But the case likely marks the start of a new round of Republican efforts to challenge the basic rules of American democracy by limiting access to the voting booth and potentially again seeking to undo elections they lose. And an assertion buried deep in Texas’ final filing to the Supreme Court helps explain why.
That charge of systemic urban cheating encapsulates the widespread fear among Republicans that they are losing control of the country to a racially and religiously diverse Democratic coalition based primarily in the nation’s largest cities.
“This is our country,” Trump insisted to his preponderantly White audience. “And you know this, and you see it, but they are trying to take it from us through rigging, fraud, deception and deceit.”
For Republican voters who have responded for years to claims from Trump and leading voices in the conservative media environment that a shadowy alliance of elites and minorities centered in cities is trying to hijack their heritage and transform the country into something unrecognizable, it’s a short step to believing that the same groups are literally stealing the results of elections.
“Trump is basically leveraging what has been a half of a century of cultural conditioning among Republicans about who is and who isn’t American,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, which studies Americans’ cultural attitudes. “I think it is naive to think this is going to go away anytime soon, because it’s been built into a worldview.”
New attempts to curb voting access
The stunning receptivity of GOP voters to those arguments shows why groundless charges of urban-based voter fraud are likely to remain central to the Republican message for years — and more immediately to become the justification for new efforts to restrict access to voting.
Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says these may be just the forward edge for a new round of measures in Republican-controlled states to make it more difficult to vote. “We are anticipating a slew of laws at the state level being proposed to further suppress the vote or restrict the right to vote,” says Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Barack Obama.
Still, because so many more people turned out to vote in 2020 than in 2016, Trump, despite winning a higher percentage of the vote, emerged from those big counties facing a larger net deficit in total votes: This time he lost them by 13.2 million votes, compared with 11.1 million in 2016, according to figures provided by the Daily Yonder writer Bill Bishop.
But if Trump’s position was ambivalent in the largest cities, in the inner suburbs of those places his decline was unambiguous. According to Daily Yonder tabulations provided by Bishop, Trump this year lost the inner suburbs of the largest cities by a much larger margin in both percentage terms (nearly a 10-point deficit, compared with 6 points in 2016) and votes (a 4.4 million deficit, compared with 2.2 million last time).
Yet Trump and his allies are alleging massive fraud in Detroit, not nearby Oakland County; in Philadelphia, not in neighboring Montgomery and Delaware counties; in Atlanta, not Cobb and Gwinnett, the giant suburbs to its north.
“They are directly attacking Black voters and voters of color that live in these cities,” says Gupta. “And I think the comparison of cities versus neighboring counties demonstrates the degree to which this is in a lot of ways reminiscent of Jim Crow voting exclusions, where they are seeking after the fact to undermine or discount Black voters.”
Yet if these broad charges of systemic urban fraud have not persuaded any judges in Trump’s post-election lawsuits, they are clearly resonating with many GOP voters. Despite Trump’s almost unbroken streak of legal defeats, polling has shown that a remarkable share of his supporters believe the election was stolen.
Trump incessantly encourages those sentiments by portraying his voters as under siege from an assortment of malevolent forces: contemptuous elites, dangerous immigrants and violent racial-justice protesters. Trump crystallized that argument in his Valdosta speech when he declared, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims, every one of you.”
Trump’s claim of systemic voter fraud snaps onto that larger message as easily as one Lego block onto another. As Jones notes, Trump’s signature promise to “Make America Great Again” already evokes “turning back the clock, restoring the country back to a time when White Christians and White working-class people did have more power and were, demographically speaking, a larger proportion of the country.” Having established those as the groups who are unfairly being pushed aside, Jones continues, “it makes a lot of sense that he can then just say, ‘I’m with you and you’re with me, and these people who don’t look like us are stealing the country and stealing the election.’ “
A Republican Party defining itself as the last line of defense between genuine American traditions and Democrats who would transform the country into something dangerously different is a party for which adherence to the rules of “small d” democracy may be a luxury, not a necessity. If the stakes in each election are really that apocalyptic, the GOP may be increasingly drawn to using any means necessary to hold off an urban-based, diverse Democratic coalition that many Republicans have convinced themselves is stealing elections to advance its larger project of stealing what Trump calls “our country.”
Trump’s maneuvers failed legally, but, in large measure, they succeeded politically by enlisting a stunning number of Republican office holders — as well as GOP voters — behind his effort to overturn the election. This is unlikely to be the last time that much of the GOP decides the basic rules of democracy are dispensable — if that’s what it takes to resist the fundamental demographic, cultural and economic changes, the metropolitan-based reconfiguration of American life, that so many Republican voters fear will eclipse them.