Nancy Pelosi is worried. Worried about Donald Trump not accepting the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election, should he lose. In recent weeks, Ms. Pelosi had told associates that she does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat.
Donald Trump won – thanks to the architecture of the electoral college. Yet, on more than one occasion, he spread baseless conspiratorial claims about millions of illegal immigrants voting. In his mind, he owes his defeat in the popular vote to them, not to American citizens legitimately voting in favor of Hillary Clinton. This is perfectly in line with his thoroughly narcissistic conceptualization as a fighter and winner in all scenarios, including those he obviously lost.
Just like C.G. Jung would have probably described it, Donald Trump’s „greatest gifts are courage, discipline, and skill; his central life task is to fight for what matters; his typical response to a problem is to slay it or otherwise defeat it; his greatest fear is weakness or impotence.“
When, during the 2016 Republican primary, Senator Marco Rubio linked Mr. Trump’s small hands to the alleged size of his penis, Trump felt the need to reassure an audience on national television that he was well endowed. It is, therefore, safe to assume that he would indeed fear political impotence. He is so accustomed to this combative mindset that, without even a hint of awareness of what he was just saying, he once claimed to be incredibly humble. When pressed on the matter, the White House also already refused to reiterate that President Trump would accept defeat, noting that the question was irrelevant since Mr. Trump would win in 2020.
If he is thus unable to accept even a somewhat imperfect victory, with the people around him indulging his autocratic impulses, why should one assume he could stomach actual defeat? Nothing he ever said or did points to him possessing that ability.
In fact, in March 2018, after CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping further entrenched his power by abolishing term limits, Trump even praised the party leadership for this move, adding “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
And so arises the uneasy question:
What if Mr. Trump were to lose reelection in 2020, but refused to leave office anyway?
Calming yet hollow arguments
You might say that Nancy Pelosi’s concerns are irrelevant. Because, regardless of what one might think of Mr. Trump, the legal process by which the next President will attain his position doesn’t at all require the cooperation of the sitting President.
The constitution clearly outlines the electoral process while the transition is governed by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and its various amendments. Even if concerns were merited, remedies are also already being debated. For example, one might demand that „[…] both parties should require anyone seeking to be one of the college’s electors to pledge that they will not withhold, delay or alter their vote based on the claims or protestations of any candidate […].“
Because the President is technically not elected by the people directly, but by the members of the Electoral college, their decisions may turn out to be a linchpin in politically volatile moments. But these solutions have their limits. They ultimately rest on the notion that the Republican party at some point will again care more about the stability and endurance of the proper constitutional order of the United States as opposed to its own narrowly partisan inclinations. While being not impossible, recent years may indicate that it has sadly become more economic to assume the exact opposite. Since the case for why that is so can’t be made in this short text, it must be sufficient to quote Mann’s and Ornstein’s instant classic “It’s even worse than it looks”:
„[…] the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.“
And ultimately, Richard Nixon didn’t lose his presidency due to an exceedingly clever institutional arrangement, but because Congressional Republican leaders deemed him to be an electoral liability, and so this time again, the „[…] onus […] would fall to GOP leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to come out and say, ‘Enough is enough, Trump lost.’”
Given the current status of the party, especially regarding Mitch McConnell, they shouldn’t be trusted to be the safeguards of the system.
It was him who, in an unprecedented move, blocked even a hearing for Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court following the death of Antonin Scalia.
It was McConnell who refused to make Russian meddling a bipartisan issue during the 2016 campaign because he welcomed Russian support for Republicans. And it was McConnell who infamously said that the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
The worrisome part
Additionally, a problem occurs that developed countries usually were not anymore used to – it is about their leaders. Trump might cling to power out of the very credible fear of being prosecuted as a private citizen. Due to DoJ-policy not to indict a sitting President and the prospect of impeachment being uncertain, it must not be forgotten that the Mueller-report specifically said that „[…] if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. […] Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.“
But: the report also clearly states that it does not reach a definitive conclusion in order to not “[…] potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct”, which, in a footnote, is explained to be a reference to impeachment.
In addition to his personal disposition as a narcissist incapable of accepting even minor setbacks as real, this gives him a powerful incentive to try and remain in office under all circumstances, especially if the possible winner of the election was already committed to bringing him to justice.
A possible scenario
So, how would a scenario in which Mr. Trump refuses to acknowledge his loss play out? Even as a private citizen, Mr. Trump will still wield the massive bullhorn of his twitter-account with its more than 61 million followers. Additionally, Fox News and Mr. Trump are thoroughly intertwined. He regularly watches and calls into their shows, Fox personalities, or people Mr. Trump saw on Fox, had and have positions in his administration. Not only does Fox directly influence the President and vice versa, but important parts of the Republican base are the most loyal viewers of that channel and other right wing outlets one could also mention. They are among the most passionate supporters of Mr. Trump in a party where half of the membership, according to one poll, would even be willing to postpone an election if Trump wanted to.
