Are Trump’s Claims of Widespread Voter Fraud Racist?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Donald Trump provides so many examples of blatant and overt racism that it almost seems unnecessary to focus on less obvious evidence of bigotry.

Even so, there are important lessons to be learned from the choices that Trump makes about which issues to highlight and which fights he picks, almost all of which come back not only to his own narcissism but to his deeply racist worldview.

Ever since the 2016 election, Trump has been obsessed with proving that he won BIG. He continues to insist that his 44th-biggest out of the 56 margins of victory in Electoral College history was a landslide, and many of his surrogates (including the ones whom he has fired) have dutifully repeated this nonsense.

But at least that particular claim can be dismissed as mere puffery, yet another example of Trump's willingness to claim that his buildings are taller than they are, that his businesses are more successful than they are, or that his "words" and "brain" are better than they are.

Ultimately, the word landslide is vague enough that most people will end up rolling their eyes and saying, "Whatever you want to call it, dude. Get over it."

The more interesting question is why Trump is pushing so hard on the lie about the phantom illegal voters who supposedly cost him a popular-vote victory. According to Trump, his 2.9 million-vote defeat is explained by something like three or five million illegal votes for Hillary Clinton.

This lie turns out to be very revealing.

GettyImages-621780074 Voters cast their ballots in the US presidential election at a fire station in Alhambra, California, on November 8, 2016. RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty

As an aside, let us imagine that Trump had actually won the popular vote by the 2.1 million votes implied by the higher of his baseless assertions (five million illegal votes for Clinton). Even then, Trump's margin of victory would have been 1.62 percent, which would put him ninth from the bottom in American history, behind Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2004. But I am sure he would describe that as a landslide, too.

In any event, this obviously eats at Trump. If his real motivation were merely to feed his ego, however, there would be a much better argument than "millions of illegal voters" to explain his popular vote loss. Trump himself has made that argument, in fact, which (as I will explain in detail below) is that he would have devised a different campaign strategy if the rules had been different.

Why has he not pushed that argument instead of his baseless voter fraud argument? Again, the answer is that Trump is a racist. But the particular form of the racism is, I think, illuminating.

But first, an aside. Years ago, when Rush Limbaugh first slithered onto the scene, I was talking with a middle-aged white man who was an avid listener of the bloviator's radio program. When I asked why he listened to the ravings of an unabashed bigot, I was surprised by the response. "Oh, he doesn't really believe that stuff. He's just stirring the pot ," my acquaintance said with a conspiratorial smile.

Another friend asked, "But if all he wants to do is stir the pot, why does he do it in this specific way, by encouraging people to indulge in the worst kinds of bigotry? After all, he could also 'stir the pot' by advocating Marxist ideology. Surely that would rile up a lot of people!"

This, indeed, is a common problem when apologists attempt to dismiss hateful comments as "jokes" or "not serious." For example, when Trump recently encouraged police officers not to be "too nice" to suspects, people—including, we should all be happy to note, many police chiefs—were rightly outraged that the president would encourage and wink at police brutality.

The White House's response was predictable, with the press secretary dismissing Trump's comments as a joke. Don't you people have a sense of humor?

But that merely begs the question of why this is the kind of non-serious suggestion that would come to Trump's mind. Why did he not, say, suggest that police officers take criminal suspects to astrologers, to get them to confess? Why is his default attempt at humor a call to violence by agents of the state?

I honestly do not think that Trump was joking at all. Even if he was, however, the choices that he makes are still telling about his mindset, just as Limbaugh's "jokes" about feminazis or other bêtes noires of the right tell us more than we want to know about what he really thinks—even if he is merely trying to stir the pot.

When it comes to Trump's obsession with the election results, then, it matters how he defends himself from the deep shame of having lost the popular vote and barely won the states that pushed him over the edge in the Electoral College.

As I described in a column shortly after Trump's inauguration (" The Election Shame That Trump Will Not Let Go "), he might even be right to suggest that he could have won the popular vote if everyone knew in advance that there was no Electoral College and thus built their campaigns around piling up as many votes as possible, no matter where those votes were located.

Trump believes, for example, that there were tremendous numbers of New Yorkers who would have voted for him had he campaigned there rather than spending all of his time in places like Ohio and Florida. What he ignores, however, is that Clinton would have changed her campaign strategy, too.

As I noted in my earlier column, there are surely thousands upon thousands of people in Texas who would have voted for Clinton but who did not bother to vote because they knew that Texas was going for Trump in any case.

Indeed, because the red/blue distinction is now less a state-by-state phenomenon than a rural/urban difference, even in states like Utah there are plenty of Salt Lake City Democrats who do not bother to vote. (This might seem impossible to believe, but I once lived there and have met many of those people.)

So just as there are plenty of frustrated Republicans on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in Orange County, California who might have come out to vote for Trump, the Clinton campaign could have targeted Democrats in places like Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham, Omaha, Louisville, Charleston, and Phoenix.

But the beauty of this argument from Trump's standpoint is that it cannot be disproved. He could have spent the last nine months saying, "I would have campaigned differently, and she could even have campaigned differently, and I still would have won," and no one could say anything more than, "Maybe, but probably not."

Most of the time, people dismiss Trump's obsession with the election results as yet another example of his needy narcissism. That is surely true, but it does not explain Trump's specific choice about how to feed that narcissism. If it were pure ego and nothing else, he would have chosen the non-disprovable—and completely plausible—explanation for his shame.

Instead, he has repeatedly emphasized the explanation that should be downright embarrassing. The evidence shows that any real-world voter fraud is on the order of ten-thousandths of a percent of the total votes cast, which means that it would be a stretch to use that argument even in the 2000 election in Florida, which was decided by 500 or so votes.

Yet Trump is absolutely not budging from his claim that millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton, specifically noting that California provided a huge margin for his opponent. Conveniently, Trump's voting base is already primed for the idea that a diverse state like California is not the "real America" that voted for Trump.

There is a convenient elision between "illegal voters" and "illegals" in Trump's world. The Mexican immigrants whom he denigrated as rapists and murderers are the ones who, in Trump's telling, swelled Clinton's totals and thus robbed Trump of his rightful landslide.

Moreover, sticking with this lie allows Trump to satisfy the white supremacist elements of his base (not just his voters but his strongest supporters in Congress and statehouses ) by giving them his "election integrity commission," which will target not just voting by imaginary illegal aliens but also voting by very real Democratic-leaning minority and younger voters.

Even so, I do not want to give Trump too much credit (if it can be called that) for this kind of consciously Machiavellian thinking. I do not think, for example, that when Trump jumps on the right-wing phrase "government schools" to denigrate public education, that he knows that that term has its roots in the ideology of the Confederacy and its diehard defenders.

There certainly is plenty of evidence that Trump is consciously racist, of course. He began his career by joining his father in discriminating against African-Americans in their New York housing business. He seems to think that American cities are hellholes where black people spend all of their time doing drugs and killing each other.

But Trump's racism is much more visceral than anything else. He obviously has no problem when his Attorney General announces that the Justice Department will be ending supervision of city police forces for civil rights violations, or when the AG says that public money will now be spent to fight against affirmative action in colleges and universities.

And that is why the voter fraud lie is so revealing. Trump is aware of—indeed, he has even articulated—the non-racist explanation of his popular vote loss. That explanation has the advantage of possibly being true (but probably not) and of not relying on complete fantasy unsupported by evidence.

In the face of all that, however, Trump instead feeds his narcissistic needs by following the most bigoted route possible.

We did not need further evidence that Trump is a racist, but he is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University . He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

Join the Discussion