who once called Trump “a pathological liar” — from echoing the president’s deception, following up Graham’s performance with one that made the South Carolina senator look meek by comparison.
“I am angry, and I think the American people are angry,” Cruz told Hannity, his voice wrung with outrage. “By throwing the observers out, by clouding the vote-counting in a shroud of darkness, they are setting the stage to potentially steal an election not just from the president, but from the over 60 million people across this country who voted for him.”
One might assume that an Ivy League-educated lawyer like Cruz — someone who argued cases before the Supreme Court, someone who, as he reminded Hannity on Thursday night, worked on the Bush v. Gore case in 2000 — would make sure his assertions were bulletproof before sharing them with millions of viewers. But that assumption would be wrong.
Cruz warned Hannity in foreboding tones of the “darkness” corrupting this election. In addition to spreading falsehoods on Fox News, his attempt to shed light on it involved tweeting a story from The Federalist, a far-right website, headlined, “Yes, Democrats Are Trying To Steal The Election In Michigan, Wisconsin, And Pennsylvania.” The compelling evidence? A screenshot of incoming results from the election-tracking website Decision Desk HQ, taken by a GOP operative, that purported to show a sudden dump of 128,000 votes for Biden in Michigan. It turned out there was an input error by a single county; the numbers were quickly corrected and the GOP operative deleted his screenshot. But The Federalist didn’t delete its story. Nor did Cruz delete his tweet.
A handful of prominent Republicans have distinguished themselves over the past 72 hours by daring to question the president’s claims and the rhetoric of the right. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the party’s previous nominee for president, said Trump’s bombast “damages the cause of freedom here and around the world.” Will Hurd, the retiring congressman from Texas, called Trump’s unfounded allegations “dangerous.” Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey said Trump’s speech was “very disturbing.” A pair of military veterans in Congress, Adam Kinzinger and Denver Riggleman, took Trump to task for disrespecting the elections process. Even Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who launched the Trump administration with a lie about inauguration crowd sizes, scoffed at the unfounded nature of Trump’s claim.
But these voices were the minority, drowned out by the doomsayers who seem determined to go down with the ship. Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, warned Republicans not to be “sheep” and urged them to “Fight against this fraud.” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a confidant to the president, called for the arrest of poll workers. Mark Levin, a right-wing radio host with a penchant for hysteria, urged Republican-controlled state legislatures to ignore the results of their state elections and send electors who will vote for Trump in the Electoral College. His missive was retweeted by the Republican Party’s top spokesperson.
For the GOP and its right-wing affiliates, a discernible pattern emerged over the past 72 hours. Level sweeping allegations without evidence. Use the phrases “late ballots” and “illegal votes” often and interchangeably. Point to oddities and irregularities, no matter how minuscule, as proof of a broader conspiracy. Then, despite those individual claims being debunked, stand by them. If this playbook sounds familiar, it’s because the party has taken on the identity of its leader.
Consider the case of Liz Harrington, the top spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. On Thursday, right around the time she was retweeting Levin, Harrington began broadcasting a popular conspiracy theory that Milwaukee’s high rate of voter turnout was evidence of voter fraud. Tweeting quotes from an article in another far-right publication — headlined “Game-On for the Coup?” — Harrington claimed the “improbably high turnout” was “a statistical impossibility.” She wondered how “Sleepy Joe” drove 85 percent turnout in Milwaukee when Obama, the nation’s first Black president, had only generated 71 percent turnout there.
Except she was wrong. According to public records, turnout in the city of Milwaukee was 87 percent in 2012. Harrington had erred by comparing Biden’s turnout of registered voters this year with Obama’s turnout of eligible voters (a larger pool that yields a smaller percentage) eight years ago. Insidious as the underlying motives were, Harrington could be forgiven for this mistake. But then she doubled down. Responding to my correction of her facts, Harrington stated that turnout “jumped by more than 20 points” in Milwaukee County from 2016 to 2020. Again, the implication clear: Such a huge spike in activity, in a heavily Black and predominantly Democratic area, was proof of corruption.
