The president is starting to sound as though he thinks it's irresponsible to have an election at all. Some bipartisan experts gamed the consequences, and the results aren't reassuring.
It’s come to this. President Donald Trump stated yesterday that the nation literally can’t survive his political defeat, and it didn’t register as news.
I recognize the dilemma news organizations face. An endless stream of hateful nonsense is pouring out of the president’s mouth, and at some point you just have to tune it out, even though he’s president, lest readers feel invited to give it credence. Trump’s always acted outside accepted norms of truthfulness and decency, but now that’s reached a whole new level. Facing likely defeat, Trump has gotten so desperate that he’ll say absolutely anything, no matter how loathsome or just plain crazy.
Remember when Trump proposed delaying the presidential election? Now he’s moved past even that. His latest rhetoric suggests that it’s unwise to hold an election at all.
Here’s what he said, speaking yesterday before a religious-right group called the Council for National Policy (italics mine):
If our opponents prevail, no one will be safe in our country, and no one will be spared. No one will be spared, including the people that help fund. They think they’re going to be best pals; they’re not going to be best pals. They’ll be terminated, just like many others. I’m the only thing standing between the American Dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos…. If we — if we don’t win, it’s all gone. Okay? It’s all gone. And we mentioned — I have to mention life. All gone. Second Amendment, gone. It’s all gone. And many other things. It will be a totally different country. It will be a totally different country, and ultimately, it will fail. It will fail. It can’t work.
Trump wasn’t describing—as the Democrats did at last week’s convention—an election in which the stakes are unusually high. He was describing an election in which the stakes are unacceptably high, because if Trump loses the United States will no longer exist. Knowing his defeat is likely, Trump is starting to telegraph that the better course would be not to have an election.
It’s doubtful even Trump will ever say out loud, “Let’s cancel the election.” If he did, he’d lack any power to do it. But he’s been predicting for months, based on no evidence, that the use of mail-in balloting to avoid exposure to a deadly virus will create widespread fraud and delegitimize the ballot count. Now he’s also saying he’ll send cops to the polling places, a voter intimidation tactic straight out of the white supremacist handbook. At the very least, Trump is positioning his supporters to create civil disorder on and after Nov. 3.
A bipartisan group called the Transition Integrity Project has started considering this possibility, and on Aug. 3 it issued a report. The group was created by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor, and Nils Gilman, vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. (Full disclosure: Rosa is, er, a onetime romantic partner. We cohabitated and blended our families in 2009-10. We parted amicably, each married other people, and remain friends, but I haven’t discussed any of this with her.)
Last month the TIP invited 67 government experts to participate in a group exercise, including (according to the Boston Globe) some Never Trump Republicans like Bill Kristol and Trey Grayson, former Kentucky secretary of state; the complete list is secret. The group considered four scenarios. Each simulation involved seven teams consisting of two or three people “with ‘real life’ experience in the types of roles they were asked to play,” according to the TIP’s report. The four scenarios described in the report were as follows:
In one scenario, the exercise posited that the winner of the election was not known as of the morning after the election and the outcome of the race was too close to predict with certainty; in another, the exercise began with the premise that Democratic party candidate Joe Biden won the popular vote and the Electoral College by a healthy margin; and in a third, the exercise assumed that President Trump won the Electoral College vote but again lost the popular vote by a healthy margin. The fourth exercise began with the premise that Biden won both the popular vote and the Electoral College by a narrow margin.
The results were … disturbing. Outcomes, the report concluded, may be determined not by the rule of law, but by the exercise of power, in which Team Trump has “a huge advantage.” For example, “In one TIP simulation, the teams playing the Department of Justice and the Postmaster General took action to seize ballots going through the mail, allegedly to ‘safeguard’ the ballots pursuant to a fraud investigation.”
The good news was that the military refused to support Trump when he tried to deploy troops domestically. “But there was concern that this reflected ‘recency bias’ given that the exercises were run shortly after participants observed the military’s cautiousness in the wake of the June 1, 2020 events in Lafayette Square.”
“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” Rosa told the Boston Globe last month. With his almost unbelievably irresponsible “no one will be spared” rhetoric, Trump is now inviting such an outcome. He has no particular regard for democracy, or civil order, or anything else that exists independent of his self-interest, and his party is too enfeebled to protest. Expect to hear more next week about “anarchy, madness, and chaos.”
The entire TIP report is worth reading.