There was one vignette from this week that captured a lot more than its immediate subject.
Trump took to Twitter to oppose what he said was Michigan’s recent mailing of absentee ballots to the state’s voters. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” the president tweeted.
But Michigan’s secretary of state responded: “Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson. And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.” When Trump deleted his first inaccurate tweet about ballots and corrected it in a second similar tweet, she responded: “Every Michigan registered voter has a right to vote by mail. I have the authority & responsibility to make sure that they know how to exercise this right — just like my GOP colleagues are doing in GA, IA, NE, and WV. Also, again, my name is Jocelyn Benson.”
Later on Wednesday, Trump tried to threaten Nevada in a similar way. “State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections.”
There is a lot encompassed in these tweets. Trump is running behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in virtually every poll, and Michigan is crucial to his reelection prospects. But his problem is not mail-in ballots. Currently, the states of Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, as well as various counties in California, all have vote by mail. A mail-in system creates about a two percent increase in voting, but does not appear to benefit one party over another. Neither does it create measurable voter fraud, which remains vanishingly rare in our system. Nonetheless, Trump has concluded that the Republicans should “fight very hard” against mail-in voting, despite the coronavirus, because it “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
If this exchange of tweets between Trump and Benson shows that Trump is worried about his reelection prospects, it also reveals the sort of quid pro quo that was at the heart of the Ukraine scandal. His threat to withhold monies from Michigan and Nevada until they do what he wants echoes his request of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that he announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son before getting the military support Ukraine so desperately needed. It reiterates his view of governance as merely a series of deals with a winner and a loser, a zero-sum game, rather than as an arrangement that should benefit everyone.
That being said, it is not at all clear what monies Trump was talking about. As Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar put it, “Last time I checked, the Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate money, not you. We provided $400 million to help states protect voters from this virus. A bill you signed! You can’t take money back because you think you should be the only one allowed to vote by mail.”
Klobuchar is referring to the fact that Trump, himself, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and other senior members of the administration, all vote by mail. Nonetheless, Republicans are pushing the idea that mail-in voting is an attempt of Democrats to commit fraud. Texas is in the midst of a nasty legal fight over whether voters can mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus. Opponents are happy for older people — who skew Republican — to vote by mail, but say that fear of Covid-19 is not a physical condition that would justify a mail-in ballot; it is simply an “emotional” fear and thus no excuse for wanting to avoid public polling places. The question is now before the Texas courts.
So Trump is worried about his reelection prospects and eager to attack mail-in voting that pretty clearly does not give Democrats any particular leg up, raising the possibility that he is setting himself up to accuse Michigan and Nevada of rigging the system if he loses in November. He has accused Democrats of cheating since 2016, and his language on that front has ramped up dramatically lately as his polls have fallen.
And yet, Michigan’s secretary of state called him out. Insisting on the reality that belies his narrative, she repeats: “My name is Jocelyn Benson.”
From Moby Dick’s famous beginning “Call me Ismael” to the fear in the Harry Potter books of calling the evil Voldemort by name, invoking someone’s name makes them a power to be reckoned with. In this case, a woman doing her job, insisting on reality that interrupts Trump’s narrative, repeatedly demands that he use her name.
It’s a powerful moment. At a time when senators and government officials appear to have ceded their power to Trump, it is ordinary Americans like Jocelyn Benson, ordinary women like Jocelyn Benson, who are standing up to him. “Hi!” she wrote. “I also have a name.”
Indeed she does. That’s exactly what the president is afraid of.