Let’s say you’ve long been disaffected with political parties. You don’t trust them. You care about politics, but you don’t see much promise in the standard candidates.
Let’s even say you have suspicions the two parties are more interested in their own power than in helping the country.
Occasionally you see promising people come forward, challenging the conventions. Maybe your interest is piqued by an Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard, a Marianne Robinson or Bernie Sanders. Or perhaps by a Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ron Paul, or Herman Cain.
Whoever they are, interesting people with interesting ideas show up, and somehow they speak to you. They seem to share some of your interests. But they never get a foothold in the game of national politics.
Maybe you don’t understand politics, and these candidates always lose fairly on the merits. But you suspect the deck is stacked against them. They criticize Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, corruption in politics. You’ve heard them called “populists,” but they always end up getting labeled something like “fascist” or “socialist,” and cast aside.
Or maybe you do understand politics. You long for an outsider, populist candidate, not because you are naïve, but because you are well-read. You’ve studied history and political theory. You don’t care much for pundits or journalists; you read thoughtful, literate writers who provide historical and philosophical perspective—thinkers most pundits and journalists have never heard of and wouldn’t understand.
Or maybe you are a sincerely religious person and you know your beliefs are not, will never be, embodied in a political party. You know all politics is compromise. But you also feel an obligation to help improve the world through politics, and this only makes you all the more frustrated at the narrow range of options presented by the two parties.
For whatever reason—naïve disaffection, intellectual aloofness, religious detachment—you don’t feel at home in mainstream partisan politics, and you suspect that the system, the two parties themselves, are stacked against you.
There are economic and political explanations of why they might be stacked against you. Whether you are aware of these explanations or not, the evidence is clear: candidates who challenge them, candidates who are too “populist,” are always marginalized, ridiculed, suppressed.
Then along comes Trump.
Is his candidacy a joke? Is he worth paying attention to? Is this a publicity stunt?
He says things that seem to make sense to you, and moreover he says them effectively. He inspires followers. He beats opponents. He doesn’t put up with establishment bullshit. You don’t like him—almost everybody says this—but he shows an attractive charisma, a fighting spirit. Even his imperfections—“incivility,” strange mannerisms, shamelessness, a less than respectable past—seem to be part of his energy, his dynamism.
And his actual policies? The things he says he wants to do? Well, maybe you don’t agree with every single one, but there is actually a coherence to them, a sense of priority and pragmatism. Energy independence. Non-interventionism. Revitalizing manufacturing. In substance, as well as style, he seems, well, populist.
Sure he’s rich (maybe) and a celebrity (certainly), and so not what you expect as a populist. But unlike a lot of rich people, he’s not owned. He doesn’t seem to defer to anybody or anything. He doesn’t owe anything to anyone, least of all to the party whose nomination he seeks or the powerful interests that seem to pull the strings in Washington.
So you find yourself one of tens of millions willing to give him a chance. What’s the worst that can happen?
You notice he’s usually attacked not for his policies, but for his style. They say he is “dark.” They say he is “scary.” They say he’s a racist and misogynist. They even say he doesn’t have a sense of humor, or that he’s psychologically ill. You don’t see any of this—but you do see who is saying these things: his enemies in the two parties who would be threatened by his success. You don’t think the charges are fair—but even if they are, it’s what he’d do in office, not his style or his tweets, that matters.
Maybe you see a rally on TV, or maybe you attend one yourself. It doesn’t seem “dark.” The tone is cheerful, patriotic. He’s funny, and also substantive. And the crowd—it’s diverse and friendly. Normal people. Truckers and plumbers and builders. Lawyers and dentists and accountants. Teachers and engineers, restaurant owners and waitresses, moms and grandmothers, people who haven’t been inspired by politics before, all sorts.
And then: Trump wins.
Everybody is surprised. Some people even seem genuinely scared. You wonder if the media emphasis on how “scary” he is might be harming people’s mental health.
The opponents obviously overplay their hands. They are hearing “dog whistles” that aren’t there (and they would only signal “dogs” if they were there, anyway). Maybe some of your friends call you a racist for supporting Trump, but you know you aren’t a racist, and you don’t think he is either.
