President Trump’s False Claims about Election Fraud are DangerousRoundup
tags: media, journalism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
Sid Bedingfield, associate professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, is co-editor, with Kathy Roberts Forde, of Journalism & Jim Crow: The Making of White Supremacy in the New South, and author of Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965.
As state election officials counted ballots across the country, President Trump marched into the East Room of the White House early Wednesday morning and falsely declared fraud in the 2020 election. Later in the day, his campaign filed a lawsuit to stop the counting of votes in Michigan, suggesting that something was amiss with the electoral process — perhaps because his vote total trailed Joe Biden’s. His campaign also mounted legal action in Pennsylvania and Georgia. The president’s baseless and hypocritical claims were merely his latest efforts to undermine public trust in the presidential vote.
Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the vote — and the way it has been amplified by media allies and spread across social media — has a familiar ring. It evokes an egregious example of election fraud in the 1890s, when White Democrats in the Deep South complained bitterly of Black voting fraud to cover up their own election rigging. The Southern Democrats and their allies in the press intimidated voters, stuffed ballot boxes and stole elections to turn back a surprising foe: a coalition of White and Black farmers and workers who had suffered grievously in the agricultural depression of the 1880s and, for a brief historical moment, had put aside racial animus to create a powerful political force across the South.
This history reminds us of the danger embedded in Trump’s fraudulent claims. The campaigns of fraud and violence that relied heavily on media propaganda and manipulation purposefully and repeatedly subverted the democratic process, ultimately resulting in deadly violence and decades of disenfranchisement.
This strategy had its first major success in Alabama in the early 1890s, when the state’s Democratic Party establishment faced a fierce insurgency from an aggressive and well-organized biracial coalition. Populist organizers in the state used their press to unite Black and White farmers and some of the new industrial workers in the state’s mining district to form a working majority of voters. Led by former agricultural commissioner Reuben Kolb, this new coalition challenged the Bourbon Democrats, the White conservatives who ran the state in alliance with the railroads and mining companies that were reshaping Alabama’s economy, mostly at the expense of poor Black and White residents.
As the 1892 governor’s race approached, both sides turned to the state’s partisan press to wage the battle for public opinion. Led by Jack Baltzell’s Montgomery Alliance Herald, Joseph Manning’s Alabama Pioneer and aggressive Black editors such as Charles Hendley Jr. at the Huntsville Gazette, the reform press rallied farmers and some workers to join the struggle. For these populist editors, the phrase “free vote and fair count” became a mantra, often appearing on the nameplate of their weekly newspapers.
Kolb stressed the shared economic interests of Black and White farmers and workers, and he defended Black voting rights and vowed to end election fraud by the Democrats. Some of his supporters were more aggressive: “I am in favor of killing them if they don’t count it right,” Birmingham lawyer Peyton G. Bowman told a crowd of more than 8,000 White and Black supporters in Opelika. “Let the colored man stand up for his race and vote for a free ballot and civil liberty.”
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