Intelligencer staffers Josh Barro, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether President Trump’s possible refusal to accept election results warrants a liberal freakout.
Ben: The idea that President Trump might contest the results of the 2020 election is certainly not new. But it gained life over the weekend when Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times that she was concerned he would not respect the results next year if he lost by a slim margin. (Also over the weekend, Trump endorsed Jerry Falwell Jr.’s nutty theory that he should have an extra two years tacked on to his presidency as “reparations” for the Mueller investigation.)
It seems to me that Trump is likely to cry foul no matter the election results; as James Poniewozik tweeted, “Donald Trump insisted The Apprentice was the number one show on TV when it was 72nd in the ratings. I don’t think mathematics can devise a margin wide enough to convince him.” Given this probability, how worried should Democrats (who love to worry) be about what happens in such an event?
Josh: So I think there are two separate questions here. One is what Pelosi was actually getting at: There are a number of reasons for Democrats to want the “mandate” associated with a wide victory, and one reason to want it is that the president’s supporters are less likely to buy the idea that the election was stolen from them, which affects how much Republican lawmakers would feel pressure to oppose everything versus to cooperate. Certainly, the sense that Trump stole the 2016 election is a reason Democratic voters have no appetite at all for Democrats to work with him.
So I think the dunking on Pelosi over this has been misguided. Democrats have been burned before by trying to build the narrowest possible coalition pursuing the boldest possible policy agenda — and missing. Then there is the issue of what Trump will actually do. I think it is ridiculous to worry substantively about the prospect of Trump saying the election was rigged. He, yes, will surely say that anyway. The popular vote was not close in 2016, so he goes on about 3 million illegal votes. It doesn’t matter.
Ed: Since it’s part of a consistent Trump pattern of trying to delegitimize adverse election results, which other Republican leaders have been showing a tendency to emulate, it’s of concern, though where they take it is another matter.
Ben: I think Trump stealing the election has little to do with why Democrats oppose him so much; it’s more because of everything else. Bush was also perceived as having stolen the 2000 election, but Democrats were pretty happy to join forces with him for a while.
And yes, Trump did whine in 2016, but he also actually won the election! And he wasn’t in the White House at the time, which is obviously a key difference. Trying to extricate someone from power is a lot harder than simply not putting them there in the first place.
Josh: The reason the president complains so much about the courts and about Congress (and about laws like on immigration) is that he is actually bound by them. His complaining is a sign of the system working, not of its failing.
Ed: There’s a long-term threat to the legitimacy of elections when the president of the United States routinely talks about nonexistent election fraud. As noted above, it’s one thing that Trump makes these loose allegations; it bothered me more that top House GOP leaders blithely asserted the midterms had been stolen from them. The disease is catching.
Which — you need an outright majority to win in Georgia. Abrams would have needed an additional 92,000 votes net, which means she would have needed well more than 100,000 votes on a gross basis under whatever different system because other candidates would have gotten additional votes too. More than 5 percent of her vote total.
All of which is to say, these have become things people say when they don’t like the outcome of an election. Democrats may be more restrained to complaining about elections where they have valid complaints about the voting process, but they don’t have to show that the complaints add up enough to make the difference.
Ed: First, she made a pretty clear distinction between the election being taken from her and the system taking the election from Georgia voters, but even if you stipulate it’s the same thing, Stacey Abrams isn’t the Republican leader of the U.S. House, as both Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy were when they made the charges I’m talking about. I don’t recall either Abrams or Harris saying the former would have won outright without voter suppression.
Ben: I think we can all agree that Trump’s delusions are of a different magnitude and severity than anyone’s on the Democratic side. At least I hope we can.
Ed: We can argue “both sides do it” all day long, but I’m concerned that in the highest-stakes presidential election we’re likely ever to see that a close contest that Trump predictably challenges — before, during, and after the fact, most likely — could lead to serious civil disturbances.
Ben: Let’s get back to that scenario: There’s a very close election that Trump clearly loses. He claims it was stolen from him, and Republican voters agree by overwhelming margins. Who’s going to actually make sure the election is upheld? The Supreme Court? Will Republican lawmakers who, as Ed said, have been endorsing all this dubious voter fraud and vote-counting stuff, distance themselves from the president on this?
