by Heather Cox Richardson
Trump’s refusal Wednesday to commit to accepting a loss in the November election with a peaceful transfer of power continues to make waves. Today the New York Times reported that military officers are worried that Trump will try to drag them into a contested election. But while people are rightly frightened about Trump’s increasing authoritarianism, it’s important to understand that he is deploying these particular threats about the election to create an impression that he has the option to control the outcome in November. He does not have that option.
Trump and his cronies are trying to create their own reality. They are trying to make people believe that the coronavirus is not real, that it has not killed more than 200,000 of our neighbors, that the economy is fine, that our cities are in flames, that Black Lives Matter protesters are anarchists, and that putting Democrats in office will usher in radical socialism. None of these things is true. Similarly, Trump is trying to convince people that he can deploy the power of the government to remain in power even if we want him to leave, creating uncertainly and fear. By talking about it, he is willing that situation into existence. It is a lie, and we do not have to accept it.
For his part, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recognizes that Trump’s repeated threats not to leave office are both letting him convince us that leaving is his choice, rather than ours, and keeping the media focused on him when we should, in fact, be talking about real issues. Biden is refusing to give the idea oxygen, reminding reporters that it is a “typical Trump distraction.” “I just think the people in the country are going to be heard on November 3,” he told them. “Every vote in this country is going to be heard and they will not be stopped. I’m confident that all of the irresponsible, outrageous attacks on voting, we’ll have an election in this country as we always have had, and he’ll leave.” He said: “I don’t think he’s going to get the FBI to follow him or get anybody else to enforce something that’s not real.”
While the Senate voted unanimously yesterday to commit to the peaceful transfer of power in January, it was actually Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, who gave Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power the dripping disdain it deserved. Speaking to reporters, Baker defended the mail-in ballots that Trump is saying will invalidate the election, and called Trump’s suggestion that he wouldn’t leave office peacefully “appalling and outrageous.” Baker said he would to do everything in his power to defend the results of the election.
“A huge part of this nation’s glory, to the extent it exists as a beacon to others, is the peaceful transfer of power based on the vote of the people of this country,” he said.
Trump responded with an insulting tweet, but one that suggested he was deliberately stoking the story to try to get free media coverage.
This makes sense, because there are signs that Trump and the Republicans have a real money problem. We know that the Trump campaign has run through close to a billion dollars, leaving him and other Republican candidates short of cash for the last weeks of the campaign. At the same time, Democratic fundraising in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has been unprecedented. The squeeze showed clearly in three highly unusual appearances by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on the Fox News Channel begging for donations.
Two new ploys to advance Trump’s reelection, one claiming to address healthcare concerns and one claiming to address coronavirus concerns, reveal both the campaign’s attempts to construct their own reality and to do it on someone else’s dime.
The president has repeatedly promised his own healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act that his administration is currently trying to kill. Under criticism for trying to end the law that protects people with preexisting health conditions from discrimination in buying insurance—the ACA will come before the Supreme Court a week after the November 3 election– Trump on Thursday abruptly signed an Executive Order affirming that “it is the official policy of the United States government to protect patients with preexisting conditions.” The Executive Order is toothless; if the Supreme Court overturns the ACA, the Executive Order will mean nothing.
But Trump also suggested that he might be willing simply to keep the law and call it his own. “Obamacare is no longer Obamacare, as we worked on it and managed it very well,” Trump said of the law that continues to provide coverage for more than 20 million Americans. “What we have now is a much better plan. It is no longer Obamacare because we got rid of the worse part of it — the individual mandate.” “We’ve really become the health-care party — the Republican Party,” he said.
Trump also announced he would give $200 toward the cost of their medicines to 33 million older Americans. That’s $6.6 billion dollars that he will be putting in the pockets of key voters just before the election. Apparently, his plan is to take money from Medicare under a rule that allows the Medicare to test out new programs. Authorization for such a shift in funding usually requires a lengthy approval process, and the new program needs to be cost neutral. Ameet Sarpatwari, assistant director of Harvard Medical School’s Program on Regulation, Therapeutics and Law told NPR’s Sydney Lupkin: I think the administration is pushing the envelope in terms of classifying this as a demonstration.”
The Trump campaign is also planning a taxpayer-funded advertising blitz, costing at least $300 million, to “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the coronavirus pandemic. According to Politico’s Dan Diamond, the ads will feature interviews between administration officials and celebrities. The ad campaign was conceived and begun by Michael Caputo, the top spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services before he stepped down last week for medical leave after an infamous Facebook rant.
Caputo claimed in his video that Trump has personally demanded the advertising campaign. “The Democrats — and, by the way, their conjugal media and the leftist scientists that are working for the government — are dead set against it,” Caputo said. “They cannot afford for us to have any good news before November because they’re already losing. … They’re going to come after me because I’m going to be putting $250 million worth of ads on the air.” The White House says it is not accurate that Trump “demanded” the campaign.
To pay for the ads, Caputo requisitioned $300 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and $15 million from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But he sidelined the Ad Council, which is a nonprofit consortium of advertising companies that since World War Two has worked on a nonpartisan basis with the government on public health or social issue campaigns. Instead, Caputo hired his own business partner to make the videos.
Josh Peck, the former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration’s advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov, told Diamond that officials in the Obama administration were never featured in videos, and that the Trump administrations Covid videos sound like they are about more than Americans’ health. He said: “CDC hasn’t yet done an awareness campaign about Covid guidelines — but they are going to pay for a campaign about how to get rid of our despair? Run by political appointees in the press shop? Right before an election? It’s like every red flag I could dream of.”
Trump’s challenge to the outcome of the election is a sign of his desperation, but it is no less dangerous for all that: as they say, a cornered rat will bite the cat. While Democrats and a remarkable number of Republicans are speaking out against Trump, and while teams of lawyers are fighting his lawyers in court, ordinary Americans also have a crucial role to play in this moment. It is up to us to reject Trump’s fictions and reclaim the national conversation from the anger and hatred and fear Trump is stoking.
It is time to reassert our core American values so they dominate the public realm, demanding of our representatives a free and fair vote for everyone, a free and fair vote count, and a government of our own choosing.