A tedious refrain in these pages, going all the way back to 2017, has been the notion that Trump will challenge the results of the 2020 election and precipitate a constitutional crisis by refusing to leave office.
The details are fungible. I am less concerned about a military coup (though not entirely unconcerned) than I am that he will create some flimsy but sufficiently dangerous quasi-legal pretext to throw the country into chaos in order to retain power. Not much better.
The good news is that this scenario has migrated from the “alarmism” of the far left to a steady drumbeat in the mainstream media, which has belatedly woken the fuck up and started spreading the word. And rightly so: Trump has been so obvious about all this that it would have been journalistic malpractice not to take note.
Raising the alarm about this shameful scheme may be our best defense against it, or at least a first step, but it’s far from a guarantee. Trump has all the levers of federal power at his disposal and you may have noticed that he is not shy about using and abusing them.
This week he took another Coltrane-sized giant step in that direction by publicly raising the idea that the election should be postponed because of the coronavirus. (But schools should open.)
We all knew that suggestion was coming sooner or later: it was at once outrageous, impossible, and utterly predictable.
Trump has no power to do any such thing, of course, and the odds that the people who do have the power—Congress—will agree to the idea are nil. (For the record, the US managed to hold elections during two worlds wars—as Trump himself tweeted, back when that served his purposes—and even during the Civil War.)
Even if the election were postponed, by law his term expires on January 20, 2021 regardless, so it doesn’t really help him, unless he intends to declare himself President-for-Life and doesn’t wish to be bothered with a legitimately elected rival. (Not an idea we can rule out.) In fact, under the provisions of the Constitution, this ploy could wind up with Nancy Pelosi sworn in as President of the United States.
But I guess Donald missed that day of Con Law 101 at Trump University School of Law.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE, FOLKS
Sharp eyed observers quickly dug up the news from just this past April, when Joe Biden predicted that Trump would try this. (It didn’t require Nostradamus.)
“Mark my words, I think he is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” Biden told fellow Democrats at an online fundraiser just four short months ago. For that, he was savagely ridiculed by right wing commentators who assured us that that great respecter of the rule of law Donald J. Trump would NEVER do such a thing!
In the conservative Washington Examiner, Jim Antle had the sarcasm meter turned up to eleven with a headline reading “’He’ll seize power!’ ‘He’ll postpone the election!’ The Trump schemes that never happen.”
Antle was mysteriously quiet yesterday, as was Henry Olsen of the Washington Post, who in April wrote:
[Biden’s accusation] was not only clearly over the line but also unmasks how low the supposedly moderate Biden will go to win…..This rhetoric is both unfounded and harmful to democracy. Trump has not done anything that a hopeful dictator would do, such as restrict press freedom, curtail political activity or arrest political opponents.
One would think that by now allegedly reputable journalists would know better than to defend Trump on the grounds of his self-evident integrity, unless they are part of Team Gaslight themselves.
Trump’s tweet about postponement was at once another authoritarian-style temperature taking, to see if he could get away with it (and begin getting MAGA Nation acclimated to the idea), and an attempt to distract from the horrific economic news that broke mere minutes before the Tweet Heard Round the World.
His motivation is self-evident. He’s losing the race, badly, and has a pathological fear of defeat beyond even that of a normal egomaniacal politician….not to mention the fact that the presidency is the only thing standing between him and an orange jumpsuit.
Peter Baker writes in the Times that Trump’s constant blather about “RIGGED ELECTIONS,” a “substantially fraudulent” vote, and “the most corrupt election in the history of our country” are “the kind of language resonant of conspiracy theorists, cranks and defeated candidates, not an incumbent living in the White House. Never before has a sitting president of the United States sought to undermine public faith in the election system the way Mr. Trump has.”
In other words, as Amanda Carpenter writes in The Bulwark, a flailing Trump is “gaslighting the nation” in order to delegitimize the election and lay the groundwork to claim victory regardless, on the grounds of fraud, even if he loses in a landslide.
It ought to go without saying that the damage such behavior does to the integrity of our electoral process is incalculable.
But Trump may well have overstepped. Carpenter’s Bulwark colleague Charlie Sykes notes the rare sight of even Republicans pushing back, including the co-founder of the Federalist Society. He also notes that by stigmatizing mail-in voting, Trump may even be hurting his own chances by discouraging Republicans, and the elderly especially—a key demo for him—from voting at all.
