Going straight downhill
Who’s trying to rig the US elections, asks Daniel Lazare - Republicans, Democrats or both?
Donald Trump’s July 30 tweet about postponing the presidential election has triggered a flood of speculation about what is going to happen in November - and it is not pretty.
Conceivably, a massive Biden landslide could save the day by leaving Republicans with no way of fudging the results. Just as it takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate, thanks to an arcane procedure known as the filibuster, it now takes 55% or 60% to win the presidency and avert civil war.
But a landslide is not on the cards, thanks to an expected deluge of millions of mail-in ballots that will take weeks to count, if not longer. With Trump tweeting at every opportunity that mail-ins will lead to massive fraud, accusations of cheating will likely fly from one end of the country to the other. So many legal battles could erupt that it will be left to the supreme court to sort out the chaos. In Miami, dozens of Republican operatives succeeded in shutting down the vote count in the famous ‘Brooks Brothers riot’ in November 2000, thereby winning the election for George W Bush. Now that Republicans have gotten a taste for such thuggery, we can reasonably expect more such violent interventions - not in one state, but in many.
In June, a group calling itself the Transition Integrity Project organised an online discussion on what this might entail. “All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks - a defence department official, turned Georgetown University law professor, who helped organise the conference.1 A few days later, The Washington Post speculated that if the vote count is still unresolved by inauguration day on January 20 2021 - far from impossible - Trump might call in the military to help him stay in office and put down protests.2
If so, a precedent will have been set. Regardless of whether the brass sides with the Republicans or the Democrats, it will be the first time in US history that civilian politicians looked to the military to arbitrate their differences.
But gaming exercises like these begin with the same premise: that the system will only collapse if someone knocks it over - that someone, of course, being Trump. This is understandable, given Trump’s signalling that he may not abide by the election results. But there is a subtext here, which is to vote for Biden. If a nightmare unfolds in November, you see, it will be all the president’s fault, so the only solution is to sweep him and his Republican cronies out with a Democratic broom.
There are two problems to this, however. One is that America’s centuries-old electoral system is so decrepit that it may well collapse on its own without anyone else kicking it in. Signs of trouble are everywhere. A June 23 Democratic congressional primary election in New York City is still up in the air, with some 12,000 mail-in ballots tossed out due to technical flaws and the whole affair now in the hands of the courts. Another New York congressional primary has wound up in equally disastrous straits. Two weeks earlier, a primary in Georgia resulted in an electoral meltdown - ostensibly because a brand-new $107 million electronic voting system had misfired, but equally likely because Republicans had deliberately sabotaged the machinery.
A Republican state official named Brad Raffensperger let the cat out of the bag when he blamed the fiasco on county officials in Atlanta: “The counties run their elections,” he told The New York Times, “and the problems in Fulton County are problems with Fulton County and their management team, not with me.”3
The US, in other words, does not have one national election run by the federal government and 50 run by the states. Instead, it has swarms run by the counties, of which there are more than 3,000. This is a recipe for disaster that America should have fixed decades ago - if it were a real democracy, that is. But it is not a democracy: merely an 18th century republic masquerading as one. As a result, the system has been allowed to continue, to the point where the entire house of cards is in danger of tumbling down.
America is thus a country in which nothing works - not Congress, which has been in gridlock for a generation; not public health, which is why Covid-19 is raging unchecked; and not elections, since a simple vote count - something other countries take for granted - may well lead to rioting in the streets.
Then there are the Democrats. A day after Trump told Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News on July 19 that he will not necessarily abide by the election results, Joe Biden issued a statement about Russian interference that, in the final analysis, was not all that different. It said:
The Senate select committee on intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin’s interference in past elections represented “only the latest instalment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States”. Despite the exposure of Russia’s malign activities by the US intelligence community, law enforcement agencies, and bipartisan Congressional committees, the Kremlin has not halted its efforts to interfere in our democracy.
It went on:
The Trump administration has thus far failed to make adequate use of these authorities to counter and deter foreign election interference. Instead, president Trump has repeatedly denied that Russia interfered in our elections, most egregiously during a joint press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16 2018 ... If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government.4
If not elected, by the same token, Biden will regard Russian interference as a fait accompli and will blame Trump for not preventing it. In general, he will use it the same way the Democrats did in 2016, by declaring the entire process to be tainted and invalid. Both sides are thus positioning themselves to challenge the election results in November if they do not go their way - Republicans by crying fraud and Dems by crying collusion (or something close to it).
Both accusations are spurious. Voting fraud is extremely rare in the US, whether in person or via mail. In one study, a Los Angeles law professor found just 31 credible violations out of more than a billion votes cast in various elections between 2000 and 2014. In 2016, The Washington Post found just four confirmed cases of people voting under false pretences.5 Rather than responding to a real problem, Trump is accusing Democrats of fraud merely to throw them off balance and set the stage for some sort of emergency intervention.
