The brain wants what it wants. After four years of gaslighting and lies, what the brain wants now is for things to be normal. This is why cable news frenziedly devotes itself to calling the Electoral College and playing out the pathways to 270, even though as of this writing on Wednesday morning, those numbers remain uncertain. That means all things are going to plan. If states refuse to start counting ballots until Election Day, refuse to make provisions for voting in a pandemic, and drive millions of voters to vote by mail while also working to slow the mail, these numbers were destined to be uncertain.
There is also a robust psychological need to understand how this was even a close election, after the slandering of soldiers, the caging of children, the clusterfuck of the COVID-19 response, and the abuse of federal power to attack the president’s enemies and civilian protesters. That’s a TED Talk for another day as well. Right now, please pan back from the maps of state totals and the earnest gaming of how the Atlanta suburbs might flip, and from the finger wagging about Joe Biden’s loss of Latino men, and consider that—exactly as planned—Donald Trump stood up in the middle of the night, in the White House, with most of the battleground states still dutifully counting legitimate ballots, and said the following:
This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. OK? It’s a very sad moment. To me this is a very sad moment and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.
He announced, in plain English, that the election was over, that he had won, and that voting must stop; that no votes should be counted (earlier in the same speech he urged that ballots should continue to be counted in Arizona, where he might still catch up). He signaled that the Supreme Court should intervene to stop this counting and set the game clock at now. Most networks integrated that into their “well, that’s just false” bucket and then moved on.
The Biden campaign reacted to the false claims of victory more forcefully. Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon issued a statement in which she insisted that “the counting will not stop. It will continue until every duly cast vote is counted. Because that is what our laws—the laws that protect every Americans’ constitutional right to vote—require.” She characterized Trump’s comments as “a naked effort to take away the democratic rights of American citizens.”
In any normal period, had a presidential candidate declared victory before there were any basis in fact for such claims, then demanded that millions of valid ballots not be counted, we would react in shock and horror. But since Donald Trump has been telling us for four years that he would not concede, and that the only way he would lose an election was if it was stolen from him, the words are little more than an election night earworm, the 4,000th recitation of the same tiresome, fact-free claims about unspecified vote fraud that didn’t happen.
I understand that the longing for normalcy means that we simply process what happened early Wednesday morning the way the Atlanta Journal Constitution processed it (with a front page that read “Trump: I Have Won. Biden: It’s Not Over”). But if one of the New York Mets persistently declared victory in the top of the fourth inning, he’d be medicated and hospitalized. That this is bottom-of-the-fold news when Trump does it is where we are now.
We’re so used to tuning out Trump’s lies and distortions that cable news just clocked it and moved on. Twitter slapped a label on one of the president’s election night tweets, the one insisting, “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the election.” It’s false; it’s worse than false; it’s boring and false. But even as we do that, we forget that there are millions of people who don’t tune out the lies and distortions and some of them will also have called the game by now. They don’t necessarily get to sit at the big desks on network television, but they sure as hell heard what the president said as a headline, not a quirky “bit.”
In a sense, we are now on the brink of several worst-case scenarios. The courts are being invited to decide a contest based on the idea that mail-in ballots are per se suspect. And with every hour that goes by after Trump’s illegitimate declaration of victory, it becomes more salient—not for the pollsters and the pundits, maybe, but for the people who have been insisting all along that Trump’s greatness lies in the fact that he speaks directly to them, unmediated by any pollster or pundit.
This too, then, is going precisely to plan. We watch the maps and ignore the man. His claim that he has already won is too false to check, too big to fail, too silly to belabor. What sounds freakishly like tyranny-speak is simply too boring to engage with these days. We’ve come a long way, baby. In 2016, that kind of talk was too alarming to be taken seriously. In 2020, it’s too rote and uninteresting to even garner alarm. The former was perhaps attributable to the fact that we were unprepared. The latter is more concerning: We are as confounded today about the lies as we were in 2016. We ignore them at the peril of democracy; we engage with them at the peril of our sanity. We believed the solution to that conundrum lay in sweeping him out in a landslide. That didn’t materialize. So now we are back where we started, doing battle on the margins, in the twilight, in the murky not-for-television world of truth and falsehood. Lies are a problem democracy couldn’t solve for in 2016 and a problem democracy itself failed to cure in 2020.