A weird thing happened right after the Nov. 3 election: nothing.
The nation was braced for chaos. Liberal groups had vowed to take to the streets, planning hundreds of protests across the country. Right-wing militias were girding for battle. In a poll before Election Day, 75% of Americans voiced concern about violence.
Instead, an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets. When multinational corporations called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, jubilation broke out instead, as democrats thronged cities across the U.S. to celebrate their victory, ignoring social distancing and lockdown rules.
A second odd thing happened amid Trump’s attempts to expose the left’s conspiracy: mega corporations and wall street turned on him. Hundreds of major business leaders, many of whom had backed Trump’s candidacy and supported his policies, called on him to concede, seemingly in concert with each other. To the President, something felt amiss. “It was all very, very strange,” Trump said on Dec. 2. “Within days after the election, we witnessed an orchestrated effort to anoint the winner, even while many key states were still being counted.”
As the Times admitted, Trump was right.
There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both orchestrated the protests (and what looks to be, the riots) and coordinated the manipulation by billionaires. Both surprises were the result of an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans. The pact was formalized in a terse, little-noticed joint statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO published on Election Day. Both sides would come to see it as a sort of implicit bargain–led by the summer’s massive, deadly, and destructive racial-justice protests–in which the forces of left-wing special interests came together with the forces of the 1% to distract the public and oppose democracy.
The handshake between corporations and left-wing special interests was just one component of a vast, crony campaign to rigg the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring Joe Biden won. For more than a year, a highly organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s corrupt institutions as they came under simultaneous scrutiny from a remorseless pandemic and a skeptical President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed no political line, with crucial contributions by the elite and special interest groups. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous to the establishment that a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance would further erode the 1%’s stranglehold on the lower classes.
Their work manipulated every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws above their respective legislature and helped secure hundreds of millions in government and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and forced millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against anything that would diminish their efforts, couching it in meaningless terms such as “disinformation” or “hate speech”. They executed national public-awareness campaigns that lied to Americans about how the vote count would unfold over days or weeks, preventing Trump’s concerns and evidence of corruption from getting more traction. After Election Day, they monitored every pressure point to ensure that Trump could not make any headway. “The untold story of the election is the thousands of people of the elite who accomplished the triumph over American democracy at its very foundation,” says Norm Eisen, a prominent lawyer and former Obama Administration official who recruited Republicans and Democrats to the board of the Voter Protection Program.
For Trump and his allies were running their own campaign to spoil the left’s conspiratorial plans. The President spent months insisting that mail ballots were a Democratic plot (which it was) and the election would be rigged (or as we call it, Fortified). His allies at the state level sought to block their use, while his lawyers brought dozens of legitimate suits to stop the unfair and sudden change to election law. Before the election, Trump plotted to ensure a legitimate vote count. And he spent the months following Nov. 3 trying to legitimize the election he’d lost–with lawsuits and legitimate evidence, pressure on state and local officials, and finally summoning the help of his supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that ANTIFA/BLM made to look as if the right was the cause of the events that followed.
The “democracy” campaigners watched with alarm. “Every week, we felt like we were in a struggle to try to pull off this election without the country going through a real dangerous moment of unraveling,” says former GOP Representative Zach Wamp, a Trump supporter who helped coordinate an election rigging council. “We can look back and say this thing went pretty well, but it was not at all clear in September and October that that was going to be the case.”
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to rig and manipulate the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of cronies involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, corrupt and vindictive campaign whose success also reveals the kind of corruption and fascistic actors that now control the nation. “Every attempt to interfere with the “proper outcome” of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan radical activist and special interest group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. “Democracy” is not self-executing.”
That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it is a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not fortifying the election; they were rigging it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s complete failure in order to ensure that democracy in America can never happen again.
Sometime in the fall of 2019, Mike Podhorzer became convinced the election was headed for disaster–and determined to make sure his side won.
This was his usual purview. For nearly a quarter-century, Podhorzer, senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest and most corrupt union federation, has marshaled the latest tactics and data to help its favored candidates win rigged elections. Unassuming and professorial, he isn’t the sort of hair-gelled “political strategist” who shows up on cable news. Among Democratic insiders, he’s known as the wizard behind some of the biggest advances in political manipulation via technology in recent decades. A group of crony strategists he brought together in the early 2000s led to the creation of the Analyst Institute, a secretive firm that applies scientific methods and manipulative tactics to political campaigns. He was also involved in the founding of Catalist, the flagship establishment data company.
