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Donald Trump is going to try to win the election, and if he can’t win it, he is going to try to steal it by any means at his disposal. This is not a rash fantasy — it is an honest reading of Trump, supported by years of his own statements, and widely assumed to be true by establishment political analysts. For those, like Joe Biden, who say that our system of laws and institutions will not allow this to happen, I have a simple question: Which part of our system, exactly, is going to stop it?
There are many different scenarios for chaos in this presidential election, and all of them are driven by the basic idea that Donald Trump will lose the election and try to figure out a way to cling to power regardless. We should realize that such an action would be just the final culmination of a long project by the Republican Party to exercise power by minority rule. Setting aside the Senate, the Electoral College, and historic disenfranchisement of large portions of our population (all of which serve to entrench minority rule of wealthy white people in certain areas), we are already knee-deep in systematic voter suppression efforts designed to make it as hard as possible for Americans judged to be likely Democratic voters to vote. Those things are already happening, and with notable success. If you do not think that the Republican Party is existentially geared towards cutthroat power grabs, you have not been paying attention. Trump just happens to exhibit a more overt zeal for this sort of thing than most.
Trump has said, many times, that the only way he can lose the election is if it is rigged. Clear enough for you? That means that losses will be judged to be illegitimate at his discretion. There are many different ways to do so, but any large-scale effort will involve frivolous legal challenges, to disqualify or not count certain votes; a nonstop stream of lies from the White House to the Republican base, to solidify the idea that the election is being stolen; and the use of state power as necessary, to force intransigent local officials to follow orders, to crush protests in the street, or just to create a dramatic, TV-ready smokescreen of civil insurrection that can be used as a tool to justify drastic measures.
If these things sound familiar, it is because we have already seen all of them in action in the past four years. Recent history itself is the best reason to believe that these things will happen. Our system has been tested, and it has failed.
So, who or what will prevent this naked and outrageous presidential power grab? Trump cannot do it alone. He will need, first of all, the help of the entire Republican Party. Republican officials in red states will have to help to massage the vote count in his favor, and Republicans in Congress will have to act in near-complete unity to back him. If you are familiar with Mitch McConnell, you know that this part of the plan is beyond question.
The Department of Justice? That is run by Bill Barr, an active and enthusiastic co-conspirator of Trump, who has been laying the groundwork of crushing dissent already by telling prosecutors to use the Sedition Act against protesters. How about the Department of Homeland Security? Run by Chad Wolf, who loves to throw protesters in unmarked vans. How about the thousands of members of the U.S. military, National Guard, and various state and local law enforcement agencies that would be weaponized to “keep the peace” and carry out the will of Republican officials? Ha. The police unions have all endorsed Trump. The military is built to carry out orders above all. Any disputed election scenario will involve orders coming down from the Commander in Chief and the DOJ and DHS, and of course the soldiers and cops will act on those orders, not drop everything to hold a constitutional law seminar about democratic legitimacy.
The sort of Democrats who loved “The West Wing” have an enduring fantasy that somehow the U.S. military is a deeply moral force for good that will step in at the key moment to protect our treasured nation. (These people have their man in Biden, who has said he is “deeply convinced” that the military “will escort [Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” if he tries any shenanigans.) There is no better refutation of this childish belief than General Mark Milley, the top military official in the country, issuing a worthless public apology for taking part in Trump’s most stylishly fascist moment, when he had troops violently clear Lafayette Square so that he could walk over to a church and hold up a Bible he has never read. Military and law enforcement leaders will follow orders and then, perhaps, chew over the consequences years later in ponderous memoirs. Hopefully, you will be out of jail by then. To expect them to help in the moment of crisis is foolish.
How about the media? The institution that exists to tell the public what is true, and what are lies, and who did, in fact, win the election? I fully expect all legitimate mainstream news outlets to do their jobs and report truthfully on this election. I also know that those news outlets have never in American history had less ability to influence the beliefs of Trump’s base, who now have an entirely separate structure of propagandistic right wing media to listen to instead, and that segment of the media will be cheering on Republicans at top volume as they spread conspiracy theories of voter fraud and antifa terrorists. Trump’s years of chants of “fake news” have all been leading up to this: The ability to be corrupt in full view, with no consequence, no matter how much it is reported. As a reporter, I am sorry to report that reporters will not save us this time.
So it comes down to the courts, the institution designed to head off the unlawful predations of corrupt officials. Would the federal courts really make themselves complicit in an attempt to muddy the vote count and throw the election? I confess I do not have enough insight into the hearts of Republican federal judges to know the answer to this. But one person who does seem to feel confident about the answer is Donald Trump, who said this weekend, “Now, we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so that we can actually have an evening where we know who wins. Not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later.”
Abortion and the empowerment of corporations are not the only reasons why Mitch McConnell has seen to it that one of every four circuit court judges in America are Trump appointees. There are elections to consider, too. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death means a 5 – 3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, so that even if one conservative defected on principle in an election case, the court would be tied, which would let a lower court ruling stand. It is possible that a new justice could be installed before the election, further cementing the conservative majority. Either way, it is easy to see how strategically filed lawsuits in red states alleging voter fraud or other irregularities could be leveraged into a monstrous court ruling that would serve as a convenient stamp of legal legitimacy – one that would not be overturned by the Supreme Court, and that would give Republican election officials and members of Congress all the pretext they needed.
And that is all that is necessary: pretext. We must be honest with everyone about that. There is no honest desire for a free and fair election that reflects the will of all citizens. Nobody in politics really believes that. Trump himself has no limits, and he has now surrounded himself with a core of enablers who will seek to bolster his claims of a stolen election, and they will be aided by a separate and unequal media/ propaganda operation that will be preaching to a base that already believes the real news is fake. To stop this, we have federal judges appointed by Trump himself and a Supreme Court that now has an insurmountable right wing majority.
It is possible that an overwhelming Biden win would stretch the limits of illegitimacy past their breaking point, forcing the Mitt Romneys of the world to admit that Trump had lost, and dissolving the Republican Party’s united front. Or it is possible that the public backlash to something this corrupt would succeed, with massive nationwide street protests putting enough pressure on elected leaders to tip the balance. It is also possible that Trump could use extraordinary measures – postponing Election Day? ICE agents stationed at the polls in key swing states? Millions of eligible voters purged from the rolls just long enough to miss the election? Straight up declaring an insurrection and seizing power via martial law? – that would overwhelm even an overwhelming vote for Biden. I do not have any ability to make hard predictions of an unpredictable future. We do not need nihilism, but we desperately need to see reality for what it is. All of the tactics necessary to steal the election are tactics that have already been used in this country, by this administration, in the past few years. Much of this argument rests on the question of how much faith you have in people and institutions that have already shown that they are not up to the challenge of dealing with a true fascist in action.
It is possible that I’m being a crazy alarmist. I hope so.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.