Donald Trump’s intent to steal this November’s election has long since moved out of the realm of paranoia and conspiracy theory and into ho-hum conventional wisdom.
One didn’t have to do much digging to come to that conclusion – he as much said so himself in a July 19 interview with Chris Wallace, his least-favorite journalist on his house organ Fox News, in which he declined to guarantee that he would accept the results of the election. He had said much the same thing in 2016, launching a bit of asymmetric warfare with his opponent Hillary Clinton who respected the result at the polls which awarded Trump the Electoral College victory even though he lost the popular vote. No one has asked Joe Biden whether he would accept the results, as it’s assumed he would be too decent a human being not to. No one, not even Fox, assumes decency of Trump.
Thus Trump continues to lay the groundwork for a 2020 election in which he is defeated at the polls but nevertheless somehow manages to upend democracy and retain control of the White House. As they say, it’s crazy but it just might work.
Trump realizes he could not win a free and fair election in which all eligible voters who wanted to participate could vote easily without standing in long lines, traveling long distances or jeopardizing their health. At the beginning of 2020 it was at least plausible that the enthusiasm of his white working-class base coupled with general apathy among much of the rest of the electorate could carry the day for him. But with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 6 million Americans infected and over 170,000 dead, the collapse of the economy accompanied by mass unemployment, the explosion of outrage over police violence against African Americans, and the president’s incompetent, uncaring and frequently destructive leadership in the crises, more and more voters have become motivated to ensure that Trump is a one-term president.
Part of Trump’s strategy involves the old ploy of the pot calling the kettle black – claiming without evidence that it’s the Democrats that are plotting to steal the election from him. “Fraud. That’s what they want: fraud. They want to try and steal this election because, frankly, it’s the only way they can win the election,” Trump charged in an interview from the links in Bedminster, taking a golf break since he was handling the national crises so well.
It’s odd that a sitting president would charge the opposition of trying to steal an election, since in most countries it’s the incumbent head of government who uses the powers of their office to do the stealing – as just recently happened in Belarus. For a strongman, Trump seems to consider himself a laughably weak one. He could correctly assert that in this country the states largely control voting, and that each of the nation’s 24 Democratic governors would like to see him gone. Those governors, however, all want to bring about that result by making it easier for their citizens to vote – to expand democracy, not overturn it.
Trump is not as feckless as he sometimes claims to be. He does have levers to use in his favor and plans to employ them. He once proposed delaying the election, although he has no legal authority to do so and gained little mainstream traction for the proposal, even among leading Republicans. Trump’s real scheme always has been to make it harder to vote. And with the pandemic raging, he knows that many Americans will be reluctant to vote by any method other than the mail. Therefore, he has attacked mail voting as insecure and subject to fraud. But since many state governments, and not only those dominated by Democrats, are expanding mail voting anyway. Trump moved to step B of his plan: to undermine the institution without which mail voting would be impossible – the U.S. Postal Service.
The efforts of Louis DeJoy, Trump’s hand-picked Postmaster General, to “reorganize” the Postal Service have been well-documented in the press. The effect of his “reform” effort has been to slow down the mail and make delivery more unreliable. And this is exactly what Trump wants, for it sets the stage for him to delegitimize an election in which he loses but manages to retain power anyway. Once again, Trump made his intentions plain in an interview with the Fox Business Network in which he stated baldly that he didn’t want emergency funding for the Postal Service because “they need that money to have the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” Once his plot to sabotage his own agency was revealed and both Congress and citizens fought back, DeJoy promised during a Senate hearing to delay any further overhaul of the Postal Service until after the election. That could be believed as much as the fox in the henhouse solemnly promising to eat no more chickens.
One nightmare scenario is as follows, similar to speculations reported by the Post’s Robert McCartney: Election-night news coverage shows a close election, especially in crucial swing states, with Trump holding a slight lead. Even well past midnight the networks can’t call the election because an unprecedented number of ballots has been submitted by mail and much of it is yet to be counted. Election night passes into the morning with no declared winner as election boards all over the country are sifting through millions of uncounted ballots. Since Trump condemns mail-in voting and the Democrats have embraced it, Biden is likely to gain in this late count. This gives Trump the opening to claim unfriendly state governments are trying to use “fraudulent” mail voting to steal the election from him, especially those in swing states with Democratic governors such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and North Carolina. Republican governors try to halt the count in their states. Amidst the chaos, Trump’s Second Amendment boys descend on election boards with their hardware, while Biden futilely pleads for calm while the votes are counted. It’s unclear where this story would end, but it would make the 2000 debacle look like a picnic.
In fact, many of those mailed-in ballots might not get counted at all. DeJoy’s Postal Service has bluntly warned 46 states and DC that it can’t guarantee delivery of all their mailed ballots in time to be counted according to the states’ rules. In response some states have pushed up their deadlines for voters to mail ballots, or extend the time after election night for tabulating them. But the former disenfranchises voters by forcing them to vote before the official day of the election; the latter drags out the count and further allows Trump to claim the election is being stolen from him.
