Text and in-text images from Michael J. Nighan
Be afraid – Be very afraid!
Make no mistake about it. A constitutional crisis of unprecedented dimensions — one which will make Watergate and the Florida recount debacle of 2000 look like minor pot holes in the political highway — could be just six months away. Because, should Joe Biden be declared the winner on November 3, Donald Trump will claim the election was stolen and will refuse to accept the result. And millions of Americans will likely support his refusal to do so.
Let me say that I when I began thinking about this issue I started out feeling that Trump’s refusal to concede the election should he lose was a “remote possibility.” As I dug deeper into his track record on the subject my view evolved to a “probability”. Now, at the risk of being branded a brain-dead conspiracy nut, I believe the evidence warrants labeling this crisis as “inevitable.” Here’s how I arrived at this conclusion.
As I’ve previously written, poll numbers and talk of a “Blue Wave” notwithstanding, I believe Trump, despite (or perhaps because of) 3 ½ years of border-line demagogic actions, unfortunately still has a good shot at being re-elected given his unbelievable ability to maintain a hard core level of support in the 40% range, his incumbency, and the fact that the GOP sleaze machine is not yet in high gear. Because of these and other factors, the 2020 election gives every indication of being neck-and-neck in several states. Bear in mind that in the three states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — who gave Trump his surprising 2016 Electoral College victory, he won each state by less than one percent of the popular vote. ²
What’s past is prologue
Trump’s inclination to dispute first and ask questions later came to the fore just days after he received the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Standing before a campaign crowd in Columbus, OH on August 1, with every major poll showing him running behind Hillary Clinton, Trump shocked many observers by stating that I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged, I have to be honest. This questioning of the security of the electoral process was to become a constant, and increasingly incendiary and racially-tinged, theme of Trump’s campaign.
Speaking to a rally in Altoona, PA in September, Trump proclaimed that The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. Go down to certain areas and watch and study [to] make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. We’re going to have unbelievable turnout, but we don’t want to see people voting five times. Trump added that he had heard some stories about certain parts of the state and we have to be very careful. The phrases, “other people” and “certain areas” were widely seen as Trumpian code words meaning heavily Democratic minority communities.
By September Trump’s campaign website echoed his increasingly-heated rhetoric that Democrats were plotting to steal the White House in November and raised the specter of vigilantism by called on his supporters to sign up as “volunteer Trump election observers” ready to do “everything that we are legally allowed to do to stop crooked Hillary from rigging the election”.
Added to this, and despite years of investigations and repeated failures by Republicans to provide evidence of voter fraud, right wing organizations such as Judicial Watch echoed Trump’s call to “protect” the electoral process. Judicial Watch set up an “Election Integrity Project”, admonishing Americans that, “the integrity of our elections is under systematic assault by leftists and politicians whose objective is clearly to manipulate the elections for their own gains”.
Stop the Steal, a pro-Trump propaganda organization backed by political thug (and now convicted felon) Roger Stone took the Big Lie of election fraud to a new high, or rather a new low, by calling for volunteers to “monitor” (many read this as to “intimidate”) voters in what were labeled “suspect precincts” on Election Day. Not surprisingly, many media outlets noted that these “suspect precincts” tended to be in urban areas with a significant minority population. Volunteers were to conduct independent “exit polls” for later comparison against voting machine results. Law suits charging that vigilantes with clip boards stalking around polling stations were tantamount to attempted voter suppression and violated campaigning laws resulted in stopping Stop the Steal for the most part.
During October, Trump ramped up his attacks on the integrity both of his opponents and of the electoral process. On October 7, In perhaps his most demagogic display, Trump claimed, once more sans evidence, before a meeting of the border patrol agents’ union, the National Border Patrol Council, that the Obama administration was working behind the scenes to allow illegal immigrants to enter the country to vote in November: They’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.
On October 10 at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA he declared, I just hear such reports about Philadelphia…I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us.
Three days later at a rally in West Palm Beach, FL, Trump said that, This election will determine whether we remain a free nation or only the illusion of democracy. He stated his belief that the system was in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests, rigging the system.
That Trump’s drum beat charges of election rigging were unfortunately having an impact was dramatically brought home when a Politico/Morning Consult poll released on October 17 showed that 41% of registered voters (and 73% of registered Republicans) believed that voting fraud might be used to steal the presidential election. One in five voters responded that they “strongly agree” that such rigging might occur.
As the campaign drew to a close, Trump upped the ante dramatically in his final debate with Hillary Clinton on October 19 by refusing to say whether he would accept the outcome of the election if he lost, a position that seemed to stun even Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace, the debate moderator:
WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you….I want to ask you here on the stage tonight…will you absolutely accept the result of this election?”
TRUMP: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen — what I’ve seen is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt, and the pile-on is so amazing…. It’s so dishonest. And they’ve poisoned the mind of the voters….if you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote … millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.
WALLACE: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?
