Is the narrative finally turning against Donald Trump? Have our years of living in denial about his dictatorial ambitions finally given way to a clearer understanding of the danger that he represents to American democracy? And if so, what can be done to stop him?
There is actually some good news to report, news that for the first time in years makes me think that optimism is not entirely delusional. This is a low bar, I concede, but it is still important.
In this first of a two-part series of columns, I will discuss these newfound reasons for guarded optimism. Because the situation is still so grim, however, the second part of the series, to be published tomorrow, will remind us not only that the situation is much worse than most people have been willing to admit but that it might become still more terrifying. Indeed, the very fact that people like me are beginning to feel some sense of optimism might make Trump act worse than ever.
Before I dive back into the bad news, however, it is good for one’s mental health not to ignore the good news, at least for a day. Why am I feeling some optimism these days?
The Long-Term State of Denial Regarding Trump’s Inevitable Coup Attempt
In my most recent Verdict column, I described myself as something of a lonely voice over the past few years, warning again and again that Trump will stop at nothing to hold onto power. Just as important, I have been highlighting how Republicans have every reason to participate in the perversion of our democracy—if for no other reason than that Trump’s claims about “rigged elections” will allow losing down-ticket Republicans to steal their own seats.
When I wrote my Verdict column earlier this month, there had been only a handful of examples of national commentators who had finally started to say that Trump will refuse to accept losing. It was good to see that a few are now willing to doing so, but it was still a mere trickle, even as most commentators and Democratic politicians were pretending that the election will be fair and that Trump will leave office peacefully.
And it is not as if people have not been warned. More than a year ago, Trump’s former “fixer” Michael Cohen stated plainly that “there will never be a peaceful transition of power” under Trump. Perhaps because Cohen is otherwise such a pathetic character, but more likely because people prefer to deny what they cannot face, that warning was soon forgotten.
In my Verdict column earlier this month, I imagined what would happen if a news reporter were to take my warnings seriously and try to get Republican politicians to affirm on the record that they would stand up to any attempt by Trump to defy the will of the voters. What would those Republicans say, given that they could never admit that they would abet him when it came time to stealing the election?
My prediction was that those politicians would feign outrage, denouncing the reporter for even asking such a question. We soon, however, saw an unexpected test run, when an enterprising reporter (Grace Panetta of Business Insider) asked a long line of Republican U.S. senators to comment on Trump’s gassing of protesters on his way to defiling a Bible as part of a political stunt near the White House.
It turned out that these senators could not even be bothered to answer the question at all, much less muster the energy necessary to fake a bit of righteous outrage. Most of the Republicans ignored the reporter entirely or claimed not to know what had happened.
This suggests that, if asked a hypothetical question of the sort that I imagined regarding a Trump coup, Republican senators would simply stare blankly and walk away. If they cannot even be roused to say something when the President of the United States abuses his powers to violently stop citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights, why would they say anything to warn Trump not to shred the rest of the Constitution?
Our Institutions Are Only as Strong as the People Who Inhabit Them
One possible answer to my question about how the American political system would respond to Trump’s refusal to accept losing is to treat that system as a disembodied machine that was perfected and handed to us by the nation’s founders. Trump will not succeed, the argument goes, because “our institutions” will not allow him to do so.
The least weak version of that argument that I have seen came from a national security reporter named Fred Kaplan who argued in Slate (in a column published on the very day that Trump took his stroll across Lafayette Square) that Trump would not be able to refuse to leave office. Why? Because the law would not allow it, and the organs of government that are supposed to follow the law will of course follow the law.
I rejected that idea in a column on Dorf on Law, noting in particular that Kaplan had rigged his scenario such that his actual argument was not that Trump would be unable to abuse his office to hold power but was instead something like this: “If nothing else has been corrupted or broken down before Biden’s inauguration day, a refusal by Trump to leave the White House would not work.”
Once the argument is clarified in this way, it is obviously fatuous. Some writers, maybe even including me, might have said at one point or another that Trump will “simply” refuse to leave office, or words to that effect. But that does not mean that we are imagining a situation in which Trump stews in the West Wing until January 20 and then simply announces that he is not going anywhere.
What we know is that Trump is willing to fire prosecutors, to mobilize military troops, to abuse the courts, and to claim that everything that has happened to him is corrupt. He simply will not go, and his coup will not begin and end on Inauguration Day.
Indeed, one of the things that Trump and his supporters have been doing for years now is to coopt the word “coup” as a preemptive move, to drain it of all meaning. Indeed, they now use that word to describe any situation in which Trump is opposed via legal means. The Mueller report was supposedly an attempted coup, Trump’s impeachment was similarly an attempted coup, and pretty much everything else is a plot to take away Trump’s “landslide” victory in 2016. “Coup,” in their mind, means “Trump not being President anymore.”
So Trump has already degraded the language by using against his enemies the very word that best describes what he is doing. And no matter how much wishful thinking Kaplan wants to engage in, Trump will spend every day trying to convince people that he is the rightful winner of the election, which will involve efforts never to get to the point where “everyone knows” that Trump lost and must leave when his term ends.
This can only be prevented if the people who work inside our institutions are actually willing to do what their roles demand of them. Trump, for his part, will do what is necessary to convince people that Biden lost.
In other words, no one is saying that Trump will say something like this: “I lost, but I refuse to accept losing. I’m not leaving.” It will be: “I didn’t lose, no matter what the evil press and the deep-state conspiracy says. Massive voter fraud! The courts are corrupt. Second Amendment people need to stop this coup!!” The idea is not to get people to defy the rule of law directly but to get enough of them to be confused about what the law requires that they do not even know who won. “I didn’t lose, I won,” Trump will shout. “The radical socialist Democrats are the ones who hate our beautiful Constitution.”
