Trump’s Efforts To Steal The Election Mimic Autocratic Regimes

President Trump and the GOP's attacks on mail-in voting, erosion of the USPS, and voter suppression tactics echo other authoritarian power grabs in history.
President Donald Trump addresses U.S. military troops and their families at the Sigonella Naval Air Station, in Sigonella, Italy, Saturday, May 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

President Donald Trump addresses U.S. military troops and their families at the Sigonella Naval Air Station, in Sigonella, Italy, Saturday, May 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Updated September 24, 2020

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

Free, open, and competitive elections are at the heart of democratic political life in the United States, Great Britain, and established democracies. When citizens cast their ballots, such elections require that they have a reasonable assurance ballots will be tabulated in a fair way by officials not biased for or against particular candidates or political parties. Of course, this is the ideal. Too often the reality is very different.

Democratic elections may be corrupted before, during, and after the balloting. Here are some examples. In the United States during the era of racial segregation (roughly from the end of Reconstruction to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Law), African-Americans living in the South were routinely barred from voting by a variety of ruses. These included, but were not restricted to, the payment of a ‘poll tax’ aimed at preventing poor people from participating.

In some southern states, African-Americans were required to possess a detailed knowledge of the US Constitution (in some cases state constitutions as well) before they would be registered to vote. In the North during the first decades of the 20th century, when the major cities, including Chicago, Kansas City, and Philadelphia, were dominated by ‘machines’, it was not uncommon for the voting rolls to include individuals whose current residences were in cemeteries. In other cases, live voters were offered shots of whiskey or cash payments in exchange for assurances they would vote ‘correctly’.

In southern Italy, e.g. Calabria, criminal organizations devised particularly disingenuous ways of corrupting the voting. To evade the secret ballot requirement Mafiosi devised “the vote that was not there”). In the 1950s, the late Neapolitan ship-builder and mayor Achille Lauro, a man with a reputation for shrewdness, used to bribe impoverished voters by offering them a left shoe before the balloting. If Lauro won the election, he then provided the right one, making a pair.

Physical intimidation has not been unknown. In Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, rival ethnic or jihadi groups often threaten violence if members of other ethnicities or religions dare attempt to cast ballots. Or in Putin’s Russia, candidates critical, or too critical, of the President’s leadership are often arrested, or worse, by the authorities. In Japan, the Yakuza (the country’s leading criminal organization) has often campaigned on behalf of preferred right-wing candidates for Parliament.

The authorities may also modify the results of elections by playing the role of ‘gatekeeper’. In Iran, a council of experts decides who is and who is not sufficiently pious to be permitted to run for the Majlis. In Bolivia, Peru, and other Latin American countries, single individuals have been banned from running for office because of past misdeeds, or alleged misdeeds.

Likewise, the rules governing the electoral formula, how votes are counted, may be modified to suit the interests of those in power. Illustratively, in 1982, the Mitterrand government in Paris changed the voting formula from one based on single-member districts (the arrondissement) to a system of proportional representation and multi-member districts. The French Socialist leadership thought their chances for electoral success would be improved by such measures. When the Gaullists and their allies returned to power after the following election they promptly restored the old formula – for precisely the same reason as prompted the change in the first place.

To determine winners and losers, votes have to be counted once cast. Here incumbents have a built-in advantage. Not uncommonly government officials either count the vote or appoint those who do. Illustratively, in Iran’s 2009 presidential election the seemingly unpopular President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office by a wide margin over the opposition candidate. Claims of voter fraud were widespread and hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the outcome. All to no avail: the government was willing to employ the paramilitary Basij to repress the demonstrators, killing many.

This Iranian result calls to mind the history of Italian Fascism and electoral politics. Here we focus on the practices of Benito Mussolini and his followers in the years following the end of World War I.

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Lessons From Mussolini’s Power Grab

Mussolini had been appointed prime minister by Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III at the end of October 1922, an appointment that coincided with the Fascists’ largely fanciful March on Rome. One of the problems he faced in assuming power was the weakness of the National Fascist Party’s parliamentary representation. As a result of the 1921 parliamentary balloting, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (PNF) party enrolled only 41 members (out of some 400) in the Chamber of Deputies. Although openly contemptuous of liberal democracy, Mussolini recognized the need to legitimize Fascist rule through national elections.