How do we fight back?
First of all, all states should institute universal, no-excuse voting by mail, and their citizens should lobby for it as vigorously as possible. Here in the Washington region, DC already plans to mail a ballot to all registered voters; Maryland is mailing an application for a mail ballot to all its registered voters while in Virginia one can vote by mail without an excuse, although voters have to ask for a ballot. It’s very late in the election calendar for states to institute new election procedures, but these are unprecedented times. States must ensure ramped-up security at locations where votes are being counted to guard against intimidation or violent attempts to disrupt the tallies (this being distinct from a heavy security presence during actual voting which may be used for voter intimidation).
There seems to be no way to oust DeJoy before the election, but Democrats in Congress and state government as well as citizen watchdogs must continue to keep an eye out for further shenanigans intended to hold up the mail or, worse, lose some of it. It’s a sad statement that we have come to this pass, but this is only the latest in a slow slide to dictatorship that will steepen if Trump is re-elected.
And everyone concerned about what a second Trump term would bring must vote – for Biden. Not Howie Hawkins or Kanye West or others in the grab-bag of spoiler candidates. Biden is not the candidate we wanted – I hardly need to catalog his flaws and his past failings – but he is all that is standing between us and the destruction of democracy.
A second Trump term would be too awful to contemplate. Should he somehow emerge victorious, even by questionable means, he would feel unleashed. After the Senate voted against removing him from office he sacked administration officials who courageously testified about his hijacking of aid to Ukraine for naked political purposes: Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, national security staff member Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. He subsequently canned the supposedly independent inspectors general across the government who were poking into areas that inconvenienced him.
What would a newly re-elected (even in a stolen vote) Trump be like? He would respect no restraints on his power. He would employ the full strength of the executive branch as he willed. Border Patrol agents kidnapping demonstrators in Portland? That was only a warmup. He’s the commander in chief of all the armed forces and has the Insurrection Act at his disposal; he could send the military to crush dissent. He would raid the Treasury for his pet projects and laugh at the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause, as he already has to fund his Mexican border wall. What recourse would Congress or the courts have? Impeachment? He already beat that one. Congressional oversight? Don’t make him laugh. As for the courts, he would be Andrew Jackson writ large – who, after Chief Justice John Marshall penned the Supreme Court decision against his plan to force the Cherokees to move to Oklahoma from their ancestral home in the Southeast, allegedly said, “Let him enforce it.” That quote would become Trump’s mantra. It’s the executive branch that does the enforcing.
Following the destruction of our democratic institutions comes the full force of his toxic policies. Environmental destruction that pushes us over the cliff into full-blown and irreversible climate change. Militarized policing. Massive tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else. Evisceration of safety, environmental and consumer-protection regulations. A stream of right-wing judges pledging to undo Roe v. Wade, for starters. And if you like the way he’s handling the pandemic, we’ll get more of the same.
So as not to shy away from the obvious conclusion, a re-elected Trump could lead us into strongman dictatorship along the lines of Russia or the Philippines, if not full-blown fascism. The Constitution’s protections against a president with no regard for it are shaky at best.
Four years ago I wrote an article for the Washington Socialist in which I argued that in noncompetitive states, those who opposed Trump but couldn’t bear to support Hillary Clinton could safely vote for third-party candidates – while still, I added, helping to elect Clinton through phone banking, canvassing, contributions and other efforts. A similar argument has been made for 2020 by, among others, DSA member Mike Hirsh in New Politics who urged leftists in noncompetitive states to vote Green.
Today I say that argument might have been fine for 2016, but in 2020 we live in a different world. Perhaps the only thing that will force Trump to back down from an attempted overthrow of the election results is an overwhelming popular vote against him on Election Day, notwithstanding how many mail ballots have yet to be counted. Losing in a landslide vote wouldn’t shame him enough to abandon claims that voter fraud was the reason for his losing – shame is not in his makeup – but it would lead the bulk of Republican governors and members of Congress, whose support he has needed and still would need to advance his schemes, to abandon him. They know how to read the election results and when to retreat. They were Trump’s toadies when he was winning, but once the stink of defeat is on him they won’t be able to run away fast enough.
Therefore, in 2020 every vote counts – in California and Massachusetts, in Wyoming and Mississippi -- and in DC, Maryland and Virginia. If we want Trump out, there can be no protest voting – every vote for the Democratic ticket is a vote for a democracy. All others are votes for Trump and tyranny.
So vote – and donate, and join a phone bank, and do whatever you can to elect Biden and Harris. Then once democracy is preserved, we can become the opposition again.
I realize this article might rub some readers the wrong way. If so, good. I welcome your comments.