Who Is Going to Stop Him?

If you don’t think that Trump will steal this election, please explain why not.

Hamilton Nolan

Life's a beach. Nicholas Kamm/ AFP via Getty Images

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. 

Welcome to the White House. Drew Angerer/ Getty Images

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.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter 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.

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