The racism charge is so common and people are so scared that a few smart liberals who opposed Trump beg for people not to lose perspective, to give him a chance, and to stop “crying wolf” about his racism.
You wonder, “Why aren’t people more interested in understanding why Trump won?” They assume that since Trump is “dark,” his widespread support must be “dark.” Trump is a racist, they say, so his supporters must be racist. Or his supporters are brainwashed, the victims of manipulation. Or maybe there was foreign interference. Maybe the election was rigged.
If you haven’t given up on the biggest media outlets by now, perhaps you find some traditional journalists that avoid this cheap, simplistic narrative—journalists doing serious work to explain the political landscape. Perhaps you find one of the honest, anti-Trump journalists, like Tim Carney or John Miller or Chris Arnade, covering Trump’s actual populist appeal, seeking to understand the kinds of people who voted for him, the real civic and economic conditions that Trump appealed to.
But these hardworking, gumshoe journalists seem the exception, not the rule. And their stories, the ones that have a ring of truth to you, are subtle, complicated, and under-the-radar. They don’t play well on social media. They don’t make good memes. It’s outrage that sells. People who are afraid don’t want to be told not to be afraid. They want to be told they have good reasons for their fear.
So cooler heads do not prevail. Trump is never given a chance. Though he evidently wants to work with Democrats—on major issues, like immigration, health care, and tax reform—the Democrats refuse to work with him.
Then, at one point, there is supposedly proof that Trump is a racist. In the wake of tragedy in Charlottesville, he said that white nationalists, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis were “fine people.” Shocking. Smoking gun.
But it’s not. You see it’s a lie, a lie started and propagated by journalists. Clever editing, willful misreadings, bad faith, outright dishonesty. You read the transcript, you watch the video, and it’s obvious: Trump said there were “fine people” on both sides of the debate about statues, but he clearly, unequivocally, and multiple times condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The “smoking gun”…isn’t.
Half the country never heard about this though. They fell for a hoax. They believed they really had “evidence” that Trump was an unashamed racist. Crazy, huh? Why? Why would this hoax be perpetuated? Political gain? Outrage clicks? Have the journalists convinced themselves? Who knows the motive: in any case, it proved a useful myth for politicians, an easy talking point. Joe Biden believed the “fine people” lie (or claimed to). Eventually, he identifies it as the basis of his campaign against Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump’s very legitimacy as president has been challenged from the beginning. His opponents accused him of stealing the election. Foreign interference. “Russian collusion.”
These charges are leveled for years. No evidence. Just allegation. Conspiracy mongering. No proof. For years, they say the election was rigged, illegitimate. But no evidence.
Eventually the evidence that does come out is that the whole thing was made up. It’s not just a false allegation, but a contrived hoax, a political con-job. People high up in the FBI lied about it, fabricated evidence, entrapped people on false charges, testified falsely in Congress, hid evidence, and coordinated with the press to leak false information. It was an egregious abuse of surveillance powers. Maybe you see a popular documentary about it, or maybe you were able to put enough pieces together after seeing it argued about and dissected all over social media.
You’ve long known that the media manipulates and lies, and you’ve seen it exacerbated on social media. The media has become masterful at manipulating narrative, framing things, hiding things. Maybe you also watched a documentary about that too (one of the top documentaries of the year, even after being suppressed by Amazon).
You know your disaffection with “the establishment” isn’t partisan: Democrats and Republicans seem corrupt, liberals and conservatives are fed up with “the system.” The media seems systematically dishonest. These are basic civic and human rights you care about: the right to the rule of law, the right to a free press, the right to free and fair elections, the right not to be manipulated.
Big journalism itself seems to be part of the problem, coordinating with the established interests in the two parties to push their narrative. Did they help dispel the “Fine People” hoax? No, they magnified it. Did they properly cover the collusion allegation? No. Did any evidence ever emerge that Trump stole the election? No. But it made for clickable headlines for four years.
“Trump stole the election”: it was literally a conspiracy theory, but it had traction because, of course, we all know about corruption and fraud in politics. We expect it. Heck, Kennedy’s theft of the election from Nixon was a plot-point in Mad Men.
