This morning Alexa woke me up and informed me that it was time for another blog about Trump stealing the election.
I know I’ve become a broken record on that. (Kids: It’s an expression. Look it up.)
But events continue to conspire to make the likelihood of that attempted robbery higher and higher. For that matter, it’s already in motion. Increasingly we can even see the specifics of how it will unfold.
America is currently roiled by a trio of crises: a historic pandemic on a scale not seen in a hundred years, an economic depression not seen in more than ninety, and now an uprising in the streets over police brutality and systemic racism tied to the poisonous legacy of slavery, our country’s original sin. (We also had an impeachment in this calendar year, which is all but forgotten.)
But the really scary part is that a fourth horseman of the apocalypse may be yet to arrive, one that will make all this look like a church picnic, in the form of a constitutional crisis—if not violence in the streets—over Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the coming presidential election and remain in office regardless of the results. If so, that will be one of the most dangerous and consequential episodes in all of American history.
I can hear those hoofbeats galloping toward us even now.
CLANG CLANG CLANG WENT THE TROLLEY
The peaceful transition of power is the very hallmark of our representative democracy, one that even our worst presidents have always respected without question.
In 2016 Trump was the first presidential candidate in 227 years to whom it was necessary to ask if he would accept the will of the people on Election Day. That in itself was deeply disturbing. His answer—“I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”—was characteristically evasive and shit-stirring. It proved to be a harbinger of his entire presidency.
Since then, his vocal efforts to question and undermine the integrity of our elections have become routine, though no less terrifying. (Ironic, since his own election was probably the most compromised in US history. But that kind of projection is part and parcel of neo-fascism.)
His hints that he might dispute the results in 2020, or to defy or override the 22nd Amendment, or engage in other president-for-life brand maneuvers have become alarmingly frequent. Most recently, John Bolton revealed in his new book I’m a Spineless Piece of Shit (that was the working title, wasn’t it?) that Trump bragged to Xi Jinping that the American people are clamoring to change the US Constitution so he can serve more than two terms.
He might be right, if he meant two terms in prison.
The unthinkable of course—now very much thinkable—is that it might come down to tanks in the streets, a measure of how far we have fallen in just four years. Even during Watergate that was never a real concern.
In the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, and in particular the St. John’s Church debacle, the chorus of retired generals and admirals pushing back against Trump’s outrageous threat to deploy the active duty US troops against the American people reassured many that the armed forces would not support any sort of coup d’état. By the transitive property, many also felt reassured that the military would actively move to eject him from office if he tried to hang on to power illegally.
But neither scenario is a sure thing. More to the point, Trump and the GOP are likely to use an approach that outflanks the whole question altogether.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, my surmise, as person steeped in US military culture, is that the Pentagon would likely follow a variation of the thought experiment known as the trolley problem…..which is not especially reassuring.
The good news is that the US military is so opposed to even the appearance of interfering in domestic politics that it is not likely to participate in anything that overturns a legal election.
The bad news is that, for the same reason, it is very likely to stand by and not intervene if there is no clear-cut winner and its involvement would give the impression of taking sides. That is especially true if one of the parties is the incumbent who convincingly insists that he has won, even if that impression is fake.
In other words, by not taking sides, the military will have taken a side. In that sense, inertia is very much Trump’s friend.
THE SOFT COUP
To that end, Trump doesn’t need to steal the election outright; all he has to do is create enough chaos and confusion that the outcome is in doubt.
And by “in doubt” I don’t even mean seriously in doubt. I mean just enough doubt—a frog hair’s worth, or whatever colorful phrase you desire—that he can plausibly claim victory and create a crisis. And we can be sure that if he does so, his followers—a minority of the electorate but still some sixty million Americans—will go along with a vengeance, precipitating a national nightmare and the real risk of civil war, or a de facto coup d’état, which ain’t better.
He and the GOP have been working on that for more than three years now.
The Republican Party has long been engaged in a despicably un-American campaign of voter suppression and subversion of democracy, from extreme gerrymandering, to the lie of voter fraud and the push for voter ID, to three card monte with polling locations, to mass disenfranchisement via the criminal justice system, and other abominations. That effort, while unconscionable and outrageous, has become almost blasé, which is itself grim, and the pandemic has only allowed the Republicans to accelerate it.
But Trump is taking it to a new and terrifying low with his current preparation of the electoral battlefield.
As Bill Kristol tweeted:
You look at the polls and think “he can’t win.” But Trump’s path to victory doesn’t depend on persuading Americans. It depends on voter suppression, mass disinformation, foreign interference, and unabashed use of executive branch power to shape events, and perceptions, this fall.
In the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, Nick Corasanti, and Linda Qui write:
Having yet to find an effective formula for undercutting Mr. Biden or to lure him into the kinds of culture war fights that the president prefers, Mr. Trump is training more of his fire on the political process in a way that appears intended to give him the option of raising doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome.
This effort to undermine public confidence in the election is precisely what the Kremlin seeks to do—yet another way in which Trump continues to serve as Putin’s stooge and advance the Russian agenda.