And again, her facts were wrong. Turnout in Milwaukee County was 80 percent in 2016. Turnout in Milwaukee County this year was 84 percent. That’s a very modest increase, especially relative to the rest of Wisconsin, where some rural red counties saw turnout boom as much as 15 percent. Harrington wasn’t concerned with those increases — for obvious reasons.
This is the inherent flaw with the GOP’s charge of mass voter fraud. Participation rates spiked more in Republican areas than in Democratic ones; Trump won more votes in cities like Milwaukee and Detroit than he did four years ago. There is no pattern in the data to suggest anything except a high-intensity, high-turnout election all the way around, and in many cases, particularly down-ballot, Republicans were the beneficiary. As spectacularly as she failed to produce evidence of malfeasance, at least Harrington tried to use actual numbers. That’s more than could be said for most Republicans who rushed to Trump’s defense on Thursday.
“Democrats are trying to steal the election,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. “We won’t let it happen.” (He included a hashtag — #stopthesteal — that plugged into a universe of alleged crime and subterfuge, much of it focused on the same handful of purported incidents of fraud.)
“I stand with President @realDonaldTrump,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee. “We need transparency in our election system. What we’re seeing is fraud, and it must be stopped.”
“The election results are out of control,” agreed Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. “It’s like the whistle has blown, the game is over, and the players have gone home, but the referees are suddenly adding touchdowns to the other team’s side of the scoreboard.”
“Trump’s points are persuasive: concerted use of fraudulent polls; stunning and implausible ballot dumps overnight; observers barred,” said Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina. “Fight!”
“Radical Dems tried to do away with law and order and are now trying to do away with law and order at the ballot box,” agreed Rep. Roger Williams of Texas. He later added, “This is the most corrupt election in our lifetime. Where is the DOJ and AG?”
This is just a sampling of the statements made by Republicans in the wake of Trump’s dramatic speech from the White House on Thursday night. Much of the agitation focused on two things: Questioning the absence of a law enforcement investigation, as Rogers did, and encouraging Republican voters to contribute to Trump’s legal defense fund. The two sentiments go hand-in-hand: Because the Department of Justice has not (yet) inserted itself into any of the fracases that have sprung up in various states, the burden falls on Trump’s campaign to substantiate their allegations of wrongdoing.
That’s a heavy lift — one made heavier by the fact that, despite this being the most scrutinized election in memory, there is thus far zero evidence of any scalable fraud. This should be considered a triumph for Trump’s campaign: Over the past few months, I’ve had numerous local GOP officials boast about their poll-watching program, describing its sophistication, exuding confidence that they would have eyes and ears in every room as votes were being counted. “The Trump campaign is on it like white on rice. They’re watching everything,” Matt Albert, chair of the Outagamie County GOP in Wisconsin, told me last month. If anyone tried to cheat, Albert emphasized, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
There were no notable accusations of wrongdoing on Election Day, no allegations being made by Republicans in states like Michigan and Georgia and Pennsylvania. Then, on Wednesday, a flicker of scandal, fueled by social media, began to illuminate the right. By Thursday the spark had become an inferno, with millions of Americans exposed to photos and videos supposedly verifying widespread fraudulent activity. What changed between Tuesday and Thursday? Not the presence of poll watchers; they were there all along. Not the sudden counting of mail ballots; millions of them were tabulated earlier in the week in states like Ohio and Florida, without any incident. The only thing that changed was the president’s position in the race, which explains the sudden feeding frenzy of rumor and speculation and conspiracy theorizing.
The truly remarkable thing is that thus far, Trump and his Republican allies have produced nothing to even remotely substantiate the notion of a rigged election. His efforts in this regard have been more a publicity stunt than a serious legal challenge; the president’s political fixers, including erstwhile campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp and former ambassador Ric Grenell, have scrambled around the country holding press conferences alleging rampant abuse yet failed to offer any examples of it. (Grenell presented an elderly blind woman in Nevada who claimed her ballot was stolen; Clark County officials confirmed they had already met with the woman, given her the chance to authenticate a new ballot for the election, and that she declined.)