Josh: I think it’s more likely to lead to what happened after Trump claimed there had been 3 million illegal votes, and after Abrams claimed she had won in Georgia, and after Roy Moore said he had won in Alabama, and after various Democrats (though not John Kerry, to his credit) contended that Diebold had thrown Ohio in the 2004 election: very little.
Ed: If we get to anything like an 1876 scenario of wild polarization over the results, you have to consider the Bush v. Gore precedent that might enable Republican-controlled legislatures to interfere with the appointment of electors.
Am I sure it will be worse than what happened in 2016 or in Georgia in 2018? Of course not. But there has never been a president who so routinely and systematically alleges that the opposing party entirely depends on illegal votes.
Ben: I’m envisioning a possible situation where Trump literally refuses to leave the White House. Who’s gonna remove him? You, Josh? You??
Josh: He’s not going to do that for much the same reason Robert Mueller was never fired. He can’t do these things alone. And the apparatus of government has not been there to enable him to do them. I mean, he could physically refuse to leave the building, and that would be embarrassing to everyone. But that wouldn’t make him still president.
Ben: I hope you’re right. I’m somewhat less confident in the GOP apparatus holding firm on the rules in the scenario we’re describing. However, I do think that even if they did go full authoritarian, the prospect of civil unrest and international shunning would probably be enough to get them to fold.
Ed: What I publicly suggested back in February is that Republican leaders be called upon to repudiate in advance any scenario where Trump disputes a defeat. If some of them did, I’d stop bringing this up. If it’s as ridiculous a proposition as Josh believes it is, they’d comply.
Josh: Why should they start an intraparty fight to help you score a rhetorical point over a thing that’s not going to happen? I just think this thing is all so rich from a party that spent the summer and fall of 2016 worrying about what would happen if Trump didn’t accept the results of that election and then spent November and December searching for One Weird Trick to stop him from taking office after he actually did win it.
And the truth we learned then was it’s not actually that important for the losing side to be clear in admitting it lost.
Ed: I do believe you are making some pretty massive overgeneralizations, Josh. I very specifically wrote at the time that his election was legitimate.
Josh: Democrats are very primed to believe that close elections they lost were stolen from them. This is the baseline thesis now: If we lost by just a little, voter suppression made the difference. And yet life goes on. Which shows that voters do implicitly accept the election results even when they say they don’t. It’s just an act of political expression, like answering every poll question you get in the pro-Trump or anti-Trump direction.
Ed: It really doesn’t bother you that the president of the United States — not some random Stein supporters or unidentified Democrats or even a few identified Democrats — routinely alleges that the opposing party never legitimately wins elections?
Ben: I think the vast majority of Democrats knew the Stein effort was a farce. I find the Abrams stuff a bit more troubling because it’s mainstream — but still on a very different level than what’s happening on the Republican side.
Josh: Ed, it bothers me somewhat, yes. Like many other things the president does. I don’t think he should do it. It’s factually wrong. It’s bad for the discourse. What bothers me is the hyperbolic, sky-is-falling reaction to what is just his saying some nonsense, which he does all the time, to much less effect than you would believe from reading stories on the internet.
Ed: This particular annoying thing, which happens to bother me more than a lot of the stupid crap Trump says, would end instantly if his party stopped enabling it with their own electoral conspiracy theories. If that means they have to “start an intraparty fight” that would end in about two days if and when Trump cut it out, so be it.
Josh: Yeah, if Mitch McConnell said Trump should stop saying this, Trump would totally admit he was wrong and stop claiming things were rigged against him.
Ed: As I thought I made clear at the beginning of this chat, if it’s just Trump without the support of his party or his followers, I wouldn’t care nearly so much.
But even if there are no concrete immediate consequences, the extent to which GOP elites and rank and file alike are buying into the voter/election-fraud myth — itself a subset of the ancient conspiracy theory in which left-wing elites buy voters from dependent serfs — will always bug me.