Writing in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid worries that Democrats may be “unwilling, even unable, to accept the result” should Trump pull off a come-from-behind victory in November.
“A loss by Joe Biden under these circumstances is the worst case,” he writes, “not because Trump will destroy America (he can’t), but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy, resulting in more of the social unrest and street battles that cities including Portland, Oregon, and Seattle have seen in recent months.”
Though he couches it a bit elliptically, the thrust of Hamid’s is clear enough. He thinks Democrats would be wrong to lose faith in democracy and take to the streets should Biden appear to lose. But why?
Trump is doing his damnedest to undermine the integrity of the democratic process every single day. He was rightly impeached for trying to extort a foreign government into broadcasting scurrilous disinformation about Joe Biden and his family to give Trump an electoral leg up. At the time, I urged impeachment and conviction on the grounds that:
Mr. Trump’s brazen attempt to cheat his way into a second term stands so scandalously exposed that there can be no assurance of a fair election if he’s allowed to stay in office. Resolving the question of the president’s fitness at the ballot box isn’t really an option, much less the best option, when the question boils down to whether the ballot box will be stuffed. …
Mr. Trump has supplied American voters with overwhelming reason to doubt that any election he participates in can be fair. That’s why he can’t be allowed to run for any public office, much less the presidency, ever again.
I think I was right then, and I think I’m even righter now. Trump’s determination to hang on to power by hook or crook has only become clearer with time.
Let’s not forget that Trump was also impeached for obstruction of Congress–for denying the House, the most democratically representative branch of the federal government–its constitutionally designated powers of investigation and oversight. It’s a shame, and dangerous to boot, that we’ve grown inured to the imperious contempt for the Constitution embodied by Trump’s aggressive denial of the House’s authority. But we mustn’t forget that this is a grievous, and ongoing, attack on the very idea of democratic governance, not normal hardball partisan politics. Democracy requires fair elections, but that’s not all there is to it. In any case, we don’t need to wait for the next election to know that democracy is incompatible with a Trump presidency.
Of course, the Trump administration is dead set against fair elections. It is happy to use the resources of the federal government to stymie them, as was very clearly shown by his attempt to illicitly use taxpayer money to bribe another country into smearing his rival with lies. The administration is now actively trying to prevent states from making it easier for their citizens to vote by mail during a pandemic. It is hobbling the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity for timely delivery, which could effectively disenfranchise many thousands of voters, from being counted. Trump takes every opportunity available to spread the barefaced lie that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, and his aim in doing so is clear. He’s setting the table to argue that Biden won dirty, so didn’t really win–that, no matter the apparent electoral outcome, he really won the election and a second term in office.
It appears that the administration is planning to loose the fearsome arsenal of the executive branch to dispute results it will have no real reason to believe are invalid, which amounts to collapsing the absolutely critical difference between a branch of the federal government and the incumbent president’s re-election campaign. Effacing the distinction between party and state is standard in authoritarian regimes precisely because it allows strongman leaders to claim the legitimacy of a democratic mandate while ensuring that elections come out in their favor. When the state acts as a party organ, it can stack the deck against the opposition–make it fight with its arms tied behind its back. If the opposition nevertheless manages to pull off an upset at the polls, the incumbent party-state still has control of the official means to audit the results and declare them fraudulent. When it controls the judicial and police apparatus, it can imprison popular opposition leaders for crimes the state has conveniently “discovered.”
We’re not this far down the road, and America’s federalist structure, including the chaotic, state-based nature of our elections, supplies some defense against this sort of thing. But Trump is moving decisively in this illiberal, anti-democratic direction. Trump and his campaign manager, the Attorney General of the United States, clearly intend to sow confusion, delegitimize the legitimate democratic result, and prevent the authorization of a Biden victory by tangling it up in the courts –all to give Trump grounds to refuse to cede power to the legitimate winner. That is to say, Trump is aggressively undermining faith in democracy because he fears that Biden voters will overwhelm the combined effects of the GOP’s structural advantage in the Electoral College and his multifaceted strategy rig the vote.
