In a post a couple of months ago, I discussed the unprecedented possibility of what would amount to a coup d’etat in the United States—the effective cancellation of a presidential election result. At the time I assessed the particular nightmare scenario sketched out by former Sen. Tim Wirth to be unlikely, but not dismissable out of hand. That was then. Now, it seems not only possible but very probable that Donald Trump, enabled by a compliant Republican Party, will indeed attempt to negate the result of an election that he loses. It is clear that Trump intends to hold onto the presidency using any and all dirty tricks he can pull off. His chances of success are not remote; there are plenty of dirty tricks available.
Start with election day. We can hope that the voting will proceed more or less smoothly in most places, but that’s a lot to hope for:
Suppose that caravans of Trump supporters, adorned in Second Amendment accessories, converge on big-city polling places on Election Day. They have come, they say, to investigate reports on social media of voter fraud. Counterprotesters arrive, fistfights break out, shots are fired, and voters flee or cannot reach the polls.
Then suppose the president declares an emergency. Federal personnel in battle dress, staged nearby in advance, move in to restore law and order and secure the balloting. Amid ongoing clashes, they stay to monitor the canvass. They close the streets that lead to the polls. They take custody of uncounted ballots in order to preserve evidence of fraud.”
Frightening? Yes. Implausible? I don’t think so.
But even if it doesn’t come to that, Republicans have other plans for election day. Donald Trump Jr. has called for every able bodied man and woman to join an army for “election security.” What would that involve? It might look something like the Republican National Committee’s “election security” operations before they were restricted by a court order almost 40 years ago. That ruling responded to complaints that the RNC had tried to intimidate New Jersey voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls. The court order ended in 2018, a fact that has been noted with satisfaction by Republican operatives.
But let’s be optimistic and assume that the voting on election day mostly proceeds more or less properly. What happens after election day?
Because of the pandemic, that question takes on an importance it has never had been before. Reasonably concerned for their health, voters in unprecedented numbers this year are choosing to cast their ballots by mail. Mail-in ballots will be cast disproportionately by Democrats, because Trump has encouraged his cult followers to be unconcerned about the virus and to be suspicious of voting by mail. Based on the most recent polls, Biden is overwhelmingly favored to win the election. But the polls measure the intentions of all voters, without breaking out in-person from mail-in voters. Unless Biden’s already solid lead widens considerably, the in-person vote will almost surely favor Trump. Which is to say: as of midnight election night, Trump will probably be leading in the national popular vote, and will almost certainly be leading in states with a majority of electoral votes. Trump will proclaim victory, and will do everything he can to impede the counting of mail-in votes. He knows that the mail-in vote, if properly counted, would make Biden the winner. That’s why he has said that the outcome must be known on election night; that’s why he has insistently repeated the lie that mail-in voting is especially susceptible to fraud. He is setting the stage for an all-out effort to prevent a full and fair count of the mail-in ballots, employing armies of lawyers to challenge the vote count in the critical swing states. (There are already dozens of ongoing lawsuits around the country involving election regulations.). While he’s at it, he will constantly and loudly proclaim “FRAUD!!!—THEY’RE TRYING TO STEAL THIS ELECTION!!!
Will the GOP’s phony claims of election fraud hold up in the courts? Maybe not, but don’t worry—Republicans have another resource. The Constitution, in its majestic ambiguity, says that each state shall choose its presidential electors, but it doesn’t specify who chooses or on what basis they choose. By tradition, the governor certifies the slate of electors of the presidential candidate who won the popular vote, but amazingly enough, that is just a matter of tradition; it’s not mandated by any constitutional or legislative provision. Accordingly, Republican strategists are now actively pursuing the idea of getting GOP-dominated legislatures in swing states to appoint electors for Trump in states won by Biden. The justification would be the alleged rampant fraud in the mail-in ballots. It would then ultimately be up to the newly elected Congress to decide whether to accept the fraudulent claims of voter fraud. I won’t get into the various possible scenarios of what happens from there; if you’re interested, you can check out Jeffrey Toobin’s typically excellent article in The New Yorker. The basic point is that the ambiguities in our Constitution and election laws are insufficient to ensure that the real winner of the election will be inaugurated on 1/20/21.
Undoubtedly the Biden campaign is aware of all of the foregoing and is marshaling the resources and preparing the strategies to combat the expected coup attempt. What can the rest of us do?
The most important thing is for all of us to do as much as we can to ensure the widest possible margin of victory for Biden. The clearer and sooner Biden’s victory comes into view, the less chance for Trumpian shenanigans to succeed. And, if your comfort level will allow it, vote in person on election day. Failing that, get your mail-in ballot in as early as possible.
We also need to be aware, and to spread the expectation, that Biden is likely to be behind as of election night. The more that people understand that the election night results reflect a “red mirage,” the less chance Republicans will be able to discredit the “blue shift” that will follow. Of course, the role of the media here will be crucial, but we should all do our part.
We also need to be prepared, once Biden’s victory becomes apparent, for a massive display of angry and determined popular opposition to a coup. Probably a week or so after election day we will need a march on Washington on the scale of the 1963 civil rights march or the women’s march following Trump’s inauguration. Similar mobilizations in big and small cities across the country. These demonstrations could influence the few remaining Republican politicians who aren’t completely in thrall to their cult leader, but more importantly, they will help stiffen Democratic spines for the resistance.
The next few months are likely to be scary. Our democracy is imperiled as never before.