Perhaps you’ve also done a little digging and you know that there are questions about voting machines and how trustworthy they are. This was even a major Democratic complaint following the 2004 election. You’ve always wondered how those machines worked, how they could be secure. Potential for fraud has been widely recognized. Maybe you saw one of numerous stories, or even caught the HBO documentary, about how these machines are not only vulnerable, but suspiciously, intentionally vulnerable.
You’ve also noticed that social media plays a role in manipulating people—not only bad actors on social media, but the social media companies themselves: they tweak their algorithms to manipulate your behavior. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature—it’s the business model.
Twitter and Facebook and Google knew they had power to influence elections. People from these companies promised to use it more “responsibly” in 2020. Anti-Trump and pro-Trump politicians and pundits pressured big tech to wield their power more “responsibly.” How much could they influence? How many votes could they swing? Who knows, but these are questions worthy of study and political consideration. They are certainly not “partisan.”
So by now you don’t trust establishment politicians or establishment media. You don’t trust Big Tech. All of these institutions have shown a willingness to manipulate information.
In September 2020, journalists lie about Trump’s executive order banning racial discrimination and scapegoating, saying (not only without evidence, but contrary to evidence) that it “bans diversity training” or “bans sensitivity training.” In October, right before the election, establishment media outlets cover up revelations about corruption in the Biden family. You are used to this now: the official press will hide truths if they’re embarrassing to Biden and make up lies to embarrass Trump.
As the election nears, Trump seems more popular than ever before. After four years, people aren’t just taking a risk on an unknown quantity, they are voting for someone who presided over a robust economy, created jobs, reduced minority unemployment, kept us out of wars, brought troops home, reduced energy prices, reframed diplomacy in the Middle East, and so on. His opponent (who typifies the establishment choice) is uncharismatic and frail.
Most polls say Trump doesn’t have a chance, but the polls were wrong last time, and most of them are connected to media sources you already don’t trust. The best poll (Rasmussen, the one that will turn out to be closest to the actual results, as in 2016) has it very tight.
But another thing you don’t trust by the time of the election is the electoral process itself. You are aware of an unprecedented opportunity to rig or steal an election, unprecedented vulnerabilities in an already complicated system, magnified by controversial rule changes allegedly intended to accommodate a national health scare.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the election, mainly by making it easy for Democratic ballots to get cast and counted. Changing rules about mail-in ballots, voting early, and collecting ballots are justified as promoting access to voting, but are all known for increasing the chances for fraud.
An early case about the constitutionality of rule changes even makes it to the Supreme Court, in response to which several justices acknowledge that there are serious constitutional questions which need to be resolved somehow. But you don’t need justices to tell you that you can’t change the rules in the middle of a game.
So leading up to the election, you are aware of issues with questionable rule changes, all of which magnify the problems endemic to ballot harvesting, signature matching, unclean voter rolls, vulnerabilities in voting machines, and disputes about when and how ballots have to be returned.
Still, you think Trump can win—that he could outperform the “margin of fraud.” That’s clearly his goal: not only to win by enough, but to win big.
After the election, as news trickles in, you hear reports about:
Suspicious timing of ballots arriving.
Reports of suspicious ballots.
Suspicious treatment of election monitors.
“Software glitches” and “user errors” in voting machines.
Apparent anomalies in timing and distribution of vote tallies.
Anomalies in Trump’s performance relative to downballot Republicans.
Anomalies in swing counties.
There are so many allegations that keeping up with them would be too much even if it were a full-time job. Will journalists try? Their common response to anyone raising questions about election integrity is to insist that “experts” say there is “no evidence” of election fraud. It is hard to even find serious non-partisan coverage of the allegations. “Fact checks” appear glib, vaguely citing “experts” and “courts” and “no evidence.” But you know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
And even trying to find out information on your own, you notice Big Tech aggressively flagging any news that suggests irregularities. During the extended counting of ballots, for instance, any post on Twitter suggesting skepticism about election integrity triggers this warning:
Voter fraud of any kind is exceedingly rare in the US, election experts confirm. With ballot counting continuing and the presidential race being called for Joe Biden, experts and officials say there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 US election. The election process is secure and voter fraud of any type is incredibly rare according to The Associated Press and Reuters. Officials and experts warn that the most interference in US elections, whether from foreign or domestic players, comes in the form of misinformation campaigns, many of which are intended to create distrust in the US’s electoral process.
