Donald Trump’s baseless, nonstop public allegations of pervasive fraud, election meddling and disloyalty among his party members are unprecedented for a modern American president. But some observers of North Carolina politics have seen this kind of behavior before.
“Pat McCrory was like an amateur Trump,” UNC Law Professor Michael Gerhardt said. “He tried to use some of the same tools while he was governor. Trump was much better at it. Trump has done a good job of destroying people’s belief in democratic institutions. But in the end McCrory ran into some of the same things Trump ran into — officials who did their jobs and systems that worked and people in his own party who defended those systems and institutions.”
In 2016, when then-Gov. Pat McCrory narrowly lost to Roy Cooper, he too refused to concede. Instead, McCrory and his allies spent all of November baselessly claiming there had been massive voter fraud, failing to effectively argue that position before various boards of election, erroneously accusing dozens of North Carolinians of voting illegally and instigating a recount that did not change the outcome of the election.
Though McCrory ultimately conceded in a video message on Dec. 5, 2016, he would for years continue to suggest fraud tainted the election.
It was and continues to be a strange and uncomfortable position for the Republican to take. As governor, McCrory appointed members of the N.C. State Board of Elections and the chairs of the 100 county boards of election, allowing him to secure GOP majorities on the boards.
Further, in challenging the 2016 results, McCrory’s campaign suggested pervasive fraud and large-scale irregularities in a statewide election that elected a Republican president, led to victories for GOP congressional candidates and re-elected most sitting Republicans in the General Assembly. The mismanaged, fraud-laden statewide elections that McCrory’s campaign described in challenges in 52 of the state’s 100 counties appeared not to have affected most other Republicans.
Similarly, Trump and his campaign are now forcing Republican governors and elections officials into an uncomfortable position. In certifying and defending election results that won Republicans ground in municipal, state and congressional elections across the country, those GOP officials have been forced to publicly reject the fraud theories Trump and his team have promoted since election night.
It may feel like déjà vu, Gerhardt said. But it’s actually a growing — and troubling — political trend.
McCrory’s intransigence following his defeat in 2016 was remarkable, Gerhardt said. But in that same election season, before the election was held, Trump was already insisting that fraud would be the only imaginable explanation if he lost.
“In the case of McCrory and Trump, it’s a trend we may be seeing because it has core appeal for the supporters of these candidates,” Gerhardt said. “It justifies itself on a number of levels. It allows the candidate to have a rationalization for his loss. It may also play into a narrative people continue to want to believe. This may also be a narrative Trump can use to get back into power in four years.”
Gerhardt, who teaches politics and law, has expertise in the presidency and executive branch. The idea that a loss for a voter’s preferred candidate must mean fraud is a dangerous one in a democratic society, he said. But the 2020 election, for all its controversy and unprecedented breaks from the country’s political norms, was a stress test of America’s political institutions and elections systems at the highest level. And one they seem to have passed.
Federal officials, courts and elected officials, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, both Republicans, faced an ugly choice, Gerhardt said. Embrace Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud or stand by the systems they themselves manage and know to be sound. Ultimately the sovereignty of states — a bedrock principle of conservative Republican ideology — prevailed.
Whether those systems can hold against repeated assaults remains to be seen, political experts said. It’s a particularly worrisome question when a growing number of people cannot be convinced of political realities they don’t like.
“You can’t convince someone who has convinced themselves of a reality that does not match the facts,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of political science and history at Catawba College. “Until people get ahold of themselves and see facts and reality for what they are, even when they believe it should have gone their way, there’s nothing in human psychology that convinces me we can make them believe things they don’t want to believe.”
Part of the problem, Bitzer said, is a refusal of people to recognize just how politically divided America is now. Very close elections and divided government are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, Bitzer said. Breathless predictions of blue or red waves are often driven by many partisans’ quiet belief that an overwhelming majority of the country must be on their side, Bitzer said. When election results instead show thin margins and competitive races, the results themselves must then be seen as the problem.
“There may be a generational shift that pushes the country from center right to center left,” Bitzer said. “But that will likely just intensify things. These two dynamic realities in which people now live will be with us for some time.”
What we now have on a regular basis, for good or ill, is a 51-47 nation. Uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, that will continue to produce presidents from one party and congressional majorities from another. In North Carolina, it now means a Democratic governor easily winning re-election in the same election in which Republicans gain seats in the General Assembly.
Is that a healthy thing, enforcing a sort of moderation neither side would embrace on their own? Or is it just a recipe for more gridlock?
“Yes,” Bitzer said. “The answer is yes.”