The story of the Trump voting machine that never was

With full-blown fascism momentarily averted, we can present this instructive failure from 2016

... and if we don't win the two Georgia Senate seats, 2024 could be even bloodier.

Our story, like so many, begins in late 2016. An all-American con-man, as American as Hitler was German (or, ok, Austrian), is running for president and has substantial backing from whites of various incomes who feel their quality of life going down, their place in society eroding, and who've long blamed people of color for cutting ahead in line.

Fifty-five years ago, William F. Buckley—longtime standard-bearer of "respectable" American conservatism—foreshadowed these and other attitudes, but in very polite language. He intoned that Black Americans, despite slavery and a century of being systematically excluded from power, should be grateful for their position. He even foreshadowed the "boogaloo" (race war) movement by chillingly warning that Black overreaching would meet with a very forceful response. ("If it does finally come to a confrontation between... giving up what we understand to be the best features of the American Way of life... then we will fight the issue… not only in the Cambridge Union but we will fight it as you were once recently called to do on beaches and on hills and on mountains and on landing grounds.")

Over the next few decades, the overt expression of sentiments like Buckley's was demoted to the mouths of fools like Richard Spencer. But in 2016, Trump tapped into these partially-submerged (but still living) attitudes with a non-white scapegoat for all of his followers' problems: immigrants. 

Never mind that undocumented immigrants contribute more than the average citizen to the treasury, and commit fewer crimes; their story value as nemesis for a neofascist campaign was just right, as "political technologist" Steve Bannon recognized.

Also, crucially, the Democrats had no real counter-story on offer, no populist solutions to actual problems that could compete with Trump's hateful one. We later attempted to lay out some such solutions while posing as the Democratic National Committee, but the performance and messaging were so reasonable that nobody noticed they weren't real.

As the 2016 election approached, like most Germans in 1933 we were sure the new fascist clown would lose big. Our main concern was that after the election, the US would still have a mobilized fascist underbelly, newly aware of its power and ready to seize it at some point in the future—unless Democrats woke up and stopped betting on the centrist neoliberal bullshit that had left so many Americans, of every color, in the dust since post-Watergate times.

We came up with a plan to shock liberals into appropriate worry: the morning after the election we'd convincingly announce, in the name of the defeated Trump, a plan to ensure that the 2020 election went better than this one, thanks to a brand-new voting machine developed with the help of sinister Russians.

Like MSNBC, we focused a little too much on the Russian threat rather than the deeper, more obvious threat of the Democrats' refusal to think big. But our bigger intention was to dramatize how a ruthless populist racism, combined with an increasingly elitist capitalism with its decades of deregulation (even of voting machines!), could extinguish democracy—unless grassroots progressives forced Democrats to be useful again. 

We enlisted an actor (Tony Torn) to announce Trump's "thousand-year voting machine" with a fancy product video and working model. A generous grant allowed us to rent the ballroom at the top of the Trump Soho hotel for a press conference—which we'd announce to business leaders just after Clinton's official victory. 


Needless to say, we never sent out our press release. But we'd already invited dozens of friends to pad out the press conference, and we'd spent a small fortune renting the ballroom. Partly because of that, and partly to send a message that giving up wasn't an option, we spent the hours after midnight recutting the video ad, redoing the website, and writing a demented new script that would still be about Trump's "thousand-year voting machine," but would no longer be a mere warning that the new American fascists might one day seize power; instead, it would be about how they already had.


At 11 a.m. on Nov. 4, after a bit less than two hours of sleep, we put on our show. Tony Torn, our spokesperson for "Trump Election Reporting Devices," pulled the veil off Trump's magical new voting machine, played the video ad, and then announced to the crowd that since electricity couldn't be counted on in all circumstances, this machine would be fueled by human blood. Two assistants (Andy and Mike) then brought in a large tub of red liquid. As Jeff called hotel security on ourselves, Tony demonstrated the voting machine's operation by getting into the tub and losing his mind

Security arrived to find a floor-full of apparent blood and a demented Tony gurgling away in the middle of it. They realized it must be some kind of protest, and turned off the elevator to prevent the escape of the perpetrators, locking the entire audience in the hallway for several minutes. Unable to get the police to agree to arrest anyone, hotel security let everyone go, but illegally detained Mike and Andy for a couple of hours.

We spent the next couple of weeks trying to turn our sleep-deprived nonsense into some sort of video message. We failed, but four years later, after Trump's 2020 defeat, we're finally able—psychologically that is—to release our bizarre attempt.

Its message is still unclear, but for us at least, the memories the story brings back reinforce our current feelings of urgency: that Democrats must win the Senate, so that a progressive mass movement can pressure Biden to enact the sorts of solutions we announced back in 2017—solutions that all of us, even Trump voters, want and need.

If we fail, fascism will once again be on the ballot in 2024. And that will most likely be an even bloodier mess than the last time.