And due to partisan gerrymandering, these members have gained a disproportionate role in determining Republican nominees for the House of Representatives in safe red districts, where the primaries matter more than the general election. This incentive structure means that when Trump refuses to acknowledge defeat, making his will known through twitter and a whole ecosystem of essentially Republican media outlets, a sizeable chunk of House members will take to Fox News and other venues to voice some form of support for their party leader. This will, in turn, put pressure on at least those G.O.P-Senators who are up for re-election in 2022 in States such as Florida and Ohio or Pennsylvania and Georgia, at least some of whom will echo Trump’s sentiment. And, sadly, there might even be politically motivated violence. This claim, unfortunately, is not outlandish either. Conspiracy-minded people have been moved to action by less, and only a few months ago, a radicalized Trump supporter sent pipe-bombs to leading Democrats. And then there is Oregon.
The wild Pacific North West
Oregon is a Democratic bastion. Its national Senators and Governor are Democrats.
So are most members of the State House and Senate. With 30 members, Oregon’s Senate needs 20 officeholders present to legally function. 18 members, a clear majority, are Democrats. But Republicans, in an attempt to block a piece of legislation on climate change, collectively fled the State. Upon learning that the Governor, as is within her legal powers, sent State troopers to find the missing Senators and bring them back to the Capitol, one G.O.P.-Senator, of the „blue lives matter“-party, mind you, said:
“Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”
This rhetoric was quickly embraced by right-wing militias who pledged their support to the Republican Senators and ultimately even caused the cancellation of a Senate session for fear of acts of violence. To be sure, this is a particularly radical case of Republican contempt for democratic rules of governance, and one shouldn’t expect a simple repetition on the national level, should Mr. Trump lose reelection.
Yet, Mr. Trump is known for multiple calls to violence at his rallies.
In early 2016, he said about a protester at one of his events:
„If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. […] I promise, I will pay for the legal fees. […].“
Additionally, he was at best slow when it came to rejecting or disavowing fascists.
Also in early 2016, he lied about not knowing who David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, was, and refused to reject his support, saying:
„[…] I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.“
And finally, there was his infamous remark concerning the fascist “Unite the Right rally” that pretended to be merely about preserving American culture and heritage by protecting statues of racist Confederate general Robert E. Lee. When pushed about the Neo-Nazis at the gathering, he said: „[…] and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.“
This shows that under pressure, Trump will usually double down on what he previously said. After a possible electoral loss, when he will once again decry the system as rigged, incapable of admitting defeat, he, therefore, may very well be decisive in stoking conspiratorial sentiment, leading to violence, and it seems uncertain that the G.O.P. would be overwhelmingly opposed.
What should Democrats do?
Given this grim outlook, Democrats should be well prepared for any eventuality. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and other scholars have studied dysfunctional and faltering democracies across the globe carefully.
With this particular problem, Steven Levitsky comes to mind, who already argued that the United States might become a mild version of what he calls competitive authoritarianism:
„Since the 1980s, deepening polarization and the radicalization of the Republican Party have weakened the institutional foundations that have long safeguarded U.S. democracy—making a Trump presidency considerably more dangerous today than it would have been in previous decades.“
The ultimate Democratic nominee for President should hire Levitsky, or better yet, a small team of experts on the matter, and constantly have them observe the Trump campaign, working on a steady flow of advice the campaign will then take to heart. Additionally, keeping in mind that Democrats all too often merely reacted to Republican radicalization, as was, for example, the case when it came to employing the filibuster, whatever their strategy may turn out be, they must, for once, leave no doubt that they would enact it swiftly. Anything else would be seen as exploitable weakness by Republicans, who will gladly go low when others would go high. As was already mentioned, this attitude was on display when Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
Seats on this court are appointments for life and thus give Presidents the opportunity of shaping the country long after they are out of office. So it is noteworthy that when he was nominated, Garland was already 63, an olive branch by Obama to his Republican opponents. Neil Gorsuch, who ended up filling the vacancy, is now only 51.
Additionally, a few years before, Republican Senator and member of the Judiciary Committee Orrin Hatch stated that Garland would certainly have broad bipartisan support. But that was to be irrelevant, because Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, in an unprecedented move, refused to even hold hearings before Garland was nominated, taking the outlandish position that this was an election year and the people should have a say in who the next justice would be, nevermind that in re-electing Obama in 2012, the people had done exactly that.
Even though there would have been respectable legal position allowing Obama to move along with the nomination, he backed down and did nothing, inadvertently handing the seat to Mr. Trump. This illustrates that the party adhering to a more traditional, non-combative sense of how institutional processes ought to function is at a strategic disadvantage against a G.O.P. in much more uncompromising pursuit of power.
Sadly, there seems to be no scenario in which Mr. Trump would simply accept defeat and leave. Should he lose, there will be some sort of conflict, if not legal, then certainly political. Naturally, it would be in the best interest of the United States for me to simply be wrong. Come early 2021, this article will hopefully have been wildly off the mark, because Donald Trump, like all Presidents before him, quickly conceded to his Democratic opponent and is busy deciding on the paint job for the walls in his Presidential library. But the development of the G.O.P. in the last decades, prominently illustrated in this article, combined with Mr. Trump’s personality seems to tell a different story. Hopefully, American democracy as we know it will nevertheless prevail.
Titelbild: Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump shaking hands at the red carpet during the DPRK–USA Singapore Summit. Wikipedia. CC. 2.0.