When I finally got my mail-in ballot this week, I found myself grasping it tightly, like a precious object someone might steal.
For days, I’d been discussing with friends and relatives how to ensure our votes get counted. Does one dare trust the politically discredited post office, or partisan courts that might toss out mail-in ballots? Or President Trump, who repeatedly and falsely claims they cause massive fraud, and sends legions of lawyers to suppress them?
Clutching the documents in my hands, I thought, “This is totally bizarre. Is this really the United States?”
And I couldn’t help recalling elections I’ve covered in places like Moscow, Kyiv, Baghdad, Cairo and Tunis, where people risked their lives to demand fair elections. Or Belarus, where hundreds of thousands have demonstrated for weeks to protest an election rigged by dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has arrested, beaten and jailed thousands.
We used to send election observers to such places to help them understand democracy. Now their experiences could be a preview of our future if enough U.S. voters don’t awaken by Nov. 3.
Increasingly, Trump and his GOP sycophants remind me of how President-for-life Putin treats elections. Especially when Trump flat-out refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, telling an interviewer, “We’ll see.”
“Get rid of the ballots,” the president continued “and … there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” In other words, if he can somehow – through lawsuits, or simply refusing to quit – finesse mail-in ballots, he can stay in power. And, if his new Supreme Court pick is rushed through before Nov. 3, he hopes the court will approve his putsch.
Emulating the despots he admires, Trump is openly promoting voter intimidation, proposing armies of supposed “poll watchers” be sent to investigate his fake claims of fraud, while encouraging extremists like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Not surprisingly, the FBI just uncovered a militia plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, where armed Trump supporters previously invaded the state house.
Trump’s determination to stay in power reminds me of a 2012 interview with Alexei Navalny, the blond, charismatic Russian opposition leader (now recovering from a nerve agent poison attack no doubt approved by Putin). I met Navalny, in a bare headquarters in Moscow, filled with youthful volunteers, during a time of huge demonstrations over massive rigging of Russian parliamentary elections. He had just burst onto the Russian scene with his gutsy video exposes of gross Kremlin corruption.
Putin was about to be re-elected president – no surprise, given the Kremlin’s control of election processes and most media. In Russia, the rigging is done wholesale, with “carousel” voters bused from polling site to polling site in order to cast multiple votes and the most popular opposition leaders banned from running.
“I call it a procedure, not an election,” Navalny told me scornfully, “designed for Putin to be appointed like a tsar.” Barred from running by the Kremlin, he has survived numerous arrests, imprisonment and physical attack, as his youth movement expanded across the country and managed to score election successes at local levels.
Election rigging (and near-murder) won’t stop Navalny. Now recovering in Berlin from the poison attack, he is determined to return to Russia to fight.
European leaders have demanded an answer from Putin on his poisoning, but Trump has remained mum.
Trumpsters’ promotion of Putinesque election principles goes beyond the president’s expressed determination to hold power by whatever means necessary.
Sen. Mike Lee, R.-Utah, who caught COVID-19 at a superspreader event in the White House Rose Garden, just laid that thinking out in an astonishing tweet: “Democracy isn’t the objective,” he wrote, “liberty, peace and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Is this an American speaking?
Promotion of “prosperity” over democracy is the mantra commonly used by every dictator who wants to suppress free elections. Every communist leader mouthed those words prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and China’s leaders do so now.
On that same 2012 trip to Moscow, the ebullient and brilliant Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov put the lie to such thinking. Over dinner in a bustling Moscow restaurant, Nemtsov called Putin “a person older than 60 who wanted to be president for life.”
“This revolution is not about jobs,” Nemtsov said. “It is about freedom.” The middle-class demonstrators on the streets, he added, were “not thinking about sausage and vodka,” but about the freedom to rid themselves of leaders who enriched themselves at the expense of the public.
Nemtsov was shot dead in February 2015 as he strolled right outside the Kremlin’s walls, in a murder that no doubt had Kremlin approval.
Trump can’t neatly dispatch his opponents like Putin, or lock up thousands like Lukashenko. But his disdain for democracy is a gross imitation of their thinking, as are his efforts to suppress ballots and intimidate voters. He is defaming the ballot I hold in my hand, and disgracing our democracy in the eyes of the world.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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