Trump’s Lost Cause

The president is all-in on an 1870s strategy of nullifying entire cities’ worth of Black votes.

A black-and-white illustration of a dark-haired man with a large beard wearing what appears to be a military jacket.
South Carolina Gov. Wade Hampton, who was elected in 1876 after a violent paramilitary campaign suppressed the state’s Black vote. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The latest developments in the American democratic process are not really democratic, per se:

• The two Republican members of the four-member Wayne County, Michigan, vote-canvassing board who initially refused to certify Detroit’s results only to change their minds at the end of an hourslong meeting and vote to certify them … have declared that they have re-changed their minds and don’t think the results should be certified after all. (One of them says Donald Trump spoke to her on the phone after the meeting, though she claims that he did not ask her to disavow her vote for certification.) As far as anyone can tell, however, this “takeback” declaration has no legal power. Michigan’s state-level canvassing board meets Monday to certify the state’s votes as a whole. It, too, is bipartisan; one of its Republican members says he may ask to delay certification to investigate whether voting machines changed votes from Trump to Biden. (More on this later.)

• The Republican leaders of the Michigan statehouse and Senate say they have accepted an invitation to meet with Donald Trump at the White House on Friday, where, in addition to exposing them to levels of coronavirus saturation that are likely among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, he is expected to attempt to persuade them to attempt to override Michigan’s election results and send pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College on the reasoning that Detroit’s votes are fraudulent. For what it’s worth, both of the Michigan legislative leaders have previously acknowledged that Joe Biden appears to have won their state and said the Legislature will not intervene in vote-counting.

• Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani held a press conference at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in which he reiterated previous claims that Detroit’s and Philadelphia’s votes are fraudulent; concurrent reporting by Reuters indicates that the campaign plans to try a state-legislature electoral override in Pennsylvania as well. As has been documented at length on Slate and elsewhere, Biden actually outperformed Hillary Clinton by larger margins in whiter-leaning suburbs than he did in predominantly Black cities, and the Trump campaign’s various quickly dismissed lawsuits have presented the same amount of evidence of fraud in urban areas (none) as they have of fraud in the suburbs (none). The only thing that distinguishes the votes that the campaign now wants legislators to attempt to disqualify is that they were cast in predominantly Black areas.*

• Another attorney named Sidney Powell also spoke at the RNC event and claimed—seriously—that Democrats generated fake votes by using a fraud algorithm, which she said was originally developed by the late Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez, on voting machines made by a company called Dominion in Colorado. This is the company that the Michigan state canvasser says he wants investigated. Dominion does not have any connections to Venezuela. Powell, in a statement the Republican Party later highlighted on its Twitter account, said her goal in seeking to overturn election results is to “reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.”

• I forgot to mention this, but it deserves its own bullet item: Monica Palmer, the Wayne County canvasser who talked to Trump on the phone, says she has been threatened by “antifa” from Grosse Pointe. Grosse Pointe is a notoriously affluent, exclusive suburb of Detroit; it’s like saying you’re being targeted by Maoist death squads from East Hampton.

All of this behavior continues to seem absurd and futile, because it is far outside the bounds of the terms on which contemporary Americans have come to expect elections to be decided. That does not, however, mean there’s no historical precedent at all for what’s happening. There is, namely the “Redemption” period of Southern history, in which terror groups, of which the KKK has what you might call the most prominent legacy brand, set out to undo the results of the Civil War and the 14th and 15th amendments. They accomplished this by disrupting elections and killing Black citizens in order to suppress their votes and install white governors and legislators, who then passed laws that created spurious legal justifications for the maintenance of whites-only governments and elections. Within a decade or two, this outrageous refusal to follow election rules, the law, or the Constitution had produced an entrenched and accepted system of social, political, and legal tyranny.

This is what Trump’s bid to “win” the election has come down to: asking white legislators to disqualify hundreds of thousands of votes on no real basis other than the race of the people who cast them. No one has agreed to take him up on it yet, and the constitutional situation it would create would be quite muddled. (It would apparently be a heavy lift in the courts even by the standards of the modern right-wing judiciary, and after that it would have to go through Congress, where there may be ways Democrats in the House could defeat it.) He’d also need to overturn results in a third state besides Michigan and Pennsylvania in order to so much as make an Electoral College win a theoretical possibility.

Nonetheless, the conspiratorial stories his lawyers and followers are telling—about how the threat of insurrectionists and outsiders justifies the mass restriction of voting—have more than a few echoes with what the Southern Redeemers said about their abuse at the hands of “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers.” Right now, it looks like a lost cause. But that—the “Lost Cause”—is what white Southerners called the Confederacy as they gradually figured out how to reclaim its principles, state by state.

Correction, Nov. 20, 2020: This sentence originally misdescribed Philadelphia as a majority-Black city. Black residents constitute a plurality of its population, but not a majority.