How the Merchants of Doubt Are Planting the Seeds of Chaos About Election Results

That is precisely what Trump is counting on to steal the election.

At a campaign rally on September 19th, Donald Trump laid out his plan to steal the election. 

We’re gonna have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you’ve never seen. Now, we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so we can actually have an evening where we know who wins, OK,” the president said. “Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later.” 

That brazen declaration came on the heels of tweets like this:

The plan is to disenfranchise those who vote by mail. He is counting on recent polls showing that Biden supporters overwhelmingly plan to vote by mail, while his supporters plan to go to the polls. Trump’s scheme is to declare victory on election night, claiming that mail-in ballots—which are more likely to be counted after election day—are fraudulent and shouldn’t count at all. In response, his supporters will engage in civil unrest that could make the Brooks Brothers Riot from the 2000 Florida recount look like child’s play. 

In other words, Trump’s plan is to unleash chaos, which is precisely why he won’t promise a peaceful transition of power. He even offered the qualification that if we “get rid of the ballots” (ie, mail-in ballots), “there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

An array of forces are lining up to support the president’s scheme. Attorney General William Barr, for one, has been echoing Trump’s lies about fraudulent mail-in ballots for months, with zero evidence—because there is none. On Thursday, however, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a bizarre press release announcing that it was in the midst of an inquiry into “potential issues” with mail-in military ballots. That a U.S. Attorney is investigating something like that is not unusual. What is alarming is that the press release announced an ongoing investigation into 2020 Trump ballots that were questionably discarded. That allows the president and his enablers to point to at least one instance of possible mail-in ballot malfeasance.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is also assisting Trump’s plot to sow chaos.  On Thursday he announced the arrest of a Democratic county commissioner and three associates for fraud related to 2018 mail-in ballots. Paxton’s statement about the arrests made no effort to hide his intention to engage in the war on mail-in ballots. 

It is an unfortunate reality that elections can be stolen outright by mail ballot fraud. Election fraud, particularly an organized mail ballot fraud scheme orchestrated by political operatives, is an affront to democracy and results in voter disenfranchisement and corruption at the highest level…This case demonstrates my commitment to ensuring Texas has the most secure elections in the country.

According to Texas law, voters under 65 must justify the need for an absentee ballot. Paxton is asserting that the defendants falsely claimed that those who cast the ballots in question were disabled. In prosecuting this case, Paxton sent a chilling message to anyone in Texas who might consider requesting an absentee ballot: doing so could result in prosecution after the fact if their reasons were deemed illegitimate. 

In the midst of all of this, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which advises other government entities on computer protection, released a warning about how foreign actors like Vladimir Putin are likely to help Trump create chaos.

The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night. Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.

Finally, Senator Rick Scott, the Florida Republican, is providing a different kind of assistance. He has introduced a bill with the Orwellian title, “Help America Vote Act of 2020.” It makes it impossible for state election officials to count mail-in ballots. The bill does this by moving back the date when votes can start to be counted and it moves up the date by which the count must end. The time squeeze would give states less than 48 hours in which to count ballots. Given the Democratic majority in the House, there is no chance that Scott’s bill will become law prior to the election. But it gives Trump and his supporters bogus talking points about why mail-in ballots are pernicious. 

All of these efforts have one thing in common: they are designed to cast doubt in the public’s mind about the legitimacy of the election. It is yet another example of how Trump and his enablers have become “merchants of doubt.” When using that descriptor to explain how Republicans were attempting to spread lies about Biden’s’ involvement in Ukraine, this is how journalist Paul Waldman described the origins of that strategy (emphasis mine):

In 1969, a memo written at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company explained how they and their colleagues in the industry could push back against the growing public perception that their products were giving people cancer. It wasn’t necessary to disprove the scientific consensus, the author wrote, only to inject a sufficient amount of doubt into public debate so it would be seen as an unresolved controversy with two sides.

There is no unresolved controversy about the validity of mail-in ballots. But by injecting doubt into the public discourse, the merchants of doubt are attempting to create a level of chaos, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a presidential election. That is precisely what Trump is counting on.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.