On Wednesday, a reporter asked President Trump a question no reporter would ever have bothered to ask a president before: “Win, lose, or draw in this election, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?”
Trump would not commit. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” he said. “We want to get rid of the ballots, and we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
That is certainly true — get rid of the ballots, and there won’t be a transfer of power. Most likely, Trump is using “ballots” as shorthand for mail-in ballots, which Democrats — generally more resistant to Trump’s denial of the coronavirus — are employing in far greater numbers. The effect is the same: His plan is to quash the ballots and stay in power.
Like many Trumpian outrages, the president is smashing norms so frequently that each new offense blends into all the others, dulling the system’s capacity for alarm. Earlier this summer, when Chris Wallace asked him if he would accept the result of the election, Trump demurred. “I have to see. Look … I have to see,” he replied, “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”
Recently he has been citing the need for a ninth Supreme Court justice to resolve a dispute in his favor. “I think it’s better if you go before the election, because I think this scam that the Democrats are pulling — it’s a scam — the scam will be before the United States Supreme Court,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation, if you get that. I don’t know that you’d get that. I think it should be 8-0 or 9-0, but just in case it would be more political than it should be, I think it’s very important to have a ninth justice.”
Note that Republicans already have five seats on the Supreme Court. Trump believes the 5-3 conservative majority is not enough to uphold whatever maneuvers he has in mind.
The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman reports on the most concerning possibility: that Trump will first claim victory before mail ballots are tabulated, and then prevail on Republican-controlled state legislatures to appoint their state’s Electoral College votes to Trump, circumventing the votes altogether.
Viewing this scenario as a probability would be hysterical. But the odds are far too high for comfort. The brewing crisis has several components. First, the Republican Party has been evolving toward authoritarianism for decades, driven by a combination of beliefs that demographic change will consign them to minority status forever, and that allowing the majority to redistribute the income of the rich to itself is a dire threat to liberty.
Second, Republican voters and elites have believed for years that urban Democrats routinely engage in mass voter fraud, and refuse to accept any falsification. (The George W. Bush administration ordered prosecutors to bring charges of voter fraud, and fired them when they couldn’t turn up any.)
And third, the rickety constitutional structure is poorly suited to handle a disputed election. One of its massive loopholes allows state legislatures to ignore voters altogether and appoint any electors they want to the Electoral College. Respecting the results of the election is merely optional, a norm. And norms have been falling by the wayside.
Into this mix has dropped a narcissistic, aspirational authoritarian who has no respect for the greater good and has spent years drinking deeply from the conspiratorial well of Fox News. Trump is the driver of the crisis, but he has demonstrated the capacity to bring Republicans along with his most unhinged positions. It is not merely a fear of alienating the voting base that adores his bullying style that disciplines them.
Many Republican elites either admire Trump, or — more commonly — believe he poses less of a threat than Joe Biden’s Democrats. George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, an archetypical Republican elite, has a column insisting Biden poses a more serious threat to democracy than Trump, because Biden would support reforms (like D.C. statehood, eliminating the filibuster, supposedly eliminating the Electoral College) that would force Republicans to win a national majority to hold power, which they implicitly consider impossible. Put aside the fact that Biden will likely enact few, if any, of the left’s democratization reforms, or that even a completely democratized system would still have a Republican tilt and give the party plenty of chances to compete.
Biden is currently on the cusp of a victory decisive enough that Trump’s machinations probably cannot stop it. Florida, which is roughly tied, tabulates mail-in ballots quickly, and a Biden win could cut short Trump’s room for mischief.
It should be apparent that all Americans who wish to have a future for democracy have to vote for Biden regardless of their position on any other issue.