the national interest

Trump Can’t Stop the Election, But He Can Threaten Democracy

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Three months ago, Joe Biden predicted that President Trump would eventually try to delay the November election. “Mark my words,” he told a fundraiser, “I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow.” Conservatives exploded in outrage at the suggestion. “Biden’s unfounded accusation Thursday that President Trump wants to delay November’s election was not only clearly over the line but also unmasks how low the supposedly moderate Biden will go to win,” complained Henry Olsen. “It is just the type of thing that a crazed guy in a tightly buttoned raincoat whispers to you on the subway,” said law professor and Trump impeachment witness Jonathan Turley. “There’s a lot of projection,” sneered Mollie Hemingway. Ari Fleischer called Biden’s warning an “extreme, dangerous conspiracy theory.”

Now Trump has done just what Biden predicted, floating a call for a delay in the November election “until people can properly, securely and safely vote”:

How scared should we be? At the most literal level, not very scared. Trump does not have the power to change the date of the election, which is set by Congress. But the broader truth is that Trump is an authoritarian whose powers, while waning, pose a serious threat to the sanctity of the election and American democracy.

Like most Republicans, Trump believes in erecting bureaucratic hurdles to complicate voting, in the belief that weeding out voters unable or unwilling to undergo the hassle will benefit both their party and the country. Trump’s version of this belief goes much farther than the standard Republican version, and includes the claim that he actually would have won the 2016 popular vote but for millions of illegal ballots in California, an absurd lie few members of his party would vouch for publicly.

What gives these beliefs unusual force at the moment is the coronavirus pandemic, which makes in-person voting a dangerous prospect for many Americans. An obvious solution is to expand the use of voting by mail. But since voting by mail makes voting easier, and Trump’s goal is to make it harder, he opposes it as inherently fraudulent. It is not. Several states employ universal voting by mail without any significant fraud.

However, expanding mail voting across the country requires new training and resources. Since states are starved for resources and need Congress to appropriate them, and since Trump can veto any new federal spending, he can starve states of the resources they require. Voting by mail will be slower and messier, leaving many voters to choose between risking their health and forfeiting their franchise. Trump’s reelection strategy seems to rely on using the pandemic to functionally disenfranchise a large segment of the Democratic base.

Delaying the election is obviously a nonstarter — it would mean holding off the vote until a vaccine has been distributed universally, which would mean extending the election by months. More realistically, Trump can sow doubt over the election results and seed political and legal challenges to the result, creating a Florida 2000–like conflict that he might resolve through his control of the levers of federal power.

For all his buffoonery and laziness, Trump is a committed authoritarian. He has a long and unwavering admiration for the strength of dictators, a consistent refusal to accept the legitimacy of any outcome in which he loses, and a habit of characterizing criticism or political opposition as illegal.

And he possesses an instinct for overwhelming the public’s ability to process reality and maintain boundaries. “I never even thought of changing the date of the election. Why would I do that?” he said in April. Now he has broached an election delay in the form of a question. He hasn’t explicitly endorsed the idea, but it can waft in the air. If he decides to endorse it later, without the question mark attached, it will feel like old news.

The president’s haplessness is mostly a blessing, but it can distract to his credit from the corrosiveness of his rhetoric and worldview. Trump is a clown of a very sinister kind. The republic simply is not safe until he has left office.

Trump Can’t Stop the Election, But He Can Threaten Democracy