So it goes
Despite an upset victory in the 2016 election, Trump continued to rail against non-existent voter fraud, claiming in a January 25, 2017 interview on ABC that three to five million illegal votes had been cast in November, And I will say this, of those votes cast, none of ’em come to me. None of ’em come to me. They would all be for the other side. In a subsequent interview on Meet the Press Trump falsely claimed that California officials had admitted that “a million votes” were cast as part of “much illegal voting” in the state during the 2016 election. These statements were seen as Trump’s way of dealing with the fact that Hillary Clinton had trounced him by three million votes.
In succeeding years Trump has continued to raise the straw man of voter fraud when Republican candidates appeared to be in trouble.
For example, when in 2018 the races for Florida governor and US senator were tight enough to trigger a mandatory recount, Trump immediately jumped in to tweet unsubstantiated charges of voting irregularities: The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected.
Despite the usual lack of evidence of voter fraud, and setting aside that those ballots which “showed up out of nowhere” were actually standard mail-in ballots which showed up out of the post office, when both Republican candidates ultimately won their elections, Trump tried to claim he had thwarted the (fictitious) attempt by officials in predominantly-Democratic counties to steal the election, tweeting that, The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now!
So, given this background, and given daily proof of Trump’s lack of respect for political norms and his disregard for anything but his own aggrandizement, can we REALLY expect that he will go quietly into retirement should he lose the 2020 election? Is it not far more likely, even inevitable, that he will denounce the results and erupt in an unprecedented (even for him) tirade of demagoguery aimed at his fanatical followers?
Of course, as no voter fraud will have occurred, it will be necessary for Trump and the Republican Party to manufacture it. Or at lest manufacture the appearance of it. And the simplest method would be a scenario such as this…..
In early summer, with polls showing Biden leading by several percentage points, the 2016 Trump play book will be dusted off and the Big Lies of election rigging, crooked polls, etc. rolled out. And as we’ve seen, there will be fertile ground among the electorate for such claims to take root and grow. Trump’s campaign rants and tweets will be immediately backed by the same groups that supported his conspiracy allegations in 2016.
As election results start coming in on Election Night, November 3, from states where Trump can be expected to take an early lead but where mail in ballots and traditionally delayed votes from urban centers make the final outcome difficult to predict, Trump will ignore the tradition of waiting until the networks announce the winner and will instead declare victory in those states long before all the votes are counted. Confetti and streamers will drop at Republican campaign headquarters as his “re-election” is celebrated by millions of red hat-wearing followers. Then, and this is the crucial point, should the uncounted ballots show that the states in question were actually won by Biden, Trump will refuse to concede and will erupt in a tidal wave of rants, tweeting, SEE!!! I TOLD YOU SO!!!! THE DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO STEAL THE ELECTION FROM YOU THE PEOPLE”!!!! Right wing talking heads and online pundits will throw gasoline on the conflagration via social media. The possibility of civil unrest will become an ever-present danger.
Lawsuits, ‘a la Florida 2000, will be filed by the GOP in disputed states with constitutional chaos erupting when Trump refuses to abide by any court decision, including any Supreme Court order, that goes against him. Thus, as the clock ticks down to Inauguration Day, America will find itself in the position of having two men claiming to be the duly-elected president and both backed by their party and by millions of Americans. What will happen then is anybody’s guess.³
This is what I see coming down the road. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
NOTES:² A potential election wild card exists in the form of a case currently before the Supreme Court. In January the high court agreed to hear two cases brought by 2016 presidential electors in Colorado and Washington who are arguing that it’s unconstitutional for a state to mandate that electors must vote for the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Most states have such a requirement on their books. The court expects to hand down their decision in June, but that schedule may be changed due to the impact on court proceedings of the coronavirus. It should be noted that Trump once called the current Electoral College system a “disaster.” But following his election by that system, decided that, compared to the popular vote, which he lost, “the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.” ³ While it might be argued that a disputed presidential election in 2020 will have much in common with the disputed Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, in which both candidates claimed to be the winner, it should be noted that while in 1876 there was unquestionably widespread voter suppression, vote counting irregularities, and electoral chicanery perpetrated by both Democratic and Republican officials in the three states involved; Florida Louisiana and South Carolina, a 2020 crisis will be the work of one man lying thorough his teeth. Further, divisive as the 1876 campaign was, there was still a sufficient level of bipartisanship for a compromise, albeit a somewhat underhanded one, to be worked out. And in 1876 they had until March 4 to hammer out a deal. This year’s crisis will have to be resolved by January 20 by two parties barely speaking to one another. Adding fuel to the 2020 fire will be the existence of social media and the possibility of foreign election tampering, factors obviously not part of the 1876 train wreck. But perhaps the biggest difference between 1876 and 2020 will be that in 1876 it was impossible to determine who the true winner was, whereas this year the result will more-than-likely be clear by the day after Election Day, even if Trump and the Republicans dispute the result. (see Master Rutherford Hayes Comes to Town . . . and Perhaps Little Chet Arthur as Well)