OPINION

What is really behind Trump’s legal challenges?

Trump’s goal is not to overturn the election – it is to undermine the Biden administration.

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a Trump 2020 flag outside the US Capitol building as they attend pro-Trump marches, on November 14, 2020 in Washington [AP/Jacquelyn Martin]
A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a Trump 2020 flag outside the US Capitol building as they attend pro-Trump marches, on November 14, 2020 in Washington [AP/Jacquelyn Martin]

More than two weeks after the United States held a presidential and congressional election, there is still lingering uncertainty about its outcome. While much of the US media has declared Democratic nominee Joe Biden the winner, President Donald Trump has refused to accept defeat. His campaign has filed lawsuits seeking to challenge the vote count in several states, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of Americans recognise Biden as their next president.

The Republican leadership have also expressed support for Trump’s legal challenges and have made claims of widespread voter fraud. None of this will be able to change the election results, so what is behind this strategy? Many chalk this up to Trump’s bruised ego and inability to accept defeat, which is certainly a factor, but this strategy is more about rallying the Republican base and gearing up for resistance against the Democrats.

Legal challenges

We are in for a rocky ride until election results are officially certified, which could take weeks, because of the legal challenges Trump and the Republican Party have launched. So far, they have filed more than a dozen state and federal lawsuits in five battleground states that Biden won by a slim margin: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia.

About half of these lawsuits have been denied, two – in Nevada and Pennsylvania – have been upheld and the rest are pending. The lawsuits challenge issues of process, such as counting mail-in and provisional ballots that arrived after election day, observer access, absentee ballots with incomplete information, state extensions for counting mail-in ballots, etc.

Mail-in ballots were cast overwhelming in favour of Biden, and the Trump campaign strategy is to have as many of these votes thrown out as possible. Three of the legal challenges in Pennsylvania – including the one which was upheld – targeted mail-in ballots. Although it is not yet known how many ballots could be affected if more lawsuits are accepted in court, it is unlikely to be in the tens of thousands.

Biden leads in the state by about 82,000 votes and therefore, even if other lawsuits are upheld, they are unlikely to change the result.

This is the case for other states as well. Biden is leading Trump by more than 140,000 votes in Michigan; more than 33,000 votes in Nevada; more than 20,000 votes in Wisconsin; nearly 14,000 in Georgia; and 10,000 votes in Arizona.

Recounts, where the margin is less than 1 percent of the vote, are also unlikely to result in a Trump win. In the past, such procedures have only resulted in the shift of a couple of hundred votes.

Republican strategists often mention the importance of the 2000 recount in Florida, which effectively helped Republican presidential candidate George W Bush win. But they forget to say that this was a question of about 500 votes in one swing state. The 2020 presidential election is a question of hundreds of thousands of votes across five swing states.

Despite what Trump and the GOP may claim, there is no strong evidence of voter fraud and certainly no evidence of widespread irregularities that could affect the election results. According to the New York Times, election officials in 49 states have reported no major voting issues.

Resisting the Biden administration

Trump knows he cannot overturn the election results, but he is nevertheless pushing forward with it. Many of the Republicans who are publicly expressing support for him also do not actually believe these lawsuits will alter the election result.

But they are sticking with Trump because, win or lose, he remains the head of the Republican Party and he still managed to win more than 73 million votes. Trump supporters still make up a considerable portion of the American electorate, and many Republicans in Congress choose to remain silent out of fear of alienating his supporters in their constituencies.

The GOP also sees short- and long-term benefits to this strategy. In the short-term, this mobilisation could help them win the two runoff congressional elections in Georgia to be held in January, which would ensure the Senate remains under Republican control.

In the long-term, it could help Republicans retake control of the House of Representative in the 2022 mid-term elections, and potentially the White House in 2024. House Republicans performed better than expected in 2020, picking up at least six seats and thus diminishing Democratic power in the House of Representatives. This means Republican voter registration campaigns in swing states like Florida worked and Republican mobilisation would certainly help expand this campaign moving forward.

But more alarmingly, the Republicans’ use of the “stolen election” narrative also aims to shore up resistance against the future Biden administration. This was already on display in the pro-Trump rallies that took place in Washington and elsewhere last week.

In the coming months and perhaps years, the spread of falsehoods and election fraud claims will be used to rally the Trump base, create tensions in communities across and public spaces across the country and pressure the Biden administration not to pursue progressive policies.

This will also likely play out in Congress, where the Republicans will do everything they can to undermine possible bipartisan consensus on Democratic initiatives regarding healthcare, immigration, climate change, women’s rights, and other issues aiming to reverse Trump-era policies.

By now, it is clear the Republican leadership does not seem to care that they are feeding conspiracy theories and disinformation that undermines American democratic institutions. Biden has called for unity and healing after years of political polarisation, but the GOP’s continued acquiescence to Trump’s toxic politics signals that he will have a hard time bringing the nation together. We should expect turbulent times ahead.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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