Donald Trump’s surprising (though not unforeseeable) election has provoked a wave of fear and anger among his opponents. But much of it has been misdirected into denial or despair rather than effective channels of political mobilization. The clearest symbol of this misplaced energy is the campaign to persuade members of the Electoral College to deny Donald Trump the presidency.
The first thing to note about this effort is that it is utterly hopeless. The electors in the Electoral College who would need to be flipped are Republican politicians who were selected for their party loyalty. They have no incentive to deny the nomination to a candidate who won heavy support among Republicans at the polls, and indeed, available reports on their thinking indicate no enthusiasm whatsoever for them to ignore their states’ results. Even if this tactic were to miraculously succeed, and the Electoral College denied Trump a majority, it would only throw the contest into the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which would elect him anyway.
Second, and more important, denying Trump the presidency through an Electoral College coup is not a procedurally legitimate response. The presidential election is a quasi-democratic process. A fair system — defining the term the way we do when Americans elect a governor, union president, PTA chairman, or new ice-cream flavor — would award the presidency to the candidate with the greatest number of votes. The Electoral College gives voters in some states more power than voters in others, without having any reason to do so that justifies the violation of the democratic principle. And yet it is close enough to a democratic system to have legitimacy. Trump could win with minus-2 percent of the vote, but he couldn’t have won with minus-4 percent of the vote. The rules of the game were known in advance and respected by all sides. Trump’s clear national-vote defeat refutes his desperate boasts to represent the national will, but it does not negate his legal right to the presidency.
Nor does Russia’s interference in the election. Yes, Trump encouraged Russia to hack his opponent, and at least one Trump adviser had advance knowledge of the fruits of the Russian hack. And it is more likely than not that the additional Clinton-email-scandal static generated by Russian hacking was enough to tilt an extremely close vote in three states. But we have no way of knowing this with any certainty. It is far too thin a reed upon which to base the overturning of an election that followed the rules of the game. An Electoral College coup would be a massive escalation of anti-democratic norms — even in comparison with the dirty tactics the Republican Party used to essentially steal the 2000 election.
The final problem is that the campaign to prevent Trump’s election has turned the hopeless Electoral College gambit into a substitute for political organizing. Dahlia Lithwick and David S. Cohen, writing in the New York Times, treat the strategy to flip electors as a litmus test of Democrats’ seriousness. The Democratic Party and its leaders’ refusal to deny Trump the presidency amounts to “leaving the fight to academics and local organizers who seem more horrified by a Trump presidency than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.”
But there are better measures of horror at Trump and Trumpism than support for a hopeless and questionable tactic. The correct response should involve the protection and engagement of normal politics.
Protecting normal politics means securing space for traditional opposition methods. Trump has an alarmingly authoritarian style — openly admiring the suppressive internal methods of autocratic regimes, calling for his opponent to be jailed, and suborning his followers into facially absurd lies. Small-d democrats should treat his election as a serious threat to the sanctity of the American political system. We should not, however, treat authoritarian rule as a fait accompli. The task at the moment is to build up and defend democratic institutions. There ought to be a large-scale mobilization of civil-society institutions to protect voting, labor, and civil rights, rather than schemes to defeat Trump through anti-democratic measures.
And engaging normal politics means fighting Trump like a normal opposition party. For all its control of the levers of power, the GOP is extraordinarily vulnerable to a popular backlash. Trump enters office with the lowest support of any recent president, by a huge margin. During their honeymoon periods, Trump’s predecessors have all enjoyed high favorability, from George W. Bush (+27) to Bill Clinton (+40) to Barack Obama (+64.) Trump sits at an incredible -21 right now. And this is before he has done anything to try to carry out his (mostly ludicrous) promises.
Yes, he eked out a victory against an extraordinarily unpopular opponent, but Trump remains an undisciplined political novice, whose two primary advisers (Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon) also lack any experience in government. He is already enmeshed in scandals while trying to undertake a deeply unpopular domestic agenda based on tax cuts for the rich and giveaways to big business. He will do a great deal of damage to the country, but the prospects for democratic political response could hardly be more promising. Democrats need to stop fighting the last election and start planning to win the next one.