Based on the polls, both nationwide and in the critical background states, it now appears extremely likely that Donald Trump will lose this November’s presidential election. Will Trump accept defeat? By “accept” I don’t mean: will he accept it psychologically. I mean: will he actually accept that he is obligated to leave the White House. That this is a reasonable question to pose tells us a lot about what American politics has come to in the age of Trump. For the first time in our history, prudence requires that we contemplate the possibility of what would effectively amount to a coup d’etat, a negation of the outcome of a presidential election.
Former Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado has sketched out a plausible nightmare scenario. It’s election night and Biden wins the national popular vote decisively, carrying the key swing states by decent but not overwhelming margins. Trump immediately declares that the voting was rigged, that there was mail-in ballot fraud and that the Chinese were behind a plan to provide fraudulent mail-in ballots and other “election hacking” throughout the four key swing states that gave Biden his victory. (Trump being Trump, he has no scruples against making such charges up without the slightest shred of evidence). He asserts that the Chinese interference constitutes a major national security issue, and he invokes emergency powers, directing the Justice Department to investigate alleged nefarious activity in the swing states. His compliant Attorney General Barr develops and invokes a legal justification for the emergency powers claimed by the president. The “investigation” into the alleged Chinese interference is still ongoing as of December 14, when each state legislature must certify the winning slate of electors for its state. The Republican legislatures in four key swing states refuse to do so, denying Biden an Electoral College majority. The presidential election goes to the House of Representatives, under the Constitutional provision that the vote is determined not by a majority of members, but by a majority of state delegations. Trump is re-elected.
I don’t think this scenario is likely, but neither do I think it’s ridiculous. Its plausibility stems first of all from the character and behavior of Trump himself, who has repeatedly shown complete disdain for democratic norms that might in any way constrain him. (I don’t need to repeat myself to justify this last statement, do I? His dismissal of six inspectors-general is only the most recent demonstration of Trump’s authoritarian aspirations.) Trump’s recent baseless claims that mail-in voting invites fraud can be viewed as laying the basis for phony charges of election fraud per Wirth’s scenario. No less critically, the plausibility of the nightmare lies in the utter servility of the Republican Party to its cult leader. And the contemporary GOP’s indifference to democratic norms goes beyond Trump. Recall that in recent years three Republican-controlled legislatures—it happens in the swing states of North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan—voted to strip powers from their state governor after an election in which a Democrat won the governor’s race. It’s hard to imagine a more shameless affirmation of contempt for democracy. The contemporary GOP together with its charismatic proto-autocratic leader represent an unprecedented threat to our constitutional order.
What is to be done? First of all, we must all do our part to ensure not only that Trump is defeated, but that he and his party are defeated so decisively that the foregoing scenario can’t work. So, whatever political activity you have undertaken in election years, do more this year. I personally am not a political activist in the usual ways—I don’t lick envelopes or canvass in person or by telephone. What I do is write checks, electronically if not literally. I’ve suggested to friends a rule of thumb: whatever you give to charity, you need to give an equal amount this year to Democrats—to the DNC, to the Biden campaign, to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, anybody. And if that’s a hardship, reduce your charitable giving. This year, defeating Republicans is more important.
But we also need to prepare for the worst. Wirth gives sensible advice:
We must “out” this scenario—and do so loudly and consistently. We have an imperative to build a “people’s firewall” that reaches deeply across the country and reflects public revulsion at the potential for Trump to undermine our entire democratic system of governance….
There needs to be an outpouring at all levels of society that this will not be tolerated—from government officials and lawmakers at all levels; to civic associations and civil rights groups; to business groups and trade associations, who have to recognize the economic chaos that would result from this kind of coup; to lawyers, academics and student groups practiced in resisting government policies; and, of course, to the editorial voices of the press, both local and national.
The recent resistance of our military establishment is an encouraging sign and necessary component of the “people’s firewall.” The president has to know there will be overwhelming resistance to any post-election chaos to undermine our constitutional order. He must know that the “people’s firewall” will not yield to lawlessness.”