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Republicans Are Road-Testing Trump’s Reelection Strategy in California

Their attempt to oust Gavin Newsom will likely fail, so they are using it to seed a larger narrative about nonexistent voter fraud.

California Governor Gavin Newsom laughs with voters on the campaign trail.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“It’s probably rigged.” That was Donald Trump’s assessment of the effort to recall Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom, during an appearance on the dutifully sycophantic network Newsmax. “They’re sending out all ballots―the ballots are mail-out, mail-in ballots. I guess you even have a case where you can make your own ballot. When that happens, nobody’s going to win except these Democrats.”

As usual with Trump, a gigantic lie is rendered absurd by an even more fantastical one—I have no idea what “make your own ballot” means; perhaps he is referring to the legislature’s decision to allow voters to print ballots on their home printer, maybe he thinks California is encouraging its voters to take up crafting. The nucleus of the lie is simply the black insecurity that’s constantly gnawing at the heart of the former president: If you think you’re going to lose, say the whole thing was rigged against you.

As with so many of the ideas that spill from Trump’s paranoiac imagination, the idea that Democrats have engineered a massive voter fraud conspiracy across dozens of states is now a key plank of the Republican Party platform; an operating premise of the party that’s done more to undermine democracy than any since the Reconstruction era. The effort to recall Newsom was always going to be a steep climb. California is a deep-blue state, in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly two-to-one margin and which Joe Biden won by 30 points. A recall victory for Republicans would be a stunning outcome, even given California’s bizarre rules, because it’s not a mystery why Democrats are favored to win statewide elections. But Republicans—led by Donald Trump—are sticking to their story, insisting that it could only happen through a massive, and unneeded, electoral conspiracy.

Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren told her viewers that “the only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud.” Baseless claims of fraud have trended on social media throughout the summer. Larry Elder, the Republican radio host most likely to become the state’s governor if Newsom is recalled, has also suggested that Dominion Voting Systems was working to rig the gubernatorial recall election.

In other words, cynical Republicans are taking lemons and making lemonade. If they fail in their recall effort, they can still use the election to continue to push claims that Democrats are stealing elections throughout the country, and then weaponize those claims for the purpose of pushing through voting laws even more suppressive than the ones that have been passed or proposed in the wake of the 2020 election, propelled by the same lies.

As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump argued on Wednesday, these tactics also provide “a way to undermine the credibility of elections in general, using a Democratic state preserving a Democratic governor as evidence that Democrats are somehow cheating.” This all bolsters the larger argument that will be the foundation of Trump’s 2024 run: that he was cheated out of reelection in 2020 by a vast conspiracy that is stealing elections from righteous Republicans.

This will also be a test for the media, which has a checkered record in giving proponents of such lies a platform to disseminate these deceptions. Many national Republicans happily go along with outright claims of voter fraud without parroting them directly—instead, they reference their constituents’ concerns about the integrity of the election or attempt to exploit various procedural loopholes, as happened in the lead-up to the January 6 insurrection.

And while the voter fraud narrative has rightly centered on Trump, its most important spokesperson, the idea that elections are rigged against Republicans is now arguably the central pillar of the American right. Having abandoned policy-based electoral arguments, they only make appeals based on raw power, using the phantasmal threat of voter fraud to subvert democracy. Whatever valid concerns anyone might have about, say, Newsom’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic are secondary matters: Suppression of the vote in the name of securing the party an anti-majoritarian future, in which no number of Americans can vote them out of power, is the goal.

This is the Republican playbook going forward. Post–January 6, Republicans talk of little else, and they have built an infrastructure in dozens of states to magnify these bogus concerns, make it harder for Democrats to win elections, and make it harder for states to run free and fair elections—often through the threat of violence. Trump, meanwhile, will use these concerns to push his reelection campaign.

The California recall has mostly been ignored by the press, in large part because a Newsom victory—if one can call it that—has seemed so preordained. Instead, the media’s focus has been on Afghanistan, Covid-19, August’s disappointing jobs numbers, and the Democrats’ wheezing efforts to pass infrastructure and spending bills. It’s a crucial story to cover, though, because it perfectly encapsulates where the GOP is headed. The midterms may be about Afghanistan, the story the press cannot get enough of in late summer; it could be about the country’s return to the pandemic’s low points. The GOP will make it about voter fraud. How the press covers the false claims that will surely emanate from California will be an important test of how it will cover them next year.