As frequently discussed by many alert political observers (including yours truly), the president has clearly been laying the foundation for contesting any 2020 loss to Joe Biden on grounds that mail ballots disproportionately cast by Democrats (thanks to Trump’s own demonization of that extremely familiar voting method) are largely or substantially fraudulent. The most plausible specific course of action whereby Trump might execute such an outrageous plan is the “red mirage” scenario explained by the digital data company Hawkfish, whereby Trump claims victory on Election Night because his supporters’ heavily in-person votes will be counted first, giving him a lead doomed to reversal as mail ballots are processed and counted.
As awareness of this scenario spreads in liberal and media circles, pro-Trump voices are beginning to do something very dangerous: legitimize a preemptive Trump coup on the grounds that it’s the only way to stop a Democratic coup to deny the president a legitimate reelection. Check out this argument from William Jacobson at the conservative legal site Legal Insurrection:
The Red Mirage theory, that Trump will have a significant lead on Election Night, but will lose when mail-in ballots are counted, is the excuse for Democrats to spend weeks trying to count ballots in Democrat areas that arrive late or that don’t comply with the rules, and to disqualify valid ballots in Republican areas.
In fact, Hawkfish estimates that the partisan split in voting methods may be so enormous that it won’t take a single bit of rule-bending to turn a significant Trump lead on Election Night into a massive Biden landslide when all the votes are counted. But conspiracy-minded Trump fans like Michael Anton, author of the infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay justifying any measures necessary to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, think it’s all part of a Democratic plan to reject any Trump win:
[P]art of the plan is either to produce enough harvested ballots—lawfully or not—to tip close states, or else dispute the results in close states and insist, no matter what the tally says, that Biden won them. The worst-case scenario (for the country, but not for the ruling class) would be results in a handful of states that are so ambiguous and hotly disputed that no one can rightly say who won. Of course, that will not stop the Democrats from insisting that they won.
The public preparation for that has also already begun: streams of stories and social media posts “explaining” how, while on election night it might look as if Trump won, close states will tip to Biden as all the mail-in ballots are “counted.”
Note that there is no effort here to rebut the factual basis of the red mirage hypothesis, particularly the extensive polling showing that Trump has talked his followers into voting in person, even as he suggests without a shred of evidence that voting by mail is mostly fraudulent. So what’s the basis for alleging a conspiracy?
For Anton, Jacobson, and quite a few other Republican scribblers, the smoking gun is a once-obscure set of simulations done in June by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a collection of academics and former campaign operatives from both parties who conducted political “war games” to see what might happen to produce and/or resolve a contested election. As organizer Rosa Brooks explained to NPR, the odds of post–Election Day dysfunction look pretty high based on these alternative scenarios:
We had about 70 or 80 people. We put them on two teams. We had a Team Trump — a Trump campaign team, a Team Biden. We had GOP and Democratic elected official teams. We had a media team and teams representing sort of career civil servants. And we essentially did a number of exercises where we gave them each a scenario. One of our scenarios was a decisive Biden win. One was a decisive Trump win. One was a narrow Biden win. One was a period of extended uncertainty as in the election of 2000.
In each of our exercises, the Trump campaign team came right out of the gate, tried to stop the counting of mail-in ballots, tried to assert that they were fraudulent, in one case closed the post office to prevent additional ballots from reaching the ballot counters, in another case seized and tried to sequester the ballots to prevent additional counting.
So how did this simulation come to reinforce conservative claims that the Democrats would actually try to steal an election? It was via this highly influential Byron York analysis of the Transition Integrity Project findings in the Washington Examiner, published last month:
In the clear Trump victory scenario, Trump lost the popular vote (as he did in 2016) but won the Electoral College. Biden at first conceded but then withdrew his concession as Democratic anger grew over another election in which the popular vote winner did not win the White House. The Biden campaign pressured Democratic governors of states Trump won to reject Trump electors and send Biden electors to Washington. The Democratic House refused to recognize Trump’s victory. Biden made wild demands in exchange for conceding, like DC and Puerto Rico statehood and the creation of more senators from California. Inauguration day arrived and the standoff “remained unresolved.” The report noted: “It was unclear what the military would do in this situation.”
In only one of the scenarios did a candidate win a clear victory and the opposing candidate refuse to accept the result. And the loser who refused to accept the result was Joe Biden — not Donald Trump. That is precisely the opposite of the Trump-won’t-accept-results speculation that has dominated the media in recent weeks.
Needless to say, Trump fans like the National Review’s David Harsanyi assume this simulation reflects holy gospel for every single Democrat and Biden’s presumed media allies:
This scenario is what a real-life “coup” might resemble. It is, needless to say, utterly insane that Democrats would destroy the nation’s long-standing and peaceful transition because they refuse to accept the mandated process of electing the president. All of which is to say the proactive — and retroactive — delegitimization of the Trump presidency has been a successful four-year project. It permeates the entire Democratic Party’s information complex.
If the Transition Integrity Project’s findings don’t convince you of that, say some Trump fans, get a load of this:
If you really, really believe that Democrats won’t concede no mater what, and you favor Trump’s reelection, why not go along with a preemptive Trump victory declaration on Election Night? Democrats wouldn’t accept a Trump win in the ultimate count, so why wait? An awful lot of terrible consequences could flow from the belief that nothing short of a Trump popular-vote win (which has never been the object of Trump’s own strategy) will produce an uncontested Trump victory.
When York wrote his take on the Transition Integrity Project war games, I expressed deep skepticism about the idea of Biden and his entire party rejecting a Trump Electoral College win out of hand:
[A]ngry Democrats might use any Trump Electoral College win–slash–popular vote loss to develop and promote an agenda for not letting it happen again, and perhaps make its enactment a big 2022 midterm election issue — an election which, as Trump’s second midterm, would very likely produce Democratic gains far larger than those in 2018 and create a far more comprehensive and progressive mandate for fundamental change than might come out of a contested presidential election. By 2024 Democrats might well be in a position to nominate someone younger and more reform-minded than Biden and put Trumpism behind the country once and for all.
That all seems a lot more plausible than a Biden-led effort to trigger a contested election and a constitutional crisis whose outcome could depend on “what the military would do in this situation.”
But if conservative opinion leaders convince each other and a big segment of Trump voters that Biden won’t accept a constitutionally legitimate loss, that’s all it may take to rob the 2020 presidential election of legitimacy almost no matter what happens (short of a Biden landslide that makes the red mirage scenario implausible, or a Trump popular-vote win). It’ll be “steal or be robbed,” and all hell really could break loose.
Arguably Joe Biden could stop this toxic cycle of conspiracy theories justifying conspiracies by clearly announcing he will accept a clear Trump Electoral College win. If that offends Democrats, he could couch it as a proposal that Trump, in exchange, disavow any intention of claiming victory with a majority of the country’s mail ballots still uncounted. Trump might refuse, and might lie about his intentions as well, but if so, it will make it pretty clear that there is just one presidential candidate unwilling to accept defeat.