In the days after a resounding popular vote loss to former United States Vice President Joe Biden, sitting president Donald Trump advanced numerous conspiracy theories before beginning to deny the results of the election outright.
The first set of conspiracy theories revolved around purported unforeseen delays in the vote counts, which stemmed from the Republican Party’s sustained attacks on voting by mail — effectively ensuring that far more Republicans voted in person on the day of the election, but that Democratic Party voters’ ballots trickled in over days amid a surge of early voting galvanized by pandemic concerns, as detailed in this November 4 2020 story from PolitiFact:
Some states in which Trump was leading overnight on Nov. 3 experienced delays in the ballot-counting process due to an influx of mail-in ballots, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and preferred by Democratic voters. There is no evidence that states are deliberately stalling vote tabulation.
In three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which have Democratic governors — election officials were not allowed to start counting mail-in ballots until Election Day or just before. That resulted in reporting delays overnight on Nov. 3, since mail ballots take more time to count than in-person votes.
Similar, related rumors were equally baseless, as was the next cluster of conspiracy theories about “millions” of votes being “switched” from Trump to Biden — all of which were quickly refuted in a statement from election officials:
The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result.
When states have close elections, many will recount ballots. All of the states with close results in the 2020 presidential race have paper records of each vote, allowing the ability to go back and count each ballot if necessary. This is an added benefit for security and resilience. This process allows for the identification and correction of any mistakes or errors. There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.
Other security measures like pre-election testing, state certification of voting equipment, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) certification of voting equipment help to build additional confidence in the voting systems used in 2020.
While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too. When you have questions, turn to elections officials as trusted voices as they administer elections.
These claims were bolstered by anonymous claims on pro-Trump message boards, propaganda and disinformation purveyors such as One America News Network, and of course baseless accusations from Trump himself, echoed by his proxies:
“REPORT: DOMINION DELETED 2.7 MILLION TRUMP VOTES NATIONWIDE. DATA ANALYSIS FINDS 221,000 PENNSYLVANIA VOTES SWITCHED FROM PRESIDENT TRUMP TO BIDEN. 941,000 TRUMP VOTES DELETED. STATES USING DOMINION VOTING SYSTEMS SWITCHED 435,000 VOTES FROM TRUMP TO BIDEN.” @ChanelRion @OANN
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2020
Finally, as these rumors coagulated into accusations, which in turn were incorporated into legal challenges that failed to stand up to any type of scrutiny, Trump simply began to claim outright that — despite the reality of the results — he was actually the winner of the 2020 presidential election. These tweets were quickly labeled with an extraordinarily hesitant disclaimer (“Multiple sources called this election differently”):
I WON THE ELECTION!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 16, 2020
Not one of these claims has any validity. However, taken in their aggregate, another motive for them appears to emerge. These rumors do not appear to be to install Trump as winner of the 2020 presidential election, nor (as some politicians have claimed) to let him get the disappointment and anger at losing out of his system, but perhaps a darker and more serious motive still — to permanently mar or destroy Americans’ faith in its democratic institutions.
This is a known goal of hybrid threats, a component of asymmetric warfare preferred by state — and increasingly, non-state — actors who either lack or who are unwilling to use military might or other physical threats, as the National Defense University’s publication PRISM explains in a 2019 article:
While these interpretations differ somewhat in content, what they have common is less to do with Hoffman’s hybrid warfare and more to do with Sun Tzu’s ancient wisdom that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” They all essentially describe nonviolent revisionist grand strategy in contemporary international politics. They describe the use of multiple, ambiguous means to target vulnerabilities across society to achieve goals gradually without triggering decisive responses. As Michael Mazarr has stated, “Unwilling to risk major escalation with outright military adventurism, these [revisionist] actors are employing sequences of gradual steps to secure strategic leverage. The efforts remain below thresholds that would generate a powerful U.S. or international response, but nonetheless are forceful and deliberate, calculated to gain measurable traction over time.”
The final goal of such sustained efforts is to destroy faith in institutions, thereby destroying entire countries from within by creating an environment in which the fundamental trust between individuals and governments necessary for social cohesion in liberal democracies can no longer exist. From this perspective, these ongoing denials of the reality of the election’s results can be viewed not simply as one man lashing out in denial as enablers look on, but an ongoing act of aggression against the American people and their long-cherished democratic systems, using social media platforms and their algorithms as both vehicles and enthusiastic enablers for disinformation campaigns.
Whatever their motivations, the way to counteract these threats remains the same. Hybrid threats can be countered by building resilience — in other words, creating and strengthening national (and international) responses to disinformation campaigns and attacks from the ground up with a combination of vetted, credible, transparent actions by institutions, strong and independent journalism unfettered by government censorship or political intimidation, and an overall refusal by individuals and entire institutions to cave to lies uttered by bad-faith bullies. Without resilience and clarity, there is no democracy at all.