By Masha Gessen
On Sunday, in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, Donald Trump refused to commit to recognizing the outcome of the 2020 election. “I’m not going to just say yes,” the President said. “And I didn’t last time, either.” (Back in October, 2016, Trump was proclaiming that the election he went on to win was “rigged” against him.) He wasn’t telling us anything new, and yet we still have not learned to think of ourselves as a country where the President can lose an election and refuse to leave office.
Lawrence Douglas, a legal scholar and a professor at Amherst College, gave himself the task of methodically thinking through the unthinkable. The result is a slim book, “Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020.” Douglas begins by taking the President at his word. “While his defeat is far from certain,” he writes, “what is not uncertain is how Donald Trump would react to electoral defeat, especially a narrow one. He will reject the result.”
Douglas argues that Trump’s evident intent to hold on to his office, regardless of the will of the voters, is not the best measure of the damage he has wrought or the power he has accumulated. He writes, “A more powerful authoritarian would never let himself get into this situation in the first place; he would have already so corrupted the process that his chance of losing would have been effectively eliminated.” By the standards of entrenched autocracies, Trump’s grip on power is as weak as his grip on reality. Still, the system of government that he has hijacked is not designed to protect itself against his kind of attack. “Our Constitution does not secure the peaceful transition of power, but rather presupposes it,” Douglas writes. Worse, the peculiar institution of the Electoral College, which separates the outcome of the election from the popular vote, practically invites abuse.
When electoral crises have arisen, past political leaders have stepped up, or stepped aside, to insure the peaceful transfer of power. Al Gore, to take a painful example, did not have to accept the Supreme Court’s order stopping a recount in Florida, in December, 2000, as the last word on that year’s election; Douglas details Constitutional avenues Gore could have pursued to claim victory. Though he had won the popular vote, Gore saw it as his duty to avoid escalating the electoral crisis. The Presidential elections of 1800 and 1876 ended in compromises, too, in the spirit of the Constitution, common cause, and good faith—all things alien to Donald Trump. It’s not the compromise that functions as precedent here but the conflict: election results have been unclear in the past, and they can be unclear again.
Douglas conjures three detailed scenarios, which he calls Catastrophe No. 1, Catastrophe No. 2, and Catastrophe No. 3. In the first story, Trump gets five million fewer votes than Joe Biden, but appears to win the Electoral College—that is, until two Republican electors from Pennsylvania decide to break ranks and vote for Mitt Romney. Douglas, who is also the author of two novels, imagines the ensuing chaos in vivid detail, down to Trump’s tweets (“BULLSHIT rains [sic] in PA!!! TREASONOUS ‘electors’ trying to DEFRAUD the American People”) and “Faithful not Faithless” bumper stickers for supporters of the rogue electors.
In Douglas’s second scenario, hackers attack the power grid of Detroit on Election Day. Much of the city is in the dark for much of the day, and votes are not counted. The outcome of the election in Michigan, and the country, hangs in the balance. The Democrats demand a revote, as does the mayor of the city. Trump tweets, “DETROIT doesn’t get a revote because very LOW IQ mayor doesn’t know how to HOLD AN ELECTION!” A revote is held and improbably recognized by the Supreme Court, but not by Donald Trump.
In the third scenario, the drama unfolds slowly—too slowly. On Election Day, Fox News calls the race for Trump, but an unprecedented number of Americans have voted by mail, and as their votes are counted, the balance shifts: Americans have chosen Biden. The process of counting absentee ballots is so cumbersome and labor-intensive, however, that in some states it necessarily misses the filing deadline. As a result, three states each file two conflicting vote reports, certified by separate agencies: one that privileges the deadline and one that reflects the total number of ballots collected. The first count comes out in favor of Trump, the second in favor of Biden.
The mortifying beauty of Douglas’s scenarios is that each is based on historical precedent. Electors have broken ranks before. Russia has used computer hacking to interfere in American elections, and it has brought down digital infrastructure in other countries as a gesture of domination: Ukraine in 2015, Georgia in 2008, and Estonia in 2007. States have organized revotes, which have taken an extraordinarily long time. And states have filed conflicting vote reports—in 1876, three states did so, just as Douglas imagines in his third scenario.
What happens next? We know that Trump will work to exacerbate any crisis, not resolve it; the Constitution assumes good faith, and laws intended to regulate voting outcomes are disastrously vague. In each of Douglas’s three scenarios, Trump would continue to consider himself President, although Biden may consider himself the victor of the race. According to the Constitution, if the Presidential race cannot be called, the Speaker of the House becomes the acting President. Douglas imagines Chief Justice John Roberts swearing in Nancy Pelosi while Justice Clarence Thomas administers the oath of office to Trump—or, alternatively, no one being sworn in and Trump and Biden and/or Pelosi claiming the rights and responsibilities of the Presidency. Because Americans no longer live in a shared reality, different Americans will have different Presidents. All the while, Trump’s tweets incite violent clashes. “And let us not forget,” Douglas writes, “that guns in this country remain in profuse supply and are largely concentrated in the hands of the president’s most fervent, distrustful, and easily unsettled supporters.”
“Can the crisis be contained?” Douglas asks. His answer is not reassuring. Suppose no major catastrophe befalls the election. (By the time the reader reaches the end of Douglas’s book, this supposition will seem naïve.) Suppose Biden wins. “The best we can expect from President Donald Trump after an electoral defeat is self-pitying, peevish submission,” Douglas writes. If he goes—which will require an overwhelming electoral defeat—Trump is not only sure to play the victim, blaming the Deep State and undocumented immigrants for his loss, but also likely to linger and delay his departure. The ragged end of his Presidency, if it comes, will be full of conflict and resentment. There will be no orderly handover, no constructive transition—a disastrous prospect during a pandemic and a deep recession, and yet another blow to our perceptions of how elections and government operate.
This is the best-case scenario. The worst case, as Douglas’s three catastrophes illustrate, is a close or contested result of the vote, which leads to a Constitutional implosion and an explosion of violence. “This would represent a greater disaster for America than an outright victory by Trump,” Douglas writes. It’s a jarring conclusion, and an entirely convincing one.