You find the rhetoric conspicuously odd. Technically correct, but also evasive. “The election process is secure” (sounds confident!) “according to…” two newswires? The constant repetition of “experts” and “no evidence” is the opposite of reassuring; in fact, it makes you more suspicious. (It reminds you of when you knew early on in the pandemic that masks were a reasonable step to slow spread of disease. “Experts” at the World Health organization said there was “no evidence” supporting mask-wearing, only to change their messaging weeks later.)
You aren’t the only one to notice that social media flags and warnings don’t seem so much about debunking the stories or helping you analyze them as about hiding them, not so much about leading to more information but stigmatizing skepticism.
Maybe you keep trying to read deeply about this. Maybe you give up and rely on your intuition. Maybe you catch bits and pieces and assume that somewhere, lawyers and legislators and investigators are doing the work to actually figure out what is going on. But what you can’t miss is that supposedly authoritative media outlets (which you don’t trust) keep complaining about “conspiracy theories” and disinformation on social media. You know not to trust everything you read, but you also know you can be a judicious reader. It’s not all crazy trolls writing about the problems. There are liberal and conservative voices, independent journalists, thoughtful commentators, specialist experts in polling or election law or statistical analysis or Constitutional jurisprudence.
You suppose you could ask a political scientist to explain why it all adds up to reasonable suspicion of an irregular election, but it’s intuitive, isn’t it? It’s intuitive—and yet hard to summarize. Do we even have a single word to capture it? Is it fraud? Is it ballot harvesting? Is it rigging? Is it stealing? Is it hacking? Is it vote-switching? Is it gaming the system? General lawlessness? Illegitimacy? Is there even a single word that can cover the multi-layered suspicion that has now accumulated about how the powers-that-be might seek to undermine a straightforward, legal, democratic process?
Later, much later, when “the secret history” can be reported, you will learn that it can in fact be called an “unprecedented conspiracy” and “shadow campaign,” that they were not “rigging” the election, they were “fortifying” it.
Stories about all these individual elements weren’t secret; they were so numerous they were aggressively “fact checked” by respectable media outlets, the same media outlets that propagated false storylines like the “fine people” hoax or hid the news about Hunter Biden’s corruption. Maybe here and there individual fact checks were right. Maybe they all were. But who knows? The problem by now is that, even with “fact checks,” each allegation of irregularities still seems plausible, and the fact-checkers, well—at this point you just don’t think they have much credibility.
We can at least agree to trust the courts, but did the courts really adjudicate these questions? Did they even look at the evidence? Rarely. You know that, for good reason (usually), courts are loath to get involved in deciding elections. So most courts that received cases found procedural grounds not to hear them.
If the courts wouldn’t review and consider the evidence, then the state legislatures themselves, those who certified electors, had to hear them. Sometimes they did. But sometimes they claimed they didn’t have to because “the courts” hadn’t been willing to.
Meanwhile, Trump is doing his best to keep pressing these obvious, important questions—but in doing so, he is accused of trying to “steal” the election, though he was trying to use the very legal political processes intended to ensure election integrity that opponents had done four years earlier. At one point, for instance, it is reported as fact that Trump was trying to manufacture votes, as if he were caught openly soliciting fraud; of course independent thinkers could see through the spin, go back to the transcripts, and find he was only asking the Georgia secretary of state to acknowledge that a substantial number of votes are questionable.
Then you hear that Trump’s last effort to address these questions, after the courts and state legislatures have failed him, is to endorse a rally in Washington. He and his supporters will seek to petition Congress to review evidence about whether the certified electors should be accepted. Trump is still playing the game that people say he’s not been playing: pointing out problems, asking questions, allowing democratic, Constitutional processes to take place. Taking advantage of basic rights to petition political bodies for justice.