Trump has given Democrats plenty of reason to suspect of Trump precisely what Trump is grooming the public to suspect of Biden: that if he appears to win, it must be because the result is tainted, illegitimate, and therefore non-binding.
But Hamid, it seems, is inclined to write all this off as “catastrophism.” Hamid’s critical premise is disbelief that Donald Trump “is a fascist or a dictator in the making.” This exceedingly generous interpretation of Donald Trump’s aspirations and pattern of behavior allows Hamid to dispense with the worry that Trump may succeed in cheating his way into office (why think he’s trying?!), and focus his concern on the possibility “that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.”
This is just maddening, because it’s nonsensical unless you already agree that we ought not submit to “catastrophism.” Yet the evidence that we’re undergoing a progressively deepening catastrophe is overwhelming and Hamid supplies not a shred of evidence to the contrary. He simply says, “As someone who has argued against catastrophism” and then proceeds as though the argument he has made against it, wherever it is that he made it (he doesn’t say!), is sound. This makes his sole concern, that Trump will win and benighted Democrats won’t accept it, very aggravating in its presumption.
Trump is one of the greatest catastrophes ever to befall our republic. That he’s working far harder to prevent a fair election and steal a second term than he’s working to prevent another 200,000 Americans from dying of the plague sort of sums it up. All you really need to add is further clarity about his aims, which his long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, recently offered:
It’s all about power for him. It’s autocratic power, it’s being a dictator, it’s being a king. That’s what he wants to be. He doesn’t see being president of the United States as being a president for all people and that he’s working for the people. He sees it the other way around: that he’s doing a favor to all Americans and that Americans should be working for him. I mean, he really believes that he can create the United States into a monarchy and that he would be its ruler. …
He always used to say that there’s an old saying that it doesn’t matter who you vote for. All that matters is who’s counting the vote. …
I mean, he is legitimately setting himself up to be an autocrat.
I didn’t need Michael Cohen’s testimony to believe this about his former boss, but I think he knows Trump’s mind in a way we never will, and I believe he’s telling the truth about what he knows.
Hamid is certainly not wrong to worry that a Trump victory will undermine faith in democracy. It ought to. And he’s not wrong to worry that, in that unhappy event, many Democrats will refuse to accept it and take to the streets in droves. But, unless independent outside election observers miraculously confirm that Trump won clean, they ought to. Donald Trump has been waging an all-out war against democracy since he assumed office. He was impeached for trying to rig the election against Biden far in advance, and he’s trying to rig it now. He is now effectively announcing, on a daily basis, that he will refuse to treat a Biden victory as legitimate.
It’s absolutely true, as Hamid suggests, that democracies become unstable when a critical mass of citizens refuse to accept elections as legitimate. But stability is no reason to accept the results of elections that are illegitimate. The fact of a rigged election gives us reason to deny that the system is meaningfully democratic and to demand that it be made so again. But this demand cannot be made within a democratic system when you’ve been deprived of one. That’s why masses take to the streets in protest. It’s the only form of collective power they have left. Peace, stability, and democracy require that, one way or another, we oust leaders who are so transparently corrupt, power-hungry and aggressively anti-democratic that they’ve rendered their authority illegitimate by systematically abusing it.
Democracy cannot last under leaders who rankle at the idea that their power needs democratic authorization, who undermine the integrity of elections so assiduously that their legitimate re-election becomes impossible.I don’t think anyone really wants to contemplate the level of protest and conflict that may come should Trump succeed in wresting power from the American people. I understand and even sympathize with the impulse to reject “catastrophism” and normalize catastrophe. But we need to be prepared.
Donald Trump has shown us who he is. Persuading ourselves that, really, everything is fine, when it is not, or that the real worry is that over-reacting rabble rousers may disturb our determined equanimity, simply softens the ground for our subjection. We can’t defend democracy by taking its subversion sitting down.