In a recent video for the Trump campaign, Donald Trump Jr. becomes a modern-day Uncle Sam, urging Americans to sign up for a new kind of war.
“We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army For Trump’s election security operation,” he says.
The younger Trump’s video, posted on the Team Trump Facebook and Twitter pages on Sept. 21, follows the Trump campaign’s strategy to rile up Republican voters against the perceived threat of voter fraud. The president’s son claims that the “radical left” plans to cast “millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”
The solution: assemble the troops.
To “enlist today,” he tells supporters to visit defendyourballot.com, which links to a section of the Army For Trump website that encourages voters to join Trump’s Election Day team. The site says volunteers will primarily focus on get-out-the-vote efforts “to ensure any voters who did not vote early vote on Election Day,” and does not mention poll watching or voter fraud.
Experts say voter fraud is rare, including fraud in voting by mail. Both Facebook and Twitter have added disclaimers below the video from the president’s son that state voting by mail is secure, but neither site has removed the video under their misinformation policies.
No U.S. presidential candidate has ever mounted these types of attacks on the electoral process nor called for supporters to “enlist” against the opposing party, said Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and an expert in global democracy. But, she said, “dictators do it all the time.”
“The use of terms like ‘army’ is by no means coincidental,” Kelley said. “Once you start using language that hints at the use of force, you are stoking the embers.”
Every party has the right to contest an election on the grounds of potential voter fraud, she said, but those objections should happen after the election, and be accompanied by documentation alleging specific instances of fraud.
Trump’s accusations of mass voter fraud, lodged before the election and without documentation, are “a blatant attempt to undermine the credibility of the process and erode confidence in it,” she said.
David Dixon, chair of the Durham Democratic Party, called the president’s campaign strategy “the most blatant form of voter suppression or voter intimidation possible.”
“You’ll have regular people taking the law into their own hands at polls across the country, scaring voters,” he said. “I think that’s really going to affect turnout.”
The Durham Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Fifty-four percent of Durham voters are registered Democrats, compared with 11% of registered Republicans. As a blue county and a “monolith,” Dixon doubts Durham will see an instance of violent voter intimidation. But as the president and his campaign continue to use militaristic rhetoric, Dixon worries that Trump supporters in North Carolina’s more conservative counties will arrive at the polls armed.
“Forty-five minutes north in Franklin or Vance County, there’s a possibility that folks may show up at the election site with guns or other weapons, thinking they’re doing exactly what the president told them to do,” he said.
On Sept. 19, a group of Trump supporters gathered outside of a polling site in Fairfax, Virginia, to wave “Make America Great Again” signs and chant “four more years.” The group did not directly harass voters but did form a line that voters had to walk around to enter the polling place. Several voters reported feeling intimidated.
Dixon noted that the Trump campaign has chosen its words carefully, which provides deniability if there is any violence.
“It gives them wiggle room in case something does happen,” Dixon said.
Kelley and Dixon said Trump’s strategy to stir up fear and anger among Republican voters may signal his intentions to refuse to concede the election, an intention that the president himself has alluded to.
“His tactic is to create a situation that is so chaotic that he’ll be able to say, ‘We can’t accept the results of the election, because look at this mess,’” Kelley said.
The uncertainty of a pandemic election has given Trump plenty of opportunities to instill doubt in the electoral process, said Dixon, but voters will have to wait until November to see what sticks.
“He’s planting so many different seeds,” he said. “Once we get to November fourth, we’ll see what has been sown.”