The result of this calculation was the Acerbo Law (Acerbo was a Fascist parliamentary deputy). This law was enacted in 1923 by a substantial majority of deputies. It provided a ‘bonus’ for any party or coalition of parties that received 25 percent or more of the national popular vote. Any party or bloc of parties meeting this standard would receive 60 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Some intimidation was involved. Armed Fascist ‘Black Shirts’ were seated in the visitors’ gallery and stationed at the entrance to the parliament building during the vote.

The result of this electoral law was a major PNF success in the 1924 national elections. Running in alliance with nationalist and right-wing liberal factions, the Fascists and their allies won some 60 percent of the vote. Violence and physical threats were employed throughout the campaign by Mussolini’s ‘squadristi’ and no doubt helped to manufacture a majority in support of Fascist rule. The most dramatic episode was the murder of the Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist thugs.

Manufacturing a majority in this way helped Mussolini legitimize his rule over Italy. Within a short time, he substituted a Grand Council of Fascism for Parliament and transformed Italy into a one-party dictatorship.

This brings us to the current Trump administration in Washington and the potential ability of the President to manufacture something approaching a majority in his bid to win re-election.

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Trump’s Effort To Manufacture A Majority

Campaigning in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic and the concomitant severe downturn in the economy, Trump and his advisors face what appears to be a formidable challenge. Trump recognized this challenge on July 27, 2020, when he suggested the election be postponed until these problems were resolved. Trump’s suggestion led law professor Steven Calabresi, head of the conservative Federalist Society, to label the proposal “fascistic”. Republican leaders in Congress dismissed the President’s suggestion and noted the presidential election would be held on November 3 – as provided by law and long-standing tradition.

Given this no doubt distressing reality, Trump and his campaign aides are faced with the problem of manufacturing a majority or at least enough votes to win a second term. This task is somewhat easier because of the nature of the way presidential elections are structured. The country’s constitutional design makes it possible to elect as president a candidate who receives enough votes at the state level to win 270 electoral college votes. This arrangement makes it possible for a candidate to be elected with less than a majority of the popular vote. Indeed, Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the nationwide popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

How could a Trump victory be manufactured?

At least in the eyes of Trump and his campaign strategists, the key to a successful outcome is keeping voter turnout down. They assume that Trump supporters are more motivated to cast votes than likely Biden voters. What could be done to achieve this goal?

Physical intimidation is at least a possibility. Nothing comparable to Mussolini’s ‘Black Shirts’ seems likely to put in an appearance, although a number of heavily-armed paramilitary groups have formed, e.g. American Wolf, in reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests. Still, if sufficient turmoil occurs on election day, sympathetic governors might activate national guard units to “restore order.” Also, it appears Trump supporters are taking it into their own hands as the Trump campaign recruits “poll watchers.”

Undermining trust in the election process itself is a tactic already in use. Trump repeatedly claims elections are rigged by occult forces who hope to skew the results. Why bother to vote if the outcome is already determined?

Crucial to undermining trust in the electoral process is Trump’s repeated false condemnation of mail-in voting. The latter has become an attractive alternative to standing in line at polling stations because voting in person will likely violate social distance rules brought on by the pandemic. If enough people believe Trump they may not bother to mail-in their ballots.

The US Postal Service, which would be responsible for delivering mail-in ballots, has become an issue. The new Post Master General Louis DeJoy was a major contributor to Trump’s 2016 election campaign. One of his first decisions after taking office was to slash the Service’s budget in such a way as to delay mail deliveries and fire dozens in leadership. If this budget reduction holds, it may have the effect of delaying the return of mail-in ballots to their county registrars’ destinations. The effect of this tactic, if that is what it is, would be to sow confusion about the election results and allow the outcome to be challenged in the courts.

On Thursday, President Trump directly stated that he is opposing funding for the US Postal Service in order to sabotage mail-in voting.

After The Atlantic reported that the Trump campaign is considering appointing loyal electors to overturn the election results President Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

Finally, there is the usual array of widely used techniques for suppressing voter turnout. These include but are not limited to reducing the number of polling stations in areas likely to go for Biden, purging the voting rolls of individuals, e.g.African-Americans, unlikely to support Trump; demanding personal identification or proof of citizenship before an individual is permitted to vote; deliberately misinforming potential anti-Trump voters about the date and time of the election. And of course, openly accepting Russia’s election help in spreading disinformation.

Taken together, all these devices and stratagems should at least give Trump a fighting chance of manufacturing enough support to win a second term.

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Opinion // 2020 / Authoritarianism / Donald Trump / Elections / History / Radical Right