Here Trump is baldly pushing against popular opinion full stop. According the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of American adults said that any voter should be able to vote early or absentee without an excuse. Trump, his family members, and key staff themselves have routinely voted by absentee ballot in the past, and Trump has even said he will do it again this November, not that wanton hypocrisy even gets anyone’s attention anymore.
The shamelessness of this voter suppression couldn’t be plainer, nor what it says about the candidate’s actual appeal in a fair fight. As Sykes writes:
Here is the stark choice: you either want to make it easier for Americans to vote, or you want to make it harder. There is nothing ambiguous or mysterious about Trump’s choice.
GOOD TROUBLE AND BAD
Sykes further makes the point that America got to watch Trump openly trying to monkeywrench the vote even as we mourned a man who devoted his life to voting rights.
With characteristic pettiness, Trump declined to pay his respects to John Lewis while he was lying in state in the US Capitol, though he did find time to praise the late Herman Cain, who died of COVID-19 after going maskless at Trump’s Tulsa rally. Trump was pointedly not welcome among the other ex-Presidents of both parties at Lewis’s subsequent memorial service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Instead, he tried to lure reporters to the White House for a “surprise event” at precisely the moment Obama was delivering his eulogy.
Obama himself told the New York Times that the idea of “voter suppression and an effort by Mr. Trump to question the election’s legitimacy” are the things that keep him up at night.
For those tricked by Trump’s asinine ploy, here’s what Barack said at the memorial:
Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” the nation’s first Black president said at Lewis’s final memorial service. “George Wallace may be gone but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.
And if you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President.
THE VIEW FROM COLORADO
Needless to say, a US president refusing to yield power is uncharted territory. So how might this all play out?
At the beginning of July, former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, a Democrat, generated a lot of buzz with a piece in Newsweek that got deep into the weeds with one such terrifying and highly plausible scenario. Notably, it’s one for which Trump has already begun laying the groundwork.
+ Biden wins the popular vote, taking the swing states of Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania “by decent but not overwhelming margins.” Trump declares the vote rigged, blaming China, and declaring a national security emergency that allows him to invokes emergency powers.
+ Barr’s DOJ begins an investigation of voting in those states, all four of which have Republican majorities in both chambers of their state legislatures. Those legislatures refuse to allow any Electoral College slate to be certified until the investigation is complete, ticking down to the EC deadline of December 14 (the very issue the Supreme Court focused on in Bush v. Gore in 2000).
+ The Democrats take the matter to court, appointing their own slate of electors who support Biden.
+ The case lands in the Supreme Court, which rules that the president’s national security powers “authorize him to investigate potential foreign country intrusion into the national election; and if no Electoral College slate can be certified by any state by December 14, the Electoral College must meet anyway and cast its votes.”
+ The Electoral College meets, and without the electors from those four states, neither candidate has the required majority.
+ The election is thrown into the House of Representatives for a state-by-state vote, one per, determined by the majority of the representatives in that state. There are 26 states with Republican majorities in the House delegation, and 23 states with Democratic majorities. (Pennsylvania has an even split.)
+ On a party line vote, Trump wins the election.
I know how you feel: I didn’t sleep for a week either after I read that.
PICK YOUR POISON
As scary—and as plausible—as Wirth’s scenario is, there are plenty of others that are equally worrying. In Newsweek, Seth Abramson postulated a variation in which Trump succeeds in creating similar chaos—and a mis-election—merely by convincing millions of Americans not to vote at all: a de facto “postponement,” or delegitimization of the vote, by presidential fiat.
The Boston Globe reports that a bipartisan group recently ran a tabletop command post exercise to war game various possibilities. “All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organized the group known as the Transition Integrity Project. She described what they found in bleak terms: “The law is essentially … it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”
Among those who participated in that exercise was David Frum, who reported at length on its chilling lessons:
The courts offered only slow, weak, and unreliable remedies. Street protests were difficult to mobilize and often proved counterproductive. Republican elected officials cowered even in the face of the most outrageous Trump acts. Democratic elected officials lacked the tools and clout to make much difference. Many of the games turned on who made the first bold move. Time after time, that first mover was Trump….
In one of our scenarios, the attorney general sent federal marshals backed by the National Guard to seize vote-by-mail ballots, triggering a constitutional catastrophe that delayed the outcome of the count for weeks.
The most persistent and powerful advantage, however, was the overconfidence of the legally minded Biden team that the Trump team would respect some norms and limits on its behavior. That expectation was again and again refuted by experience.
I know that this was just a drill, but even so, how is it possible that the Democratic Party did not learn the lessons of 2000?
The exercise also showed that even if Trump were to be successfully ousted, he would likely set the house on fire on his way out:
(E)ven in the scenarios in which Biden’s team eventually won—that is, secured possession of the White House at noon on Inauguration Day, 2021—Team Trump by then had thoroughly poisoned the political system.
It diverted public resources to Trump personally. It preemptively pardoned Trump associates and family members, and tried to pardon Trump himself from criminal charges including money laundering and tax evasion. It intentionally tried to cause long-term economic damage so as to prevent early economic recovery—and boost Republican chances in the 2022 elections. It destroyed, hid, or privatized public records. It tried to sabotage the census to favor Republican redistricting after 2020. It refused to cooperate with the incoming administration during the transition period, in ways that aggravated both the pandemic response and economic recovery.
And it sowed pervasive mistrust in the integrity of US elections in ways that would polarize and embitter U.S. politics long after 2020….
In the exercises, when the vote went against Trump, his team tried to convince his supporters that they had been robbed—and that they were therefore entitled to take extreme, even violent, actions. In our exercises, however, the game-winning strategy was to goad the other side into violence. This was particularly true for Team Trump, whose supporters already fear violence from anarchists and antifa.
The exercise’s conclusions are already being borne out. Newsweek recently reported that a majority of Trump supporters are already saying they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Biden administration if mail-in ballots contribute significantly to his victory, which they are almost certain to do.
PUTTING IN THE FIX
Clearly, there are many, many ways in which a contested election represents a set of circumstances tailor-made to Trump’s penchant for malice and Tasmanian Devil-like destructiveness. But the scenario that is beginning to bother me the most is the simplest of all, and leapfrogs over all that.
What if Trump doesn’t have to create this kind of chaos, because he can convincingly claim an outright win?
With the public increasingly hip to his electoral bullshit, Donald will soon realize, if he hasn’t already, that his only path forward is to put up numbers in November that MAKE IT LOOK LIKE HE DID WIN. That is to say: a close call, or even an outright victory, faked or not.
The polls suggest this is not likely. But if Trump and his allies could fix the vote, it would offer him the cleanest path to re-election—and we know that they are not above trying. He is already trying to destroy the US Postal Service to sabotage mail-in voting, along with all the other voter suppression measures that the GOP has been aggressively pursuing for years. From there it is not a big step to hacking the actual numbers….particularly if he has outside help. Which he does.
In an influential piece for the Atlantic some months ago (called “Putin Is Well on His Way to Stealing the Next Election,”) Franklin Foer wrote, “Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.”
Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, the Russians are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork.
(I wrote about this back in June, in a piece called “What They Do Next Is Steal an Election.” )
On the Kremlin’s menu: meddling with voter registration databases; making voter IDs mismatch with the rolls; creating long lines to discourage the impatient; purging voters altogether, and applying even more sophisticated disinformation techniques and “new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics.”
But if they can do all that, why stop there? Why not just actually change the numbers?
This is the thing that even the most adamant Trump foes have been reluctant to address, going back to 2016. But it is a very real threat, one that we ignore at our peril, and might leave us on November 3rd outflanked in our readiness to battle a disputed election and instead faced with an illegitimate—but hard to contest—Trump victory.
The bitterest scenario would be a repeat of 2016, where we ridiculed Trump’s repeated claim that the election would be rigged, and then had to sheepishly make that claim ourselves after he won. (“Won.”) And if such a surprise win defies the polls, even dramatically, Trump will just crow that the polls were wrong again, as they were in 2016.
So maybe we start to move on from the now-obvious cry “Trump will dispute the election!” to outflanking him with concrete measures that defend against him rigging it himself. (In his Newsweek piece, Abramson offers a detailed eight-point plan for doing so.) That effort will require an all-hands-on-deck mobilization of Congress, the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, the press, and the American people—that is to say, ordinary folks like you and me.
Make no mistake: Trump is absolutely going to refuse to accept a Biden victory in November, and will use every means within his disposal—which are vast—legal and illegal, to dispute it and throw the country into chaos and even civil war if that’s what it takes to hold on to power. The process began long ago. Let’s continue to call it out, delegitimize that, and make it impossible for him to succeed.
Getting out the vote to create a landslide for Biden is the crucial element. But so are efforts to make sure Trump doesn’t find a way to fix the numbers on November 3rd so that he never even has to dispute the results.
He can just say he won.
An Italian police officer holds Trump masks used by two bank robbers in Turin, on July 24.
Photo: Alessandro Di Marco / EPA