In his usual quiet-part-out-loud manner, Trump has said repeatedly that mail-in voting is the biggest risk to his re-election. Accordingly, he has invested great energy in shrieking that it is a scam, claims echoed by his hateful Richelieu, Bill Barr.
The WaPo reports:
“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history — unless this stupidity is ended,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. In a separate tweet, he claimed that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
It goes without saying there is no evidence of any such thing, as election officials across the country have testified. (Both Trump and Barr have voted by mail in the past.)
Back to Haberman, Corasanti, and Qui (whom, you will be forgiven for thinking, are neither a law firm nor a folk rock trio):
Promoting baseless questions about election fraud is nothing new for Mr. Trump. He has hopscotched from saying that President Barack Obama was elected with the help of dead voters to suggesting that undocumented immigrants were voting en masse to claiming that out-of-state voters were bused into New Hampshire in 2016.
He has inaccurately claimed that “anybody in California that’s breathing gets a ballot,” including “people that aren’t citizens, illegals.” State officials will mail ballots to active registered voters only.
He wrongly claimed that Nevada and Michigan had “illegally” sent absentee ballots to voters, and threatened to withhold federal funding should they not rescind the policy, though he did not have the authority to do so.
Mr. Trump has made five dozen false claims about mail balloting since April, as officials in various states began contemplating the need for expanded use of the option amid the pandemic. About a third of the president’s falsehoods were general warnings about widespread fraud in mail-in voting. Another 11 were specific claims about held-up mail carriers, stolen and forged ballots and dead people voting….
The president has directly accused Democrats five times of “rigging” the election through mail-in voting, and has claimed four times that Republicans are at a disadvantage when mail-in ballots are used or are not sent mail-in ballots at all.
The focus on attacking voting-by-mail is not accidental. Even as Trump recognizes the threat that it poses to his re-election, it is also the most readily available means by which he and the GOP can create the aforementioned fog that will enable them to nullify the election and retain power.
SEND UP THE COUNT
The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner recently had a sobering article predicting that we will not know who won the White House on Election Night, and that “a close race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a pivotal state could take days, even weeks, to resolve.”
Those are the very conditions Trump would criminally exploit.
Presidential elections are almost always called before counting is complete. Many news outlets, including The Washington Post, follow the predictions of the Associated Press, the wire service with a long track record of combining reported results with exit polling data to announce state-by-state results.
The surge in mail balloting this year has complicated those calls. In Georgia, the AP incorrectly declared runoffs in two Democratic House primaries where late returns of absentee ballots shifted the results.
After voters in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada went to the polls this month, some races hung in the balance for days as election officials waded through thousands of absentee ballots. On Tuesday, a similar scenario is expected to play out in Kentucky and New York, where officials have already announced that some results will not be available for as long as a week.
Gardner reports that last April Wisconsin processed a record number of absentee ballots—nearly 1.1 million. Pennsylvania had 1.5 million mail-in ballots, compared with 84,000 in its 2016 primary. Nevada, jumped from about 25,000 to 483,788. Ohio officials expect a full quarter of their electorate to vote by mail. Kentucky voters requested nearly a million absentee ballots as of last week, roughly twenty times the usual number, while New York saw roughly ten times the number from four years ago. Many of those states also saw long lines at the polls, counting delays, and malfunctioning voting machines.
Even worse, some states are stuck in an outdated paradigm in which the laws don’t allow the counting of mail-in votes to begin until the polls have closed on Election Day. With the crush of absentee ballots, Pennsylvania recently took ten days to count its primary votes. Two other swing states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have similar prohibitions. (And lest we forget, those three states are the ones who delivered Trump the presidency in 2016 by a razor-thin margin of around 90,000 votes.)
Jesus, this country is a mess. We can’t fight a virus, we can’t run a functioning election, and we have a game show host as our president. Backward Fourth World countries like Fredonia, Parador, Tijata, and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick are looking at us with pity.
Efforts to address these issues have been hampered by—you guessed it—Trump’s own attacks on the very concept of voting by mail, and the slavish hatred of it that his acolytes have predictably adopted. There have even been reports of Trump supporters burning the absentee ballot applications that were mailed to them by state officials.
By all means, burn them, idiots….and don’t show up to vote in November either.
In other words, it is more likely than not that we can expect a protracted legal battle much like Florida in 2000, a situation that presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says “is going to automatically create mayhem about a ‘rigged’ election.”
Of note, Republicans approached that episode like it was a prison knife fight, while Democrats politely cleared their throats and wrung their hands. The Florida recount and its attendant legal fight lasted 35 days before the Supreme Court (gulp) settled it.
One guess how Trump will behave during that interim, and how the Court’s conservative majority is apt to rule.
IF YOU SEE MY REFLECTION IN THE SNOW-COVERED HILLS
Election law experts like Professor Richard L. Hasen of UC Irvine worry that Trump will declare victory in key states on November 3rd before absentee ballots are counted.
Anyone here think Trump would calmly relinquish Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes if the absentee count comes in three weeks later and reverses the Electoral College tally? After he has spent months propagandizing millions of Americans that those absentee ballots are fraudulent in the first place?