The Only Way to Stop It Is to Be Honest About It
As I also noted in my column earlier this month, there might not be any point in saying out loud what Trump is going to do, because there might be nothing that we can do in any case. If Trump is going to be abetted by his partisans, and given that he is willing to stop at nothing, maybe there is truly nothing to be done.
If that were true, then we would now be living in what we might as well call a “dead democracy walking.” We might not realize it yet, but our constitutional system might already have been fatally wounded and is simply in the process of bleeding to death. Not dead yet, but irreversibly doomed nonetheless.
As depressing as that is, it might be true. The only way for it not to be true, however, is for people to see clearly what is at stake. For the reasons that I noted above, many people (most definitely including Democratic politicians) have shied away from saying that Trump’s existential threat to the American experiment includes the possibility of an outright refusal to leave office peacefully.
Because I saw no reason to think that politicians, pundits, or reporters would be willing to speak this truth out loud, I concluded that we would be doomed by what amounts to a timing problem. That is, by the time that people were finally confronted with evidence that they could no longer deny, it would be too late to stop the worst from happening.
All of which brings us to my reasons for being at least a tiny bit optimistic about what might yet happen in this country. It turns out that people might be waking up now, which might give us a fighting chance to prepare to stop Trump before it is too late.
For one thing, I have been happy to learn that mine has not been the only voice warning about Trump’s unwillingness to accept losing. I have never been a fan of the pundit Bill Maher (for a variety of reasons), so I did not realize until someone told me recently that Maher has been sounding similar alarms about Trump for some time.
Moreover, at least some of my fellow academics have been working on these issues (much more effectively than I have, if I am to be honest). For example, the legal scholar Lawrence Douglas at Amherst College has now published a book-length inquiry into these questions, the title of which poses the key question: Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020.
Even better, Professor Douglas’s book is not being treated as a mere academic curiosity. The high-profile website Vox highlighted the publication of the book by interviewing Douglas at length. Here is a particularly helpful (if chilling) sample of his commentary:
[I]f we do fall into an electoral crisis and we start seeing the kinds of challenges to the results that we saw back in year 2000, during Bush v. Gore, then we could really see a meltdown because our contemporary political climate is so polarized. That’s what led me to start asking, what types of federal laws do we have in place? What kind of constitutional procedures do we have in place to right the ship?
And what I found is that they just don’t exist.
Professor Douglas points out that there are ways for the Electoral College to become a point of contention—not (only) in the sense that it allows a person to become President with a minority of the votes (as in 2000 and 2016) but in the even more disturbing situation where state-level Republicans try to defy their own states’ voters by refusing to certify Joe Biden’s electors.
That all sounds pretty bad, and it is. Professor Douglas does, however, offer one concrete reason for hope—and one that has caused me to rethink how I imagine the end of this year playing out. His Vox interview ends this way:
The only real way to avoid this is to make sure we don’t enter into this scenario, and the best way to do that is to ensure that he loses decisively in November. That’s the best guarantee. That’s the best way that we can secure the future of a healthy constitutional democracy.
I have argued at various times that it does not matter how decisively Trump loses. Indeed, I have even suggested that he would be even more (or at least equally) likely to contest the election results after a blowout loss than after a nail-biter, because he and his minions have so convinced themselves of his popularity that they would take a landslide as even more convincing proof that something must truly have been rigged.
The Douglas hypothesis, however, points out that the nightmare scenario has a lot of moving parts, and larger voting margins make it more difficult for Trump and the Republicans to manipulate enough of those moving parts to pull off a coup. If, say, Florida’s voters choose Biden by 0.4 percentage points, it will be relatively easy for the Sunshine State’s Republicans to convince judges and others (as well as themselves) that the state need not certify Biden electors. But if they are willing to steal the election for Trump even if he loses by, say, 55-45, then we are already doomed. There is reason to believe that we are not there yet.
In the end, then, the decentralized nature of the U.S. system of voting makes it very, very important that Trump and the Republicans have as few avenues as possible to steal the election. That it is necessary to say to Democrats, “You can’t just win, you have to win big,” is a sad commentary on where we are today, but it is true nonetheless.
Perhaps the biggest reason, however, that I am feeling some sense of optimism that we might emerge from 2020 intact—though surely battered and bruised as a nation—brings us back to my comments above about the importance of all of us collectively emerging from the state of denial in which we have been living. Democrats need to stop politely refusing to call Trump out on his election-stealing intentions.
And lo and behold, Joe Biden himself has finally said it out loud. Less than two weeks ago, Biden appeared on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and was as blunt as possible: “It’s my greatest concern, my single greatest concern. This president is going to try to steal this election.”
Biden also said this: “I am absolutely convinced [the military] will escort him from the White House with great dispatch” if Trump refuses to leave. Although that is the naïve framing that I described above (everything being in place on January 20, with Trump clutching the door frame of the Oval Office as he is dragged out), it is nonetheless notable that Biden was willing even to talk about something so seemingly extreme.
After all, Joe Biden might be the very embodiment of what has come to be known as “defensive crouch liberalism,” which is the habit of mind by which centrist Democrats lack the courage of whatever convictions that they claim to have, choosing instead not to fight and to preemptively compromise with their opponents (and then to give away even more during negotiations).
Al Gore was a gentleman who stepped aside in 2000 even though he had both facts and law on his side, all in the name of preserving the republic. No matter what one thinks of Gore’s choice, the only way to preserve the republic now is to fight. And with Joe Biden already sounding the alarm in early June, no one else has any reason to pretend not to see what Trump is up to from here on.
Things could still go very badly, as I will argue in the second and final part of this series tomorrow. But seeing Biden and the Democrats at long last stop pretending that this is business as usual should give us some reason to imagine that all hope is not lost. For now, I welcome even that highly contingent good news.