The stories we tell ourselves, especially the ones we tend to repeat over and over and that circulate throughout our political and cultural discourses, matter. They impact us. They carve neural pathways, so to speak, in our collective cultural mindset, in our political nervous system. They set expectations for us about the future, map out and set the course for our imagination of possibilities, preparing us for, priming us to accept, some future outcomes more than others. In this sense, they can make us feel powerful and hopeful or demoralized, powerless, and anxious.
Donald Trump has certainly programmed his voters to see, should he lose the election, especially if results are delayed, nothing more than an illegitimate coup by the democrats. Trump has assured his voters that the only way he can lose this November’s presidential election is if it is rigged, and he has warned all of us that if he deems the election results to be corrupt, he will not leave the office.
As Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight writes, “For months now, President Trump has carefully planted the seed that he might not leave the office of the presidency willingly if he loses.”
While Trump may have planted this seed, however, the media has continued to water it.
The narratives of a rigged election, of Trump’s refusal to step down, of a descent into violent chaos are everywhere. Turn on the TV; visit any respectable news site. The media isn’t endorsing these narratives in any intentional or explicit fashion; they are covering what Trump and his supporters are saying.
But they certainly are giving air to it in ways that generate anxiety by elevating it to a real possibility. And they even help elaborate it and forward it in certain ways. A CNN headline reads: “If Trump loses and won’t leave, it could get ugly.”
Skelley actually lays out for the public, and maybe even for Trump, ways Trump could in fact abuse his the authority of his office to stay in office, writing:
Whether it’s tweeting that the election should be delayed as it “will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history” or that there will be widespread voter fraud because of the expected uptick in mail ballots due to the coronavirus, Trump seems intent on undermining the electoral process.
This, in turn, raises a rather thorny and unprecedented question: What happens if Trump won’t go? The answer is bleak. Experts tell me that the president actually has a lot of power at his discretion to contest the election, and some of the scenarios that could bring us to the edge of a crisis are actually very plausible.
This incessant and anxiety-provoking anticipation of Trump’s refusal to participate in a peaceful transition of power, which is often combined with a presentation of a blueprint for how Trump might orchestrate it, as in Skelley’s piece and others that explain the Insurrection Act Trump has threatened to invoke, only prepare us for and in certain ways legitimate the possibility of Trump’s bad behavior in this regard.
The repetitive narrative carves a neural pathway, and rarely is there as much air given to the counter-narrative.
An L.A. Times piece reporting on Trump’s possible refusal to leave the White House contains one brief paragraph offering a sane counter-narrative. It reads:
“The American people will decide this election,” the Biden campaign said in a statement. “And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
Shouldn’t the media, to be responsible, give air to this narrative of our functional democratic processes? I guess Biden’s narrative is terse and not so sexy.
Or, here’s an even better one I encountered in an interview MSNBC’s Katy Tur conducted with Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose in which he spelled out in a relaxed and confident way how he anticipates election night should proceed with full integrity in its process, even with mail-in voting and even with a results being perhaps delayed for a number of weeks.
Tur began the interview with the pointed question: “Will the election be rigged if there are mail-in ballots?”
His response: “Oh gosh, no.”
LaRose was unphased by the prospect of increased mail-in voting this year, affirming that mail-in voting has always been staple in Ohio elections, with mail-in voting typically accounting for 25% of all votes cast in elections in the state. This year LaRose said he expects that number to increase to about 40% but still sees no particular stress put on the state’s ability to count every vote and maintain the integrity of the election.
He also explained how Ohio is gearing up for delayed election results because of mail-in voting. He added that the state has re-designed its election website to provide absolute transparency with election results. On election night, he told Tur, the state will report results from all the votes that have been tabulated as well as record the number of outstanding ballots, which he confirmed is a “knowable number,” so that the status of election results for the state is completely clear and trackable.
For a mail-in vote to count, it must be postmarked by November 2 and received by a country board of elections within ten days after the election. Thus, final results for the state may not be fully counted and known for a matter of weeks after the election, he said, but the people of the state will know that.
He stresses that the time taken to count these votes will not be “a sign that something nefarious is happening” but rather “a manifestation of our commitment that every single vote deserves to be counted as long as it’s legally cast.”
He had no concern about voter fraud, about vote harvesting, or any of the paranoid scenarios Donald Trump has promulgated in the media.
And LaRose cannot be construed as some “liberal softie” when it comes to voting. Indeed, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow lambasted him when he refused to allow Ohio counties to add drop boxes for absentee ballots.
LaRose emphasized that all voters who request a ballot must verify their identity and signature, and that identity is verified upon receipt of the ballot as well.
Tur asked him about the possibility of people voting twice, as Trump has recommended, encouraging illegal behavior.
First, LaRose indicated that any voter can track their vote on the state website. Secondly, he indicated if a voter goes to the poll, they will be given a provisional ballot if they have voted by mail, and that vote will be canceled when their mail-in ballot is tabulated. He was clear that Ohio’s election system is able to track voters and make sure they only get one vote.
He expressed complete confidence in his state’s voter rolls and in the capacity of their systems to track and monitor voting.
Tur’s interview with LaRose, a Republican Secretary of State, highlights that what is really nefarious in today’s political discourse is Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting will result in voter fraud and a rigged election.
And perhaps the media’s fanning this fire is nefarious too. It needs to narrate to Americans exactly how every American’s vote can be fairly cast and counted and why they need not fear delayed results in achieving and respecting democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.