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.”