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The Danger of Doubting Donald Trump’s Legitimacy

Trump didn't steal the election. If a recount can affirm that fact, then so much the better.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It’s strange that the impending recount of votes in Wisconsin has driven President-elect Donald Trump to a nervous breakdown, because the process will almost certainly show that his Electoral College victory was legitimate.

All elections, even blowouts, give rise to scapegoating and conspiracy theory. In 2008, when the outgoing GOP president was historically loathed, and the economy had begun to collapse under his watch, some conservatives still couldn’t accept that the election had been fair. After a Democratic landslide, they alleged widespread fraud and cited the practically non-existent New Black Panther Party as evidence of voter intimidation.

In this year’s election, the winner came up 2.3 million votes (and counting) short in the popular ballot. Trump won the Electoral College by 100,000 votes over three states—too many for the result of the election to be overturned, in all likelihood, but tiny in any statistical sense.

To exacerbate things, voters cast their ballots in a climate of extraordinary paranoia—largely the result of a Russian-led disruption campaign to sow doubt within the U.S. electorate about the integrity of the election and other institutions.

Truth matters. There is no evidence of the kind of sabotage that would be required to swing an election, and in any case, such an effort would be extremely complex for even the most dedicated saboteurs. But it’s no surprise under the circumstances that many voters—whether they are Hillary Clinton supporters indulging in wishful thinking, or Trump opponents fearful of his presidency—would be susceptible to conspiracy theories this year.

And there’s a real upside to allaying their doubts through a recount. In the Trump era, truth will be under enormous strain. Voters of all persuasions will be beset by mass disinformation campaigns meant to eliminate points of consensus that allow open societies to make reasoned public decisions. Liberals should get habituated to driving home inconvenient facts to help people through the constant Orwellian struggle to see what is in front of their noses. Letting widespread doubts about the election fester would make matters worse. Telling people the election was above board without showing them will not help.

The most persuasive, but under-discussed argument in favor of auditing the election in Wisconsin is that it will pull many Americans out from under a penumbra of confusion and propaganda. At least some of the people demanding it will have their faith in the integrity of the election restored; our institutions will be better off; people can focus on resisting Trump the old-fashioned way.

But Trump doesn’t care about this kind of stabilizing dividend. To the contrary, he sees mass disaffection, and the erosion of accepted truths, as a source of political strength.

“By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible,” the writer Ned Resnikoff explained. “When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.”

Perhaps for that reason—and perhaps because he’s insecure about the narrowness of his victory and his failure to win the popular vote—he flipped out when Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed recount paperwork on Friday.

Trump baselessly alleges widespread voter fraud in part because he wants his supporters to believe he is the rightful winner of the popular vote. If his opponents labor under a different delusion—that his presidency is illegitimate altogether—so much the better as far as he and his advisers are concerned.

President Barack Obama has been quietly warning the public about an awful lot lately. He stood on a stage in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel two weeks ago and sounded another alarm—this one about how the siloing of political factions into distinct information ecosystems will doom liberal society.

“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not—and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones—if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” he said. “If people, whether they are conservative or liberal, left or right, are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process, and are taking absolutist views and demonizing opponents, then democracy will break down.”

We are already uncomfortably close to that breaking point. Letting doubts about the election fester, later to be channeled into political energy—to do, in other words, what Republicans have done, and what Trump is doing—is to sow the wind.

If an agent of disinformation and propaganda like Trump is driven mad by fact-finding exercises—whether they be journalism, or legal discovery, or congressional hearings, or recounts—it is a strong sign they are worth the trouble.