Scores of thousands of people attend, from all over the country. They are cheerful and patriotic, generous and civic-minded, orderly and polite. Responsible, proud citizens. They love their country and respect its lawful processes. They know that, even if the rally does not actually help Trump politically, it promises to draw attention to problems with our electoral system, and to testify to the importance of peaceful democratic protests. Maybe there will be a resolved will to reform the system, and to ensure that people can trust elections next time. The country can’t keeping having its winners suspected of “stealing” elections.
Maybe you were there. Maybe you heard the speeches, were caught up in the peaceful, patriotic mood of the day, and then walked with most of the crowd from the rally at the Ellipse to the gathering at the Capitol, to petition Congress to take the possibility of fraud seriously.
If you are close enough to the front of the very large crowd at the Capitol, you might see people scuffling with police, but you also see many more people asking them to be peaceful. You notice there aren’t that many police, and you assume it’s because Trump crowds are known to be peaceful. You might have seen people trying to get past police lines, but you also saw police letting people get closer to the Capitol building, letting people gather on the steps, letting them into the building.
It was a protest, and some people apparently took it too far. On the way home, you hear about violence and arrests. Vandalism and thievery in the Capitol building. You hear about a woman, apparently unarmed, shot and killed. It is a sobering, gut-wrenching end to the day. Out of a massive crowd, it seems that a fraction was stupid, shameful, lawless. Hardly representative of the kinds of people who were there, or the purpose for which they gathered. A small fraction of a large civil rights event turned into a lawless mob. You are disheartened that a respectable event should be so stained.
But you wake up the next morning to something far worse. Slanderous headlines. By your very presence in DC, you are accused of being a traitor, part of a dangerous movement. Every outlet is calling it an “insurrection.” The lawlessness was “incited” by Trump. There was a violent attempted “coup.” Obviously they have pushed too far. They will have dial this back. Won’t they? The words are wildly disproportionate: nobody had a strategy or opportunity for seizing power. Oh, and it was a racist insurrection, a manifestation of white nationalism. Despite the sea of American flags, news stories seem to always run a picture of a Confederate flag.
You are used to ignoring the lying, outrage-seeking, politically manipulative media. But this time, they are spinning lies directly about you. They are exploiting the awful travesty of some people’s inexcusable violence to delegitimize and shame every responsible citizen who took reasonable and lawful means to raise legitimate questions about election integrity.
Perhaps you hope you can offer some perspective, tell your side of things. But it’s too late. The media spin is overwhelmingly effective. Nobody will listen, they have made up their minds. They sincerely believe the lies, the disinformation, the emotional manipulation. They sincerely believe you are a dangerous traitor simply for going to DC and voicing reasonable skepticism.
No, they won’t even acknowledge it is reasonable skepticism. They insist you are a foolish traitor. Your beliefs are unfounded, your questions misplaced. Your skepticism about the election is not only unpatriotic but irrational. It doesn’t even deserve to heard. It isn’t based on rightly-credentialed “evidence.” It doesn’t have properly authorized “sources.”
In a healthy democracy, populist skepticism could lead to bipartisan reform efforts to restore confidence in election procedures. But the powers that be do not even acknowledge the legitimacy of any skepticism. Even after Trump is out of office, they stage a show trial, a second impeachment. The idea is to shame Trump, but also to shame anyone who supported his efforts to highlight weaknesses in our system. Taken for granted in the article of impeachment is that challenging the legitimacy of the election is itself disloyal, an effort to overthrow the American government.
The allegation that Trump “incited” an “insurrection” implies that anyone in the crowd that day was, if not actually criminal, at least dangerously stupid. Whose idea of unifying is this? Whose idea of political courage? In democratic political contests, winners need the losers to trust the fairness of the system. So why would winners demonize losers as disloyal and dangerous?
This isn’t how you envisioned any political drama, much less your own role in one. In the story you imagined, skepticism and populism are not partisan issues, and protest and argument are messy but welcome. These are a regime’s natural mechanisms for improvement. But what happens when they are not accepted and addressed, when instead they are slandered and suppressed? That is not the story you imagined. And you aren’t sure where that kind of story can end.