vision 2020

In a Contested Election, This Time Democrats Won’t Be Drowned Out

The “Brooks Brothers Riot” of 2000, in which Republican congressional staffers shouted their way to a recount shutdown. Photo: Colin Braley/Reuters

A new, pugilistic brand of left-of-center politics began to emerge after the contested — and arguably stolen — presidential election of 2000, often known as the “netroots” for its online stomping grounds, and very much born of the conviction that Democrats didn’t care enough about their convictions to fight for them. My colleague Jonathan Chait summed up how 2000 was the genesis of this trend not that many years later:

The 2000 recount is an apt birthing ground for the netroots. It perfectly fits their view of U.S. politics as an atavistic clash of partisan willpower. And their analysis of that episode, while somewhat crude, has a certain truth. The liberal intelligentsia, and much of the Democratic Establishment, tried to hold itself above the fray … Members of the Gore recount team like William Daley and Warren Christopher, seeking to uphold their reputations as statesmen, nervously complied. The contrast with the Republican side could not have been more stark. The only complaint conservative pundits had with the George W. Bush operation was that it was too soft.

Bush never conceded the possibility that he could lose. Nor did he feel any obligation to maintain intellectual consistency. His campaign demanded the letter of the law be carried out in those instances when it suited his side, and it flouted the letter of the law in those (military ballots, illegally submitted absentee ballots in Seminole County) when it did not. It whipped up a mob to halt a recount in Miami-Dade County that at the time appeared potentially decisive. Conservatives celebrated these developments without a hint of dissent. While Democrats in Washington constantly undermined the Gore campaign by telling reporters that Gore should concede, Washington Republicans maintained ranks. Through their greater resolve and partisan discipline, the Republicans triumphed.

And after an election not deemed particularly high-stakes by voters in either party during much of the campaign, the consequences of Bush’s victory-by-SCOTUS turned out to be pretty significant by the end of his second term in 2008.

Twelve years later, we are experiencing the rare phenomenon (perhaps unparalleled since 1860) of an election outcome many of us expect to be contested and lead to widespread confusion and turmoil. That’s not because the contest is especially close by historical standards, though it could turn out to be in the end. No: The anticipatory suffering of 2020 is mostly attributable to a president whose instincts are far less civil than those of Bush’s partisans in 2000, and who is all but promising to contest any result other than his own reelection. And after dropping a dense trail of hints that he might claim victory on Election Night even if his eventual defeat by late-counted mail ballots (whose legitimacy he has incessantly scorned) is certain, he is now flirting with the idea of declaring protests against a questionable Trump “victory” as grounds for martial law. Here is what he said in an upcoming interview with Fox News’ Judge Jeanine, via Politico:

“We’ll put them down very quickly if they do that. We have the right to do that. We have the power to do that, if we want,” Trump [said when asked how he would respond to incidents of rioting should he be declared the winner on Nov. 3.]

“Look, it’s called insurrection,” he added. “We just send in, and we do it very easy. I mean, it’s very easy. I’d rather not do that because there’s no reason for it, but if we had to, we’d do that and put it down within minutes.”

There are obviously questions as to what Pirro meant by “winner” or by “riots,” but the fact remains that gunpowder is in the air as we approach November 3. And as Ron Brownstein reports at The Atlantic, Democrats are not inclined to stand by and watch Republicans intimidate their way to another purloined presidential election, this one involving an incumbent who will very clearly take a hundred miles of license if he is given an inch:

No one can say what exactly will happen if Donald Trump contests an apparent loss on November 3 by insisting that the results are riddled with fraud. But one prediction is safe: Democrats won’t cede the streets to the GOP again in the weeks after the election.

He goes on to explain that the scenario Democrats fear, whether or not Trump claims victory, is the deployment of MAGA thugs to stop or complicate the processing and tabulation of the mail ballots that could undo him:

A wide array of progressive groups is already coordinating efforts to ensure substantial public protest after the election to defend the vote counting. Their assumption is that Trump will try to intimidate state officials tabulating mail-in ballots by mobilizing the same sort of armed supporters who poured into midwestern capitals to protest the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring and confronted Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. The intent on the left, if it comes to that, is to meet Trump’s demonstrators with overwhelming numbers; the goal is to establish a presence more reminiscent of the street uprisings in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the more recent prodemocracy protests in Ukraine and Hong Kong, than of anything in modern American experience.

The situation, unfortunately, could be more complicated than demonstrations versus counter-demonstrations, dangerous as they might be. A contested election effort by Trump would very likely include massive litigation alleging “voter fraud,” maneuvering in state capitals to obtain rival Electoral College slates, and in the worst-case scenario, the above-mentioned presidential threat to call in the troops to put down the protests.

As is the nature in such dire circumstances, one side’s preparations for self-defense becomes the other side’s pretext for repression. We’ve seen a recent flowering of conservative warnings of a post-election Democratic “coup” based on disputing a Trump win and somehow manufacturing mail ballots to overturn it — a perverse twisting of the reality that mail ballots are perfectly legal everywhere, with documented fraud being unicorn-rare. But as Brownstein points out, citing research from Vanderbilt University’s Larry Bartels, today’s Trumpian Right is increasingly populated with people who openly disdain democratic norms and claim the right to protect their vision of American greatness by any means necessary:

In a national survey [Bartels] conducted in January, just over half of Republican voters (including both self-identified Republicans and independents who lean toward the party) strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Just under half agreed that “strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.” About two in five agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” And almost three-fourths concurred that “it is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.”

Strikingly, less than one-fourth of Republicans disagreed with any of these statements. (No more than 8 percent strongly disagreed with any of them.) The rest described themselves as unsure.

Needless to say, a lot of these people are heavily armed, and believe the Second Amendment gives them a right of revolution against “tyranny,” however they choose to define it. At the same time, yes, a massive and peaceful demonstration of resolve to ensure that all votes get counted this year could prove absolutely essential.

In a Contested Election, Democrats Won’t Be Drowned Out