November 2020Policy

Election 2020: Be Ready for Anything

By now most people reading this will have already voted –or, at least, I hope you have. If not, take care of this ASAP.

This is not one of the constant pleas to go to the polls but rather a reflection on what might come next. After all, this is the first election in memory in which one of the candidates, and the incumbent to boot, has not pledged to respect the results.

Is Trump really the threat to overturning democracy that he is sometimes made out to be or merely the country’s “crazy uncle,” as Savannah Guthrie suggested during his recent NBC townhall event?

Ross Douthat of the New York Times, for one, says fears of Trump successfully emaining in power after losing at the polls are overblown. Trump “is an incompetent who postures as a strongman” rather than a potential Mussolini, Douthat argues, pointing to the still-robust free press that (except for Fox News and right-wing websites) hasn’t been hesitant to criticize him, dissent within his own national-security establishment, and defeats before a Supreme Court consisting of a majority of Republican appointees (which might not hold up once Amy Coney Barrett takes up the vacant seat, although that is a topic for a separate article).

But can we afford complacency? Why not be prepared for the worst – for Trump refusing to leave office despite a defeat at the polls and an attempt to rally the Republican Party, his base of racist xenophobes, and perhaps the armed forces behind him?

Douthat says not to worry. His response is that “liberalism under Trump has become a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture.” Don’t worry about Trump, he counsels; the left is stronger than he is.

I’d like to believe that, but I can’t be confident that this will be a simple election in which we count all the votes and move ahead.

The real danger is that the result of the election, at least as seen in the potentially dangerous several days afterward, might seem to be ambiguous. We are in uncharted territory in holding a national election during a public health crisis, in which an unprecedented number of people will vote by mail, and with an incumbent who claims he can’t lose, absent massive voter fraud.

In fact, as I argued in the September Washington Socialist, it’s the other way around: In a fully free and fair election in which every vote is counted, Trump would be hard-pressed to find a path to victory. A growing list of ex-Republican officeholders and former national security officials has repudiated him. Even a number of incumbent Republican officeholders, who would have the most to lose by going rogue, feel comfortable crossing him at times, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Senators Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney, and Susan Collins. From his hair-breadth margin of victory in 2016 his base of support has dwindled to hardcore angry whites and Republican politicians who fear them.

And yet. We can write off this being a fully free and fair election, for Trump and his Republican sycophants have already partially stolen it through voter suppression. For example:

  • In Florida, the GOP state government gutted a voter initiative to restore the rights of ex-felons, enacting a law violating the spirit of that vote by requiring former convicts to pay all outstanding fines and court fees – in effect, a poll tax.
  • In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott, by executive order, decreed that there could be only one ballot drop-off location in each county, which would require many voters to travel considerable distances to vote and wait in long lines to deliver their ballots. For example, Harris County, which includes Houston, has some 2.4 million registered voters and is larger than the state of Rhode Island – and only one drop site.
  • Georgia has a long history of suppression and purging of voter rolls, mostly of people of color. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that the state removed 1.5 million voters from the rolls between 2012 and 2016 under Secretary of State Brian Kemp. In 2017 alone, according to investigative journalist Greg Palast, Kemp improperly purged more than 340,000 voters. The following year he ran for governor even as he continued to remove tens of thousands from the rolls and won a narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Further efforts to suppress the Democratic vote are planned by armed, right-wing militias who intend to descend on the polls to provide “security” – egged on by Trump’s openly inciting them to “stand back and stand by” during his first debate with Joe Biden.

Voter suppression is the first step in the GOP’s effort to steal the election. The second is through sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt on the election’s results.

Trump’s disparagement of mail voting – and the U.S. Postal Service in general, which his hand-picked Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is attempting to dismantle mid-election – sets the stage for him to contest and possibly overturn election results unfavorable to him. It’s likely that since Trump has lectured his supporters not to trust mail voting most of these votes will favor Biden, and many of these votes won’t be counted until after election day. Thus if the race turns out to be closer than the polls indicate, the election-night tally might even favor Trump with the subsequent ballot count turning in Biden’s favor. This would be Trump’s opening to claim the election is being stolen from him and call for further ballot counting to stop – a call that might be taken up by Republican governors in swing states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Ohio. In such a close race, Republican officeholders – not only governors and secretaries of state but members of Congress as well – could feel emboldened to follow his lead and call for Trump to be declared the winner. This election, like the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, could be decided by the Supreme Court – which, with the addition of Barrett, would have a 6-3 majority of Republican-nominated members.

The best preventative for such a scenario would be for Biden to win by a landslide that is apparent on election night. Then most of Trump’s enablers would abandon him. While they might be tempted to steal an election hanging in the balance, no one – not Mitch McConnell, not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – wants to look foolish by claiming Trump won an election he clearly lost. One shouldn’t expect Trump ever to concede even if he lost by 30 points – most likely he’d shamelessly claim voter fraud and voting by undocumented immigrants or such, and he could call the lunatic armed fringe of his voter base into the streets. But in a clear win by Biden his partisans could do little but create some havoc before they slink away, as Trump himself would eventually do in a flurry of sour-grapes tweets.

But if the election is close and Trump attempts a power grab, a number of organizations, including DSA, are preparing their members to take to the streets. Militant street action is only one element of resisting what would amount to an overthrow of the Constitution, along with challenges from Democratic officeholders – and perhaps some Republicans with a conscience – around the country. The opposition should make clear that a country with an illegitimate Trump at its head would be ungovernable. One would hope the major media, which mostly hasn’t been shy in pointing out Trump’s lies and abuses of power while in office, would blow the whistle on an attempt to steal the election, but its general acceptance of Bush v. Gore fails to inspire confidence.

Most of all, there can be no repeat of 2000, when Al Gore allowed the election to be stolen from him. Biden said that he would accept the results of an election if every vote is counted. He needs to clarify that every vote must first be counted before he’ll concede anything. If the election is being stolen from him, he must join the forces in the street and help preserve what democracy we still have.

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