Trump’s Crazy and Confoundingly Successful Conspiracy Theory

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In fundraising emails and text messages as well as social media strafes, in the mornings and in the evenings and throughout the wee hours, President Trump is peddling a vague, vast conspiracy of “ILLEGAL VOTES” and “ILLEGAL BALLOTS” and “blatant voter fraud” in states from the Northeast to the Southwest. The tweets just keep coming. “WE WILL WIN!”

He will not, because no such fraud exists, according to the diligent debunking of reporters, weary fact checkers, Democrats and a slowly increasing number of Republicans, too. “NO FRAUD,” read the headline at the top of the front of Wednesday’s New York Times. On Thursday, in the Wall Street Journal, none other than GOP lion Karl Rove said there’s “no evidence” of the level of malfeasance Trump is not only alleging but requires to reverse the results of the election. All of this is necessary, norm-adhering, invaluable pushback—and also misses perhaps the most crucial point.

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.

And it’s … working. Seven in 10 Republicans, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll earlier this week, believe the election was stolen from their candidate.

It is overall for Trump both a culmination and a continuation: a grand finale of sorts of the past five-plus years, in which he’s relied so much on so much unreality—and also a runway, a kind of topspin toward what’s to come once he leaves Washington, D.C., and presumably decamps to Mar-a-Lago to initiate a post-presidency that is all but assured to be unlike any other. The stakes are sky-high, and the collateral damage to America’s democracy could be lasting and profound, but Trump is doing what Trump has always done. He’s spinning a myth to serve his own interest. He’s doing what he believes he needs to do to put at least himself in the best possible position for the future after yet another failure.

“This isn’t about winning the presidency,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me this week. “It’s his exit strategy.”

“It’s not about the vote-counting,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and a former adviser to Eric Cantor when he was the House Majority Leader. “His entire persona is built on the idea of winning despite his decades of not winning. He’s constantly creating a legend, frankly, about himself rather than a truthful narrative, so I’m not surprised that he’s going to use this to convince his supporters that the election was unfair and that he remains the leader of the Republican opposition.”

He added: “He’s going to have to take care of financial issues once he’s out of office, and he’s going to make a lot of money. He’s going to make a lot of money on books. He’s going to make a lot of money on speeches. He’s going to be able to hold rallies and charge for them. Putting everything from the Southern District of New York aside, and what could happen to him in Manhattan, just on the sheer financial side of it, the martyring of Trump—martyring himself—is good for business.”

Cooper said it’s imperative for Trump to keep active the potential for another run in 2024. “Whether he wants to do that or not, the idea that he could do it needs to remain alive from a profitability standpoint,” he said.

“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,” said Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, who wrote a book that was published back in May—Will He Go?

“He’s not losing,” Marcus said. “He’s winning.”

“I honestly don’t think it could be working out any better for him,” Cooper said.

Trump, after all, started preparing for what he was going to do if he lost this election before the last election. And he simply could not be doing what he’s doing at this stage if he hadn’t been doing it for this long. “He’s able to do this now,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarians, fascism and propaganda who has a new book out this week titled Strongmen, “because of all that he’s already set up.”

It goes way back. “Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory,” one of Trump’s lawyers told Marie Brenner for a story in Vanity Fair 30 years ago this fall. “If you say something again and again, people will believe you.”

Trump is an expert liar. The foundation of his existence is lies. He’s not self-made. He’s not a good businessman, manager or boss. He’s an insider instead of an outsider. He’s not been somehow singularly a victim but rather spectacularly privileged and lucky. “He is not who he says he is,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me this past August. “He is,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antontio said, “a walking lie.”

It served him well when he started his run-up to his run for president.

Initially, a decade ago now, Trump stoked his political potency and putative candidacy principally by impugning President Barack Obama by spreading the racist conspiracy theory questioning his American citizenship. The better Trump did during his 2016 campaign, the more he warred with traditional arbiters of truth, which in turn further fueled his bid. And in addition to assailing the press as “fake news,” civil servants as “the deep state” and D.C. as “the swamp,” he levied especially insidious attacks at the integrity of America’s elections. In the aftermath of his loss to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses, just for starters, Trump accused the senator from Texas of “fraud” and said he “stole it.” In the general, as November 2016 got closer and closer, Trump used the phrase “rigged” more and more. He declined repeatedly to commit to accepting the results if they showed that he lost.

And for the duration of his administration, of course, he’s been the most persistent and unrepentant liar ever to get to sit behind the big desk in the Oval Office. Trump has spent no small amount of his time as the president talking and tweeting about (minimal, unproven or outright whole-cloth-made-up) instances of illegal voting and election fraud. He did it in ’16 in the wake of his own Electoral College win, insisting falsely that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He did it around the midterms. “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING,” he tweeted the day before those elections. And he did it, obviously, heading into the election that just happened. “He is defiant,” said Jennifer Mercieca, the author of a book about Trump’s rhetoric, Demagogue for President, “in the face of objective truth.”

Douglas, the Amherst professor, predicted it: “While his defeat is far from certain, what is not uncertain is how Donald Trump would react to electoral defeat, especially in a narrow one. He will reject the result,” he wrote in his book that came out in the spring. “Trump’s refusal to accept defeat is not possible or even probable—it is all but inevitable.”

“Donald Trump is the big lie,” Carl Bernstein said on CNN in September. “He is the big lie. His presidency is the big lie.”

“He’s sort of like Goebbels,” Joe Biden said on MSNBC a few weeks after that, referencing Hitler’s head of propaganda. “You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, repeating it.”

“This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump lied late on election night. “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election.”

“If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes they can try to steal the election from us,” Trump lied two days later in what CNN’s indefatigable fact checker described as “the most dishonest speech of his presidency.”

The very lack of specificity in his sweeping claims is what has focused the fury of the GOP base against the institutions they have been trained to despise. Narrow, easily disprovable claims, which would not survive long, but broad-brush demands to count every legal vote give cover to party leaders in Washington who can parrot the president without fear of contradiction. And national fundraising would likely not be as effective if Trump weren’t claiming that the fraud was coast-to-coast as well.

“If ALL Patriots chip in $10, Pres Trump & the GOP will have what it takes to DEFEND the Election & WIN,” says a text message from the Trump campaign that’s arrived since I started writing this story. “They are doing everything they can to TRICK the American People. I need you,” reads another. And there was an email. It said nothing. It just asked for money.

“Saving face is everything to these guys,” said Ben-Ghiat, referring to authoritarians in general. “The reason he calls everybody a loser,” she added, referring to Trump in particular, “is that he’s afraid he’s a loser.”

“He can’t concede,” Douglas said, “because it just doesn’t fit with the narrative that he’s told his supporters. He’s told his supporters that there’s a deep state that has been conspiring against him to remove him from office, from the moment he was elected, along with the fake news, and along with the radical Democrats—they’ve all been conspiring against him. And it would almost be acknowledging to his supporters that he’s been lying to them all along.”

“The scandal will start to fade,” Cooper told me. More losses in court. More certified results. More Republicans across the country and heads of state around the world moving on.

Trump … will not. “He becomes the 24-7 permanent Monday morning quarterback, the day after the inaugural,” Cooper predicted. “Anything good that happens was his doing, and anything bad that happens—it’s because he’s no longer in office. And like the shattering of every other norm, the idea that he’s going to go and just be, you know, a retired president—it’s crazy. He’s just going to be this constant presence. And this all fuels it. He’s just going to move back into his natural space of lobbing bombs and juicing people up.”

That, not the White House, is his wheelhouse.

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