Last night’s “debate” confirmed my worst fears: unless Democrats have a plan to counter it, the United States is going to cease to be a democracy and Donald Trump will establish a dictatorship that just might keep him in office longer than eight years.
It was a traditional debate only on one side–Joe Biden’s–and he won it hands down: with facts, clear arguments, apt criticisms of Trump’s mismanagement, a strong voice (not a scintilla of evidence of “cognitive impairment,” as Donald Trump has charged), demonstrations of compassion and calls for national unity. The only weakness he showed was in not exposing what Trump has in mind–and clearly signaled: a seizure of power regardless of the outcome of voting.
Trump’s performance demonstrated he’s got no interest in salvaging his failing campaign by expanding the number of people who will vote for him. He is happy with just his base (37 percent? 40 percent?) which will back him no matter what he does. He thinks it’s all he needs to hold onto power. We may see blood in the streets in the process, Weimar Republic style.
Trump, as is his pattern, broke all the rules of civil debate. He interrupted, insulted, told lie after lie and was unwilling to be chastened by moderator Chris Wallace into letting Biden finish his allotted time uninterrupted. It was not the behavior of a contestant for the support of a majority of the voters: it was what one would expect from Il Duce–a bully who wants and needs the support only of his cult , especially its most extreme elements.
Trump has been fairly open–and was last night–about the methods he’ll employ for his coup. He will not recognize the legitimacy of mailed-in ballots. He might not even accept the results of election-night results if they go against him (recall, he claimed he was cheated out of a popular vote victory in 2016 because “millions” of “illegal aliens” came to the polls.) He’s said over and over that if he loses, it will only be because of “fraud.”
He wants to make sure he comes out with a majority on election night. He said he wanted his supporters to go to polling places and “watch very carefully.” What that means is: challenge every voter who looks like he or she will vote Democratic–minorities, especially–and intimidate those standing in line, scaring them away from the polling places and slowing down the voting till they give up and go home. Democrats have a strategy to counter this–urging people to vote early and in person–but it’s not clear they have convinced enough people to realize why it’s so important.
So, Trump is likely to be ahead on election night. Perhaps 50 percent of the population is going to vote by mail, more Democrats than Republicans. Some of their ballots will be counted by election night, but there will be so many of them, it’ll be hard for under-prepared and under-manned poll managers to process them all, having to check that signatures match registration forms. Some states forbid starting to count mail-in ballots until the polls are closed. And Trump will have help from Russia in discrediting the election process.
So we will not know with certainty who got the most votes until days or even weeks after the election. Trump will cry “fraud” even before all the votes are counted. (He’s already, against all evidence, charged that this will be a “rigged” election. And it will be, rigged by him.)
What follows then is chaos–legal challenges in every important state, but the possibility of violence, too. If he declares victory regardless of the real result, there may be demonstrations. Left-wing extremists may well set fires, destroy property, etc. Trump is depending on local police (whose organizations, he bragged, all support him) to try to control the mobs, sometimes using violent methods he’s encouraged. And, just in case, he told his white extremist friends, the “Proud Boys,” to “stand back and stand by.”
He refused to condemn them and claimed left-wing extremists were “the problem” even though FBI Director Christopher Ray has said that “racially-motivated extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, makes up “the biggest chunk” of domestic terrorism. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, not a liberal group, reported that “far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that we’ll see violent clashes between right and left extremists while Trump plays out his legal strategies for stealing the election. There seem to be three:
- ballot disputes end up in the courts, ultimately the US Supreme Court. Trump has forecast that the Court will decide who wins and clearly is depending on his new conservative 6-3 majority to decide the way a conservative 5-4 Court did in 2000 for George W. Bush–on the basis of partisanship. The so-called “swing vote,” Chief Justice John Roberts voted for Bush. He also struck down elements of the Voting Rights Act preventing Southern voter-suppression, which promptly began again and has not stopped.
- As Bart Gelman reported in the Atlantic, Republican operatives in battleground states where Republicans have full control of state legislatures (almost all of the major ones–Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina) legal name Trump electors to the Electoral College even if Democrats win the popular vote. The Constitution says how electors are chosen is in the hands of state legislatures, so the Supreme Court will uphold the strategy if it’s disputed.
- if there is a tie in the Electoral College, the decision goes to the House of Representatives, with each state having just one vote. Republican-dominated delegations outnumber Democratic, 26-23.
Last night, Biden seemed oblivious to the threats. He confidently predicted that the vote winner would become the next president. He and his advisers had better start planning for the legal knife fight(s) that Trump has in mind. If Trump is declared the winner even though he lost the election, that will be a savage blow to American democracy–a bedrock exploded. But it will get worse.
Trump will deem himself validated and empowered to continue breaking down the guardrails of democracy–appointing lackeys (often corrupt) to key positions (a Democratic Senate could refuse to confirm them, but he will appoint acting heads of agencies), prosecuting political adversaries and pardoning (or blocking prosecution of) friendly criminals (William Barr, lackey-in-chief, will oversee that–and fire any prosecutors who won’t go along), using the Presidency to continue enriching himself and his family, suing media outlets who criticize him or try to take away broadcasting licenses, using friendly law enforcement agencies (ICE, the Border Patrol) to put down dissent, refusing to co-operate in any attempts at Congressional oversight, using his right-wing hooligans to intimidate or attack dissenters in the name of “law and order,” and committing whatever crime will work to his advantage, deeming himself immune from investigation and above the law.
In terms of policy, special interests will continue to dominate, so climate change will worsen, health care will deteriorate if Obamacare is struck down by his Supreme Court and is replaced by cheap, shoddy insurance plans (or if Democrats refuse to approve a replacement) and income inequality will widen. What he can’t get through Congress, he will try to impose by executive order, and now he’ll have a Federalist Society Supreme Court that accepts Article 2 of the Constitution (the Executive) as superior to Article 1 (the legislative).
The US will continue to distance itself from world organizations–unless it forms an alliance with fellow authoritarian regimes. Brave state prosecutors and attorneys general may try to indict him and seek injunctions against him, and they may constitute the only check available to Democrats, but it applies only state by state, and Trump may decide to withhold federal funds from states that resist him.
Democrats could try another go at impeachment. In that case, we have to hope that Democrats take the Senate–and by a wide enough margin that he can’t pick off a few by bribes, threats or the danger of being defeated. How, exactly, he would keep himself in power beyond eight years, I don’t know. But you can bet he’ll try. It’s a dark future we face. No one can say we weren’t warned.