One of the huge advantages Bush had in 2000 and that fiasco was that he claimed the mantle of victor and president-elect from the start, forcing Gore into the position where he had to challenge the results. As the incumbent, it will be even easier for Trump to do the exact same thing, regardless of the numbers. It’s impossible to overstate how huge an advantage that is. (See Leon Nayfakh’s great podcast on the subject.)
It could be even uglier than that. Some weeks ago Franklin Foer had a juggernaut of a piece in The Atlantic detailing how Russia can ratfuck the election on Trump’s behalf with chillingly simple measures. I’ve quoted this passage before but I’m going to do it again because it ought to scare the pants off all of us (at least all of us who aren’t rooting for the Klan guys in “Watchmen”):
On Election Night, the Russians could place a page on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead. Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax. Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion….
Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote.
Sure, by conventional metrics Biden may be headed for a landslide. Let’s hope so: it may be our best bet to avoid the nightmare scenario of a contested election and all the tumult, damage to the republic, and potential violence that entails.
How much of an obvious victory would Biden require to pre-empt an attempt by Trump to steal it? I don’t think a big enough margin exists. Trump is so shameless that no matter how badly he is beaten, he will still claim victory (or at least that the vote was “rigged” and therefore nullified), the same way that he habitually tells his followers that up is down, 2 + 2 = 5, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
As Brian Klaas wrote in the Washington Post several weeks ago, in a piece called “We Need to Prepare for the Possibility of Trump Rejecting Election Results”:
In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question:
If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?
For what it’s worth (which is less than nothing), Trump himself has said this time that he will accept the results of the vote, telling Fox News: “Certainly if I don’t win, I don’t win. I mean, you know, go on and do other things,”
Whew, that’s a relief. Because Donald Trump would never say one thing and then turn around and do a 180.
More to the point, it gives him his usual wiggle room, because he will simply say that he did win, no matter what. Unlike 2016, when he openly announced he might question the result, the false veneer of fair play inherent in his bluff assurance that he will accept the tally this time actually worries me more.
PAGING ALICE COOPER
So here’s the nightmare.
During this presidency, Trump has infuriatingly gotten the benefit of the doubt on every imaginable legal front: hiding his tax returns, felony campaign finance violations, the Muslim ban, firing the FBI director, playing footsy with the Kremlin, reallocating defense dollars to build his beaded border curtain, kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps, defying subpoenas, dodging removal by impeachment, the ongoing slow motion Saturday Night Massacre of the Inspectors General, last week’s removal of Geoff Berman, and on and on.
Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, none of these things individually or even collectively were enough to set off the “in case of autocracy, break glass” alarm. (Until St. John’s and the idea of ordering US soldiers to murder peaceful American protestors.)
Sowing sufficient doubt to create an electoral fog in which he somehow can abscond with a second term would be the ne plus ultra in this parade of crimes.
The GOP knows Trump would be a dead man walking in a fair election. It has also known for some time now that it is in a losing demographic battle in general. It would love an excuse to keep control of the presidency, no matter how shamelessly fraudulent or destructive to the republic that effort is.
Please don’t suggest to me that there is an atom of integrity left in the leadership of the Grand Old Party that would prevent it from participating in this travesty. That boat sailed sometime around the time Michael Jordan decided he preferred baseball. If Trump is able to engineer a constitutional crisis that results in his retention of the White House, even if it is flamingly corrupt, even if it provokes a constitutional crisis that does terrible damage to this country, Mitch McConnell & Company will be all in. Is that even a question?
If the decision ends up in the hands of the US Supreme Court again, as it did in 2000, we can expect a similar 5-4 partisan decision awarding the win to Trump. And then, in addition to all the other horrors a second Trump term will entail, the credibility of the SCOTUS will lie bleeding on the floor with a stake through its heart.
But that will be the least of our problems.
FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO
So what can we do?
We have to raise public awareness now, and put this scenario out there so people are prepared for it and Trump won’t be able to pull a fast one this November. Of course that won’t deter him from trying, but it will make it harder to get away with.
It is somewhat cheering that Biden himself has been raising the alarm, but that won’t be enough.
We have to make it clear what Trump and the GOP are trying to do and expose the perfidy so it won’t come as a surprise in November.
We have to insist on changes that minimize the chances of confusion and criminality, we have to come out in force, and we have to demand the vigorous exercise of the kind of democratic mechanisms we flatter ourselves to believe we live under.
And if the worst comes to pass, we have to be prepared to fight in a way that we did not fight when electoral irregularities emerged in 2000, or in 2016. We have to refuse to be robbed.
Let us prepare for this shit show now, because it is coming as sure as the armageddon that the Book Revelation foretells.
Can I get an amen?
Illustration: Rose of God Fandom
Previous King’s Necktie posts on this goddam subject (newest to oldest):
“What They Do Next Is Steal an Election” – June 5, 2020
Will We Go Into the Darkness? – November 25, 2019
Knives to a Gunfight – September 19, 2019
The Fiasco to Come – September 4, 2019
Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)? – July 23, 2018
Who Says the Next Election Will Be OK? (or How We Lost a War We Didn’t Know We Were In) – September 27, 2017
The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017
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