Donald Trump started talking about running for president as far back as the 1980s. But it wasn’t until he embraced birtherism — the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. — that Trump gained momentum as a potential presidential candidate.
Trump’s birtherism was a craven attempt to delegitimize not just Obama himself, but the voice of the American people. After all, President Obama had received more votes in 2008 than any other presidential candidate in history then — 69.5 million Americans chose him to lead the country. In addition to a massive popular vote margin of close to 10 million that year, Obama also claimed a decisive 365-to-173 Electoral College victory, winning 28 states and the District of Columbia.
Apparently unable to accept these facts on the ground and what they said about the changing realities of America, Trump found comfort in conspiracy theories. If Obama wasn’t born in the United States, then he couldn’t be president! Never mind those 69.5 million Americans who voted for him. Birtherism, in short, was Trump’s first corrosive project in delegitimizing democracy itself.
Now, in the wake of another election whose results didn’t square with Trump’s expectations, he’s once again finding comfort in racist conspiracy theories. Just as he once tried to cast Barack Obama as a foreign-born fake American with a rigged birth certificate, he continues to insist that millions of votes cast in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta are fraudulent, even as both Republican and Democratic officials in one state after the next certify that America’s citizens chose Joe Biden to be next President of the United States.
While Trump has filed dozens of post-election lawsuits (most of which have been quickly dismissed, denied, or withdrawn), the places Trump has worked hardest to characterize as hotbeds of fraud all feature large numbers of Black voters who supported Joe Biden. In Wisconsin, Trump paid only for a recount of votes in Milwaukee, where black voters are concentrated, and in Dane County, home to the college town of Madison. He also asked to throw out all of the votes cast in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and tweeted that Detroit recorded more votes than it has residents, which meant he won Michigan. (It didn’t and he didn’t.)
From the start, Trump’s desperate campaign to delegitimize the election has been farcical, as it rests upon the premise that he should keep his job precisely because of his incompetence and dereliction of duty. Somehow, we are asked to believe, when Trump as president had the full power and resources of the government to ensure a fair and secure election, he let Biden steal the whole thing right out from under him.
For Trump’s theory to make sense, Sleepy Joe, the guy Trump described as the “worst candidate ever,” who didn’t know what day it was and never left his basement, must also be an evil mastermind who persuaded thousands of election officials and poll workers in counties across the U.S. to do his nefarious bidding! Indeed, according to the gang that couldn’t sue straight, this alleged election heist was a “massive and coordinated effort” that utilized dead dictators, socialist voting machines, biased Sharpies, and even bribe-taking Republican governors! No wonder Sleepy Joe keeps touting unity…
Needless to say, all of this is Trump at his Trumpiest, Trump at his most desperately absurd. But unfortunately it is also Trump at his most divisive and destructive, poisoning the country he is entrusted to serve.
In reality, the 2020 election was a triumph of democracy. In the face of a deadly pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 230,000 Americans, voters had the highest turnout rates in more than a century. And because of rigorous efforts to safeguard election infrastructure across the country, Trump’s own appointees in the Department of Homeland Security described the 2020 election as “the most secure in American history.” Which, naturally, then led to Trump tweet-firing his hand-picked Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
But instead of celebrating America’s people and its institutions, Trump has spent the last month delegitimizing them. And obviously, in between rounds of golf, he will continue to do so. Once again, Trump’s birtherism provides a template for how this will end — which is to say that it won’t end. No matter how many certified copies of his birth certificate Obama released, Trump and other birthers insisted it wasn’t enough. After Georgia recounted its votes, Trump quickly demanded a recount of the recount. When that’s completed, he’ll demand a recount of the recount recount.
When every state finally certifies Joe Biden as the winner, when the 2024 election comes and goes, Donald Trump will still be tweeting the 2020 election was rigged, that the only legitimate votes that were cast in it were cast for him, that the 80 million votes for Joe Biden were all fake votes, that Trump won by a landslide.
In this way, Trump and his allies will use the record voter engagement we saw in 2020 as a pretext for more voter suppression, more disenfranchisement, more gerrymandering, and more calculated and systematic attempts to protect America from democracy itself. That’s why it’s so important we counter these efforts with an even stronger commitment to voter rights and voter accessibility. That’s why we must continue investing in the election system infrastructure, personnel, and training that help ensure that all voters have the chance to make their voices heard.
Because if there’s one thing we can count on moving forward, it’s this: Donald Trump is NEVER going to get tired of losing this election. And that means that we must never tire of winning it. There’s more work to be done.