Charges of Russian interference are no less Machiavellian. The case that the Kremlin intervened against Hillary Clinton in 2016 rests on two basic accusations. One is that a St Petersburg firm known as the Internet Research Agency placed a series of mind-altering political ads on Facebook and other social media with the goal of swinging the election toward Trump. But the effort was so paltry (the IRA’s ad budget during the 2016 campaign totalled just $44,000) and the ads themselves were so ineffectual (one depicted a buff Bernie Sanders in a Speedo, while another showed Satan arm-wrestling with Jesus and declaring, “If I win, Clinton wins!”) that it is hard to believe anyone was persuaded. Not only did special prosecutor Robert Mueller fail to establish a connection between the IRA and the Kremlin; but if Putin is really the KGB mastermind that the US press says he is, then it is hard to believe he would have anything to do with something so inept and amateurish.
The other accusation concerns the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, which supposedly hacked the Democratic national committee and then passed thousands of stolen emails along to WikiLeaks in order to further tip the election toward Trump. But Shawn Henry, president of CrowdStrike - the cyber-security firm that investigated the DNC hack - told a congressional committee in 2017 that, while he believes Russia infiltrated the DNC computers, he has no evidence that it “exfiltrated” (removed) the emails that WikiLeaks later made public.6 What is more, the chronology that the Mueller investigation laid out in its March 2019 report shows Russian intelligence turning encrypted files over to WikiLeaks just days prior to publication in July 2016 - hardly enough time for an organisation known for its scrupulous ‘curation’ to vet the files and ensure they were genuine.7
So, regardless of what the intelligence agencies, the FBI or various congressional committees say, the case against the Kremlin is far from proven and Julian Assange’s assertion that “our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party” still stands. After all, whom should people believe - a group whose record for veracity is 100% or an agency that offers “entire training courses” on how to lie, cheat and steal, as former CIA director Mike Pompeo cheerfully told a Texas audience in April 2019?8
As for interference in 2020, a top intelligence official warned last month that China was using its influence “to shape the policy environment in the United States”, that Russia was continuing to “spread disinformation in the US that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process” and that Iran was seeking to spread disinformation and “recirculating anti-US content”.
Wow! Even Democrats described the report as “so generic as to be almost meaningless” - although they naturally suggested that the Trump administration was holding back more damning evidence. Thus, house speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and others charged that the intelligence report “does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process”.9
Since foreign influence is a given, they would have us believe, evidence for it has got to exist somewhere and, if the Trump administration has not found it, it is only because it does not want to.
Or so Democrats maintain.
This is why the outlook for November is so dismal - because Democrats and Republicans are hurling evidence-free allegations at one another, while the electoral machinery itself verges on collapse. Charges of Russian interference in 2016 triggered a near civil war, in which Democrats and their allies accused Trump of collusion and two top law-enforcement officials, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, conferred secretly about using the US constitution’s 25th amendment to remove the president from office. For Trump, the attempt to drive him out is all the justification he needs to intervene in November and prevent Dems from trying to do so again.
Back in the 1950s, Harry Truman had no trouble facing down general Douglas MacArthur, when he began secretly pushing for an all-out war against the People’s Republic of China. A few years later, Dwight Eisenhower had no trouble facing down Joe McCarthy. But America was a model of stability at that time, whereas now it is the most unstable member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Stolen elections, the great imperial blowout starting in 2001, the ‘great recession’ that followed the 2008 financial meltdown, and now the ‘greater depression’ caused by Covid-19 - the effect of such repeated blows has been to bring the ancient governmental machinery to its knees.
Regardless of what happens in November, the outlook for American democracy within the existing constitutional framework is straight downhill.
Joe Biden, ‘My statement on foreign interference in US elections’, July 20: medium.com/@JoeBiden/my-statement-on-foreign-interference-in-u-s-elections-8b42b4444eb6.↩︎
“We did not have concrete evidence that data was exfiltrated from the DNC,” Henry told the house intelligence committee in December 2017, “but we have indicators that it was exfiltrated.” See intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/sh21.pdf (p32).↩︎
Using an alleged ‘cut-out’ named Guccifer 2.0, Russian intelligence transferred a one-gigabyte file to WikiLeaks on July 14 2016. Four days later, WikiLeaks acknowledged receipt, and then four days after that it released over 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the DNC computer networks. Mueller assumes that the one-gigabyte file and the 20,000 emails are the same without explaining how WikiLeaks could review and analyse such a massive file in so short a time. See justice.gov/storage/report.pdf (p45).↩︎