the national circus

How Far Will Trump Go to Keep the White House?

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s military threat to hold on to the White House, what the Democrats can do about the Supreme Court, and New York’s state coronavirus-vaccine plan.

In comments this week, Donald Trump repeatedly declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the White House, and also stated that a ninth Supreme Court justice is needed to decide the election, telegraphing an intention to take it out of the hands of voters. How seriously should we take these statements?
The possible doomsday scenarios for Election Day — or election week, or month, or months — are so many that we can no longer keep count. You could spend the rest of the day reading up on all the possibilities, from the exploitation of legal loopholes in the Electoral College to the destruction of ballots. Trump knows he’s losing as of now and will gladly provoke a constitutional crisis to delegitimize or steal the election, sow chaos, and delay or challenge any count not going his way. And he has teams of Republican lawyers and state lawmakers, not to mention the Attorney General, to do his bidding. He has also vowed to send law-enforcement officers to polling places in battleground states, no doubt to intimidate the voters he wants to suppress.

Next to those concrete actions, his statements casting doubt on our sacrosanct tradition of a peaceful transition of power might seem like his usual made-for-cable-news bluster — hyperbolic theatrics designed to distract from the real subterfuge at hand. The only flaw in that argument is that it will not be Trump who decides whether there will be a peaceful transition or not; it will be his troops. By troops I don’t mean the American military, which is unlikely to bear arms to support any Trump effort to cling to the White House in defeat, but Trump’s own troops, who have formed a rogue military of their own. His language has already given them the signal to do whatever the hell they want.

Those troops are exemplified by Michigan United for Liberty, the right-wing extremist cell that posted violent threats against state officials on highly trafficked private Facebook pages in response to pandemic health measures and then turned up with assault weapons in the Senate balcony in Lansing as legislators (some donning bulletproof vests) gathered below. They include the likes of right-wing militia wannabes like Kyle Rittenhouse, whose killing of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was condoned by Trump. They include the armed cohort who showed up to “provide security” in Louisville after the grand jury rendered its verdict on the Breonna Taylor murder.

The violent actors on the left that Trump rails about also exist, but in relatively tiny numbers. A June report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States” finds that “right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.” They are locked and loaded to mount a violent response to a Trump defeat whether the president explicitly invites them to or not.

The Vichy Republicans in Washington, meanwhile, will be hiding under the desks. While some of them have come out in favor of a peaceful transfer of power in the wake of Trump’s threats, none of them had the guts to criticize him by name. They are all very concerned in the patented manner of Susan Collins. It was rather remarkable to watch Lindsey Graham tell the audience at Fox & Friends that he “can assure” a peaceful denouement to the election during the same week when the worthlessness of his word on late-term Supreme Court nominees was on constant display in campaign ads across the land.

With Mitt Romney’s support, Mitch McConnell appears confident that he has enough Republican senators lined up to quickly confirm the next Supreme Court justice, despite the fact that no nominee has yet been named. Is there anything the Democrats can do?
Beyond speechifying and modest delay tactics, there is nothing the Democrats can do to stop this confirmation. Senate Republicans don’t even care who the nominee is.

My wish, unlikely to be honored, is for the Democrats to let the GOP ramrod the nominee through the process as quickly as possible to make sure the dirty deed is done before the election. The unseemly instant replacement of RBG, which is not favored by most Americans, is unlikely to help Republican electoral prospects in general, and could sabotage incumbent senators in tight races. An internal GOP poll of battleground states conducted last weekend, as reported by the Washington Post, found that 28 percent were more likely to vote for Trump if a nominee were confirmed by the election, and 38 percent less likely to. Other polls over the past year have consistently found that overturning Roe v. Wade, a strong possibility for a Trump Court, is even less popular nationally than Trump himself. As recently as June, a CBS News survey found that only 29 percent wanted to overturn Roe, while 63 percent wanted it to stay in place. Writing in the Cook Political Report, David Wasserman crunched the numbers of a YouGov poll in 2016 and found that variously 20 to 25 percent of Trump voters in the battleground states of Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio, and Wisconsin were pro-choice.

As is the case now, there was much bravura talk among Republicans about how the Brett Kavanaugh battle would be a political plus in the 2018 midterms, which followed Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a month. In reality, its effect was close to nil. The Democrats retook the House by a landslide. In the Senate races, three GOP candidates won in red states (Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota), but five GOP candidates lost in states Trump had won two years earlier (Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin). The campaign of Martha McSally, who lost her Senate race in Arizona, even released a memo blaming her defeat partly on the Kavanaugh confirmation.

McSally, who was subsequently appointed to fill out John McCain’s Senate term after his death, is blindly rallying behind Trump and McConnell’s Supreme Court gambit regardless — never mind that polls consistently show her well behind in her reelection bid. And other shaky Republican incumbents may go down with her. It’s a lose-lose situation for Collins in blue Maine, Cory Gardner in blue Colorado, and Thom Tillis in purple North Carolina. If they don’t vote for the nominee, Trump will trash them and depress their vote among the GOP base. If they do vote to confirm, they lose more of the moderate voters who are already defecting. What none of them seem to realize is that Trump doesn’t give a damn if they all go down as long as he holds on to the White House: He plans to “govern” through the courts and executive orders, not Congress, in his second term, much as he has tried to in the first.

The possibility that somehow Trump’s nominee might not be confirmed if the process drifts past the election into a lame-duck Senate session is faint. Better to accept reality quickly rather than let Trump continue to milk the confirmation battle to distract from his catastrophic failure to stand up to the coronavirus in the final weeks of the campaign. The Democrats have more to gain by enhancing their chances to win back a Senate majority that will start to reverse the damage Trump has done to the courts and every other institution in the country.

Andrew Cuomo has announced that New York State will review any coronavirus vaccine approved by the federal government before distributing it in the state, and that he doesn’t “trust the federal government’s opinion.” Is this a step in the right direction?
For sure. Trump and his flunkies have destroyed the credibility of the CDC and are poised to do the same for the FDA. Public confidence in a vaccine has already fallen from 72 percent to 51 percent over the course of the pandemic. By appointing a panel of scientists to vouch for the safety and efficacy of a vaccine, Cuomo will help restore the trust that is essential to public health. And the New York State process will have outsize clout nationwide, even internationally, given the likelihood that a rejected vaccine would create legal and economic havoc for its Big Pharma producer. Other governors are likely to mimic the New York plan to vouch for a vaccine as well.

Cuomo’s action — much like his effort to coordinate the response to the virus among neighboring states — also offers a paradigm of how governing might work in the event Trump is reelected. As Trump told the states they were on their own in dealing with the pandemic, states will increasingly go their own way on many other matters in a second term, court battles notwithstanding. Like New York, California, which outlined new zero-emission standards for passenger cars last week, isn’t waiting. Such actions are no substitute for an honest and competent federal government, but it is, at least, a relatively peaceful way for the anti-Trump states of America to conduct a civil war.

Frank Rich: How Far Will Trump Go to Keep the White House?