When ‘Stop the Steal’ becomes your motto

There is a good chance that Donald Trump’s polling lead in the 2024 presidential election is more fragile than it looks.

The most immediate problem for him is the fact that he’s on trial in a criminal case. Even if Trump isn’t convicted, the trial keeps him away from the trail.


There is also the issue of the campaign itself, which is a smaller affair than his 2020 effort, with fewer resources. “The situation has alarmed GOP officials in key states, like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, who have yet to receive promised funding, staff or even briefings on the new plans since the Trump team took control of the Republican National Committee in March,” The Washington Post reports.

Trump could very well hold his lead through the summer and into the fall but still fail to turn stated preferences into actual votes. What looks solid in the numbers could turn out to be ephemeral in the final tallies.

It’s much too early to say whether the polls are right or wrong. What we can say, however, is that the former president and his allies are already laying the foundation for an effort to contest — or even try to overturn — the results of the November election if voters don’t return Trump to the White House.

For Trump, a man who seems to live in the eternal present, “stop the steal” never actually ended. He maintains, as he did Nov. 3, 2020, that he won the presidential election that put Joe Biden in the White House. Last month, he told an audience in Wisconsin, “We won this state by a lot.” (He lost it by 20,682 votes.) He told Time magazine, in a recent interview, that he “wouldn’t feel good” about hiring anyone who believed that Biden was the legitimate winner of the last presidential election. Asked if he would accept the results of the 2024 election, Trump said that he would, “if everything’s honest.”

Of course, for Trump, if he doesn’t win, then it isn’t honest.

But it isn’t just Trump priming Republican voters to reject the results of the November election if Biden prevails. His allies are doing the same.

Sen. JD Vance of Ohio told CNN on Sunday that in a “free and fair election,” he and every other Republican “will enthusiastically accept the results.” Meaning that if Trump does not win, then the election will not have been free and fair. Vance, who is so eager to serve as running mate to Trump that he made a pilgrimage Monday to the Manhattan courthouse where the former president is on trial for paying hush money to cover up his affair with a porn actor, has also said that if he were vice president in 2020, he would have told states to submit alternate slates of electors.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has said that she will accept the results if they are “constitutional,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said that he will accept them if “there’s no massive cheating.”

Now what, for this crowd, would constitute an unfair, unfree, unconstitutional election in which the results were shaped by “massive cheating”?

Recall that after the 2016 presidential election, Trump blamed a wave of illegal voting for his popular-vote defeat. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he said on Twitter.

Illegal voting was a useful boogeyman for a president-elect who ran on the fantasy that the United States had been besieged by illegal immigrants. It remains a useful boogeyman as the former president revs up his supporters with spittle-flecked attacks on immigrants, who he says are “poisoning the blood of our country.” If one set of Trump allies is spreading the notion of an unfair election, another set is building out what that might mean by placing the specter of illegal voting by migrants and immigrants living in the country without legal permission at the center of their rhetorical agenda.

“We all know intuitively that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections, but it’s not been something that is easily provable,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said last week at a news conference he called to support a new bill that would ban immigrants living in the country without legal permission from voting in federal elections. This is already illegal under existing federal law, but Johnson insisted on the measure as necessary prevention in the face of uncertain information.

Johnson, who voted in 2021 to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was joined at the news conference by Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, two so-called constitutional conservatives who initially urged the White House to try to contest and overturn the 2020 results in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6. “We owe it to ourselves, to each other, most importantly to the American people, to make sure that those making decisions on behalf of our government and who’s going to serve in government in elective office are indeed empowered to make those decisions,” Lee said, validating the fiction that recent U.S. elections have been shaped, even stolen, by rampant illegal voting.

Also present was Stephen Miller, the MAGA apparatchik behind some of the former president’s most viciously anti-immigrant rhetoric, who railed against noncitizen voting in characteristically apocalyptic fashion. “Democracy in America is under attack,” he said of the “wide-open border and obstruction of any effort to verify the citizenship of who votes in our elections.”

With all of this, we are getting a first look, of sorts, at the next “stop the steal.” Yes, Trump could win the November election outright, in which case, there is no need for an elaborate conspiracy to explain the results. The election, as Vance said, will have been “free and fair.”

But let’s say Biden recovers lost ground. Let’s say he wins the Electoral College with narrow victories in key swing states as he did in 2020. Let’s say that a few of those margins are exceptionally slim — a few thousand votes here, a few thousand votes there. We know what will come next. Trump will cry out “illegal voting,” and most of the Republican Party will follow suit. They’ll say that Democrats encouraged it with “open borders” and demand that states overturn the results. And Trump, notably, has not ruled out the use of violence to get what he wants.

If the Republican Party could, for a moment, break itself from Trump’s influence, it would see that there’s a much easier explanation here: that Trump, for all of his bombast, is not actually an electoral juggernaut and that the solution to this problem is just to put him out to pasture.

Most of the time, when their standard-bearers can’t close the deal with the voting public, U.S. political parties move on. Not so with this Republican Party. It can neither move on from Trump nor accept that he’s a divisive and unpopular figure for a large part of the American public.

Some of this, it’s true, comes from the fact that much of the party is caught in the snare of the former president’s cult of personality. But some of it runs much deeper. The Republican Party never moved on from Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” from the notion that it alone represents the supposedly authentic people of the United States. Democrats, no matter how many votes they get or how many elections they win, cannot, in this view, legitimately claim to represent the nation.

From the Tea Party to Mitt Romney’s “47%” to Trump’s make-believe tales of fraud and illegal voting, Republicans treat Democratic voters and Democratic majorities as not quite right — not quite real, not quite American. No matter how many votes they earn or how many elections they win, Democrats cannot, in this view, legitimately claim to represent the nation.

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