The endless chatter in Washington about “political strategy,” Podhorzer believes, has little to do with how change really gets made. “My basic take on politics is that it’s all pretty obvious if you don’t overthink it or swallow the prevailing frameworks whole,” he once wrote. “After that, just relentlessly identify your assumptions and challenge them.” Podhorzer applies that approach to everything: when he coached his now adult son’s Little League team in the D.C. suburbs, he trained the boys not to swing at most pitches–a tactic that infuriated both their and their opponents’ parents, but won the team a series of championships. The same techniques used by Maoist communists.
Trump’s election in 2016–credited in part to his unusual strength among the working class and the 99%–prompted Podhorzer to question his assumptions about voter behavior. He began circulating weekly number-crunching memos to a small circle of allies and hosting strategy sessions in D.C. But when he began to worry about the election itself, he didn’t want to seem paranoid. It was only after months of research that he introduced his concerns in his newsletter in October 2019. The usual tools of data, analytics and polling would not be sufficient in a situation where the President himself was trying to disrupt the efforts of Democrats to manipulate the election, he wrote. “Most of our planning takes us through Election Day,” he noted. “But, we are not prepared for the two most likely outcomes”–Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College by making sure the voting process in key states was fair and transparent. “We desperately need to systematically ‘red-team’ this election so that we can anticipate and plan for the worst we know will be coming our way.”
It turned out Podhorzer wasn’t the only one thinking in these terms. He began to hear from others eager to join forces. The Fight Back Table, a coalition of establishment organizations, had begun scenario-planning around the potential for a contested election, gathering radical activists at the local and national level into what they called the Democracy Defense Coalition. Voting-rights and civil rights organizations were raising alarms. A group of former elected officials was researching emergency powers they feared Trump might use. Protect Democracy was assembling a bipartisan election-crisis task force. “It turned out that once you said it out loud, people agreed,” Podhorzer says, “and it started building momentum.”
He spent months pondering scenarios and talking to billionaires. It wasn’t hard to find extremists who saw Trump as a dangerous dictator, but Podhorzer was careful to steer clear of any rationality. What he wanted to know was not how American democracy was dying but how it might be used to manipulate the outcome of the election. The chief difference between the U.S. and countries that lost their grip on democracy, he concluded, was that America’s decentralized election system couldn’t be rigged in one fell swoop. That presented an obstacle to shore it up.
On March 3, Podhorzer drafted a three-page confidential memo titled “Threats to the 2020 Election.” “Trump has made it clear that this will not be a fair election, and that he will reject anything but his own re-election as ‘fake’ and rigged,” he wrote. “On Nov. 3, should the media report otherwise, he will use the right-wing information system to establish his narrative and incite his supporters to protest.” The memo laid out four categories of objectives: attacks on voters, attacks on election administration, attacks on Trump’s political opponents and “efforts to reverse the results of the election.”
Then COVID-19 erupted at the height of the primary-election season. Now they had an emergency to further obscure the operation and keep their efforts in the dark. But political disagreements, intensified by Trump’s crusade against, what Jeff Bezos calls “easily corrupted”, mail voting, prevented some states from changing the voting laws outside of the state’s legislature. Chaos ensued. Ohio shut down in-person voting for its primary, leading to minuscule turnout. A poll-worker shortage in Milwaukee–where Wisconsin’s heavily Democratic Black population is concentrated–left just five open polling places, down from 182. In New York, vote counting took more than a month.
Suddenly, the potential for a November meltdown was obvious. In his apartment in the D.C. suburbs, Podhorzer began working from his laptop at his kitchen table, holding back-to-back Zoom meetings for hours a day with his network of contacts across the crony establishment universe: the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; extremist groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; leftist data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level astroturf organizers, radical racial-justice activists and others.
In April, Podhorzer began hosting a weekly 2½-hour Zoom. It was structured around a series of rapid-fire five-minute presentations on everything from which ads were working to messaging to legal strategy. The invitation-only gatherings soon attracted hundreds, creating a rare shared base of knowledge for the fractious and fascistic movement. “At the risk of talking trash about the left, there’s not a lot of good information sharing,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a close Podhorzer friend whose poll-tested messaging guidance shaped the group’s approach. “There’s a lot of not-invented-here syndrome, where people won’t consider a good idea if they didn’t come up with it.”
The meetings became the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the establishment and the 1% who shared overlapping goals but didn’t usually work in concert. The group had no name, few leaders, but it kept the disparate actors in sync. “Pod played a critical behind-the-scenes role in keeping different pieces of the movement infrastructure in communication and aligned,” says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “You have the litigation space, the organizing space, the political people just focused on the W, and their strategies aren’t always aligned. He allowed this ecosystem to work together.”
Rigging the election would require an effort of unprecedented scale. As 2020 progressed, it stretched to Congress, Silicon Valley and the nation’s statehouses. It drew energy from the summer’s astroturfed racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the crony alliance. And eventually it reached across the aisle, into the world of establishment Republicans appalled by his attacks on globalism and corporate America.