By now, the macro story of Donald Trump’s effort to upend the 2020 election is well known: the mendacious presidential bluster, the comic-opera lawsuits, the tragedy of the January 6 Capitol riot. The strength of The Steal, Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague’s meticulous micro-narrative published on the one-year anniversary of the attacks, is that it zooms in through the forest and down to the grassroots, where a deluded assortment of self-styled patriots sought to subvert democracy in the name of saving it, and a brave band of state and local officials—most of them Trump-supporting Republicans, in fact—actually did save it. Just barely.
The familiar players are all here: Rudy Giuliani, melting down in real time; Brad Raffensperger, the laconic Georgia secretary of state who resisted Trump’s ratcheting pressure to find nonexistent G.O.P. votes; even Jacob Chansley, the bare-chested, horn-headed “QAnon Shaman,” who strode tattooed through the Senate chamber on January 6, makes a cameo appearance, protesting the vote count in Arizona.
A brave band of state and local officials—most of them Trump-supporting Republicans, in fact—actually saved democracy. Just barely.
But the real villains and heroes of this fast-paced procedural are lesser-known figures, such as Leah Hoopes and Greg Stenstrom, fraud-minded poll watchers in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, who convinced themselves that Joe Biden’s win there surely spelled cheating, or Clint Hickman, the pro-Trump chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, in Arizona, and Rohn Bishop, the G.O.P. chairman in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, who steadfastly upheld Biden’s victories in their states despite personal disappointment and ideological differences.
The book starts by chronicling Trump’s long-running campaign to seed clouds of distrust in America’s electoral process—all the way back to his 2016 campaign, when he assumed he might well lose to Hillary Clinton—and turns a bracing lash on the handful of outlier Democrats (like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) who have raised dangerous unproven doubts about past election outcomes they disliked. It paints a disturbing picture of ordinary citizens’ willingness to believe any online rumor that fits their prejudices, in a digital universe where “all information is weightless.”
Perhaps most tellingly, Bowden and Teague make the powerful, inter-related points that a) widespread election fraud is not only nonexistent but would be nigh impossible to engineer in this country’s patchwork, localized system of voting, and b) widespread citizen ignorance of how this messy, byzantine process works in the best of times fuels conspiracy theories when the vote is close and contested. But the January 6 mêlée shows how little this indisputable reality mattered to millions of our fellow citizens, because Trump’s singular superpower is that his brand of politics does “not respond to argument or reason,” the authors write, when fate (or the plain truth) cuts against him.
With a chronological scheme that shifts swiftly from battleground state to battleground state, and colorful character to colorful character, the book persuasively details how unforeseen events (a leaky urinal in Atlanta’s main vote-counting center; a clerk’s innocent counting mistake in Antrim County, Michigan; the recommended use of Sharpie pens to mark ballots in Maricopa County) spawned wild and unfounded conspiracy theories that no amount of fact-checking could ever catch up with.
Trump’s singular superpower is that his brand of politics does “not respond to argument or reason,” the authors write, when fate (or the plain truth) cuts against him.
Bowden and Teague chronicle the progress of the Trump team’s “blunderbuss” legal strategy, which “embraced every accusation or complaint, conflating the ridiculous with the true but minor, the partly true with the wholly concocted, the possibly significant with the wildly paranoid.” One of the book’s most valuable features is a detailed, case-by-case appendix that lists the 41 fruitless (mostly frivolous) lawsuits aimed at overturning the legitimate outcome of the vote in the swing states.
A point that will doubtless be lost on Trump’s dead-enders is that the president himself was probably the principal architect of his own defeat in the razor-close contest in Georgia, by so undermining public faith in mail-in ballots and the whole electoral process that some 28,000 voters there filled out every line of their ballot but skipped the presidential race altogether, presumably so turned off that they simply failed to vote.
As the book’s title not so subtly notes, it was Donald Trump—not some liberal cabal—who attempted to “steal” his way to re-election, and in at least this perverse and unintentional way, he succeeded in losing.
Perhaps the book’s most troubling message—largely unstated but detailed in daily news headlines from G.O.P.-controlled state legislatures around the country—is the degree to which the professional election administrators who saved the day for democracy are on track to be replaced by partisan hacks in 2024. In that unnerving sense, the riveting story told in this thoughtful book is still profoundly unfinished.
Todd S. Purdum is the author of several books, most recently Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution