Over the past week, we have wrestled with a problem well described by the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan:
How do you cover something that, at worst, lays the groundwork for a coup attempt and, at best, represents a brazen lie that could be deeply damaging to American democracy?
“You don’t want to fearmonger. You don’t want to underplay something this dangerous, either,” Noah Shachtman, editor of the Daily Beast, told me.
The trickiest part: “Figuring out whether these bogus accusations are actually dangerous to the republic or just the last, lame gasps of a doomed administration.”
Sullivan doesn’t answer the question, though she does deftly assess the state of play:
I’d argue that they’re both. Not because they pose more than a sliver of a chance of overturning the reality that Joe Biden will take office in January. Rather, because the constant drumbeat that the election was somehow illegitimate does harm all by itself.
Lately we have seen reports that Trump knows he lost the presidential race (I guess he is “like, really smart” after all, as he has often bragged), but is “challenging the 2020 election results primarily just as ‘theater,’ as he puts on a “performance” for his supporters.” Alternatively—or perhaps in conjunction—we are also told that this is a face-saving attempt to craft a narrative that will give his fragile ego the necessary psychological cover to leave office without conceding. (Both of these theories according to The Week.) Kori Scahke, in The Atlantic, suggests that Trump’s worrying moves at the Pentagon and in the US IC—which look very much like the marshaling of loyalists ahead of a coup—are really just on-brand Trumpian spite. Certification of the vote seems on track, Arizona was just called for Biden, some key Republicans are taking his side (sort of), Trump’s lawsuits continue to go nowhere, the Supreme Court seems content to run let the clock run out.
So maybe we’ll be OK……but maybe not. David Sirota, in a piece for the Guardian called “Republicans Aren’t Conceding—and Democrats Are Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight,” definitely doesn’t think so.
The title of Sirota’s piece inspired me to revisit a post of my own from 13 months ago that presents a near-worst case scenario. I’m re-printing a condensed version here, not to dunk on anyone, or to fan the flames of alarmism, but because much of it is playing out to a tee, and remains instructive as we try to keep its obsidian endstate from coming true.
The piece took off from “Sharpiegate”—remember that?—when Trump used a magic marker to change a NOAA weather map to prove his claim that a hurricane was menacing Alabama when scientists knew it wasn’t. In the piece, I stated plainly “what surely must be the most obvious thing in the world to anyone paying even casual attention”: that Donald Trump and the Republican Party did not intend to surrender power in 2020 regardless of the outcome.
From September 2019:
Last week…..(we) saw the President of the United States take a black Sharpie and crudely, almost comically, alter an (outdated) National Weather Service map to include Alabama in the danger zone. The fact that he did that boggles the mind. The fact that he thought he could show that map to reporters on national television and no one would notice what he’d done is even more astonishing. That he would later respond to a reporter’s question about who wielded that Sharpie by putting on the most unconvincing pokerface ever and bleating “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” was the stuff of an SNL sketch. (For a guy who lies as readily as he breathes, he sure is bad at it.)
Though the episode itself was kind of trivial (unless you live in Alabama and were needlessly afraid for your life), Trump’s insane reaction to it was anything but. The Swiftian spectacle of our Dear Leader at war with the weather and demanding that federal officials bend objective reality to project his eggshell-like ego ought to have sent a chill down the spine of every sentient American.
I also submit to you that we ought to recognize it as a terrifying harbinger of what awaits.
Sharpiegate is the ultimate example of Trump’s malignant and infantile stubbornness, his refusal to admit error or defeat, and willingness to go to absurd and terrifying normbreaking lengths (and possibly lawbreaking ones) to achieve his ends.
If he went that far over a weather forecast, how far do you think he will go to remain President of the United States, and by extension, avoid the criminal prosecution that awaits him as soon as he is not?
POCKET LININGS PLAYBOOK
Here is my fear. My fear is that while we sit here discussing electability, and which states are red or blue or purple, and whether Biden’s “record player” comment will hurt him in Iowa, and generally treating this like a normal election—a high stakes one, for sure, but still within the bounds of what we have always thought of as an orthodox American presidential contest—Donald Trump and the Republican Party are not approaching it that way at all. They are approaching it like a gang of armed robbers walking into a bank.
They will suppress the vote where it doesn’t favor them. They will create obstacles to voting among demographics they think will go against them, like young people and minorities and immigrant communities. They will interfere with registration efforts, spread disinformation, close polling places and create confusion. (In 2016, Republican efforts to suppress the vote through insidious “voter ID” laws are believed to have cost the Democrats around 200,000 votes Wisconsin alone. Trump won that crucial state by a paltry 22,000.)
They have already tried to manipulate the census, likely knowing it would fail, but still succeeding both in intimidating even legal immigrants from voting and likely in skewing the drawing of congressional districts for the next decade.
They will flood the campaign with dark money, whip up hatred and division, scapegoat and demonize their foes and vulnerable populations, spread lies and “fake news” (while accusing the other side of doing so), and generally put on a master class in demagoguery. With Trump’s shockingly racist behavior of the past few months (shocking even by the already shocking standards of his own racist history), it ought to be clear just how ugly it’s gonna get.
They will cultivate and exploit and surreptitiously cooperate with foreign efforts to interfere in the election on their behalf. Interference by the Russians and other foreign actors has already begun; why shouldn’t it, given the greenlight that the Republican Party has overtly been flashing, through McConnell’s unconscionable blockage of attempts to harden our cyber defenses, and Trump’s public invitation for foreign help?
Once Election Day itself is upon us they will contest vote counts and sow chaos. They will attempt to rig the actual vote when they can. They will try to falsify the numbers so it appears that Trump won in places where he didn’t, and in places where it’s clear that he lost, they will dispute the results. (For a sneak preview, see how Don’s role model Mr. Putin and his United Russia party behaved in the Russian elections earlier this month.)
Trump himself will refuse to accept results that do not declare him the victor. He will call on his supporters to rise up in his defense and reject the legitimacy of a victory by his opponent. He will say the fix was in and that he really won despite what the numbers show, possibly even to the point of precipitating violent insurrection. Hell, if it looks like he’s going to lose he might even try to gin up a national emergency or foreign policy crisis to justify postponing or even suspending the election even before it takes place.
Think he won’t? Think that’s a line even he wouldn’t cross? You have obviously not been paying attention.
And as I recently wrote, if and when he does any or all of these things, I do not for a second believe that Mitch McConnell or any of the other leaders of the Republican Party, or the 5-4 right wing majority on the Supreme Court, will stand up and try to stop him.
Maybe I’m wrong. But can anyone cite an example of even one time in the last three years when those institutions stood up to Donald Trump?
WHEN SOMEONE SHOWS YOU WHO THEY ARE
It’s incredible that we are even contemplating this possibility, one that was utterly unthinkable just a few years ago, the stuff of bad counterfactual science fiction. But here we are.
As far back as the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that he might not accept the legitimacy of the vote if he were to lose. It was a unprecedented moment in modern US politics and one that ought to have rattled the American public to its core. Indeed, his constant ranting about the election being “rigged”—in pre-emptive anticipation of defeat—was a regular feature of his campaign until it proved unnecessary and he suddenly decided all was perfectly fair.
Since then he has repeated the trope again and again. He has mused about running for a third term and “joked’ about being president-for-life like so many of the foreign despots he openly admires. He “joked” about it again just last week at a rally in Fayetteville, NC. He even tweeted out a sign reading TRUMP 2024, again using the fig leaf of “humor” to camouflage an obvious test run of an idea he is clearly keen on.
Ha ha—so hilarious! Incipient authoritarianism and the installation of a hereditary kleptocratic dynasty. LOL!
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think Trump will declare a Khmer Rouge-style Year Zero. But I do think he will concoct an excuse that allows him to mount a formidable crusade to stay in office—one that feels more or less justifiable and all-American, if you kinda squint and make your eyes fuzzy and don’t think about it too hard. (And are a fascist.) And I think the GOP will back him up.
For the first two plus years of the raging shitstorm that is the Trump presidency there was always the comforting thought that we live in a representative democracy (sort of), and that another election was coming, painfully slowly perhaps, but inexorably coming nonetheless. If all else failed, we would suffer through four years of this nightmare and then vote the motherfucker out.
I am very worried that that hope to which we have clung, and continue to cling, is going to prove a mirage: not because we will lose the election (though we might, and that will be a bitter pill all its own), but because the Republican Party is going to break every rule in order to win it, or at least successfully claim that it won.
To believe otherwise would be to argue that the GOP is a principled organization dedicated to the integrity of our democracy.
THE TALE OF THE CORNERED RAT
Trump of course has an additional motivator to win a second term besides mere ego and lust for power. As Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently noted, “No other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail.” That exponentially raises the probability of him upending two and a half centuries of peaceful transitions of presidential power and simply refusing to leave office.
In a piece for Slate titled “What Happens If Trump Won’t Step Down?” Dahlia Lithwick notes that folks as diverse as Michael Cohen, Nancy Pelosi and Politico have raised this same disturbing possibility:
(F)or Trump, losing the 2020 election is an existential threat, and he has openly invited foreign interference, while Mitch McConnell refuses to even consider legislation to secure the vote. And even if Trump is truly joking when he tweets that he deserves to be credited two extra years in his existing term, years he believes were lost to the Mueller probe, or riffs on staying on the job long after he’d been term-limited out, the tweets send a dangerous message to his loyalists.
Lithwick goes on to interview one of the most prominent voices warning of this danger: Georgetown law professor Josh Geltzer, formerly Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, deputy legal adviser to the NSC, and counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. Geltzer dates his concern to a July 24, 2018 tweet in which Trump claimed to be “very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election,” opining that the Kremlin “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats.” Geltzer suggests that Trump was auditioning a new lie—outrageous and absurd though it was—to see how it would fly, which is something he often seems to do.
I’ve heard some say that we have to beat Trump in a landslide to preclude him challenging the results. But does anyone really think that any margin of defeat will prevent him from doing that? He’s going to dig in his heels and cry “foul!” no matter what. Let’s get used to that fact and prepare for it now.
This is especially so with Trump incentivized to the absolute max because he needs to stay in office in order to stay out of prison…..for a second term, and a third, and even beyond, until the Big Macs and Diet Cokes finally kill him, or he can pass the presidency off to Ivanka who will pardon him and figure out a way to avoid state charges as well.
Lest we forget, in 2000 Gore won the nationwide popular vote, as did Hillary in 2016, and for that matter Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In fact, of the last five presidential elections, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one, 2004, when Bush was the incumbent in the midst of a war (that he had started). Yet the Republican candidate took office in three of those five elections, thanks to the antiquated anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College. The New York Times recently published a terrifying article explaining that, statistically, Trump may have an even easier path to an Electoral College victory in 2020 than in 2016, while losing the popular vote by an even greater margin.
In that way, Trump promises to make the popular vote even more irrelevant, and maybe the EC too.
Eyeroll all you want about Trump Derangement Syndrome, right wingers, but what evidence is there that Donald Trump is too principled for such behavior, or that it would cause McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, and the rest of the GOP leadership to rebel and rein him in? Go on: I dare you.
THE TALE OF THE GULLIBLE DONKEY
I am very concerned that the Democratic Party is not at all prepared for this fight.
Imagine we wake up on the morning of November 4, 2020 to find Trump declaring victory regardless of the vote. On that day, it will be a bitter pill to look back on how we bickered over debate stage theatrics, and whether Kamala was black enough, and which Democratic candidate was best positioned to peel away disaffected Republican voters in the Midwest. Remember when our main concern was the obstructionism President Hillary Clinton was going to face from a Republican Congress after she won in 2016, and how tough it was going to be to get her legislative agenda enacted, and to get the Senate to confirm her nominees to the Supreme Court?
As I wrote in this blog two weeks ago, we cannot afford a repeat of the too-polite-by-half Democratic response to the toss-up election in Florida in 2000, in contrast to the bare knuckles tactics that the GOP deployed. The same inappropriately deferential dynamic was in play in our reaction to the disgraceful Republican obstruction of the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016. Knowing what we know now, the Obama administration should have raised holy hell and found a way to ram him through regardless, even if it meant precipitating a constitutional crisis—which, in retrospect, McConnell had already initiated.
I do not mean to Monday morning quarterback. Back then, few people—myself very much included—understood the implications of what was going on. I certainly did not, and not just because we assumed Hillary would win and hardball was not necessary. But I damn sure do now, and we pretend otherwise at our own peril. A slow motion coup has been underway for some time now, and the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself are no longer be in effect.
In other words, if you thought 2016 was grim, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The sooner we come to terms with this reality and begin making serious preparations for it, the better the odds that we an survive it and prevail. As some dude once said, “Fool me once…..shame on….can’t get fooled again.”
Here’s an idea. Instead of hoping that Mitch McConnell will turn from a poisonous frog into a prince, let’s take the initiative ourselves and make it clear right now that we can see what’s coming and we will not stand for it. No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.
If we do not take these possibilities seriously, we will live to regret it. I am certainly not reassured by Geltzer’s suggestion that the best defense against a Trumpian coup is the integrity of GOP leaders:
“We need political leaders—especially Republicans—to make clear, both publicly and privately, that for Trump to contest the valid results of an election would be a redline, and that he’d have zero support from them—indeed, impassioned opposition from them—should he cross it. We need it sooner rather than later, too.”
Don’t hold your breath.
Photo: L to R, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Martin Milner, and DeForest Kelley in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)