In my year-end post, I raised the possibility that a large portion of the country is poised to reject the outcome of this year’s election, regardless of what that outcome might be. That’s because the 2020 election will be about whether to bring the Trump Reaction to an end or ratify it. Barring an unlikely turn of events leading to Trump’s removal by the Senate, the fundamental question on the ballot will be the fate of Trumpism. I’m not sure the country is prepared to deal with that.
We have sorted ourselves into two camps, each threatened by the empowerment of the other. One camp recoils at the incumbent and his behavior over the past three years and feels they cannot take it anymore. The prospect of another four years of Trump feels like a frightening existential prospect for the republic and their place in it. The other camp embraces the incumbent as a savior and protector of their rights and privileges against threats posed by the first camp. They fear their stake in a traditional social order will be forever lost if Trump is ousted.
This conflict provides no room for compromise or negotiation. It is zero sum. In such a polarized environment, an electoral system where one side gets all the representation at the expense of the other is the worst possible mechanism we could have because it puts everything on the line and guarantees that, no matter the outcome, tens of millions will feel like they have lost something fundamental and irreplaceable. Yet that is the only tool available to us to work this out. I am concerned it will fall short.
The first camp represents a majority of the country and their candidate will almost certainly get the most votes in November. But the second camp has compensated for their numerical deficit through republican mechanisms like the Electoral College, aggressive voter suppression efforts, and — most ominously — foreign interference in our elections. Imagine for a second what it would look like if for the second cycle in a row a popular vote loser were to claim the presidency on the strength of voter disenfranchisement and foreign espionage. It would look a lot like forced minority rule that was earned by cheating, and it would not surprise me if this resulted in widespread rejection of the outcome. This scenario has all the earmarks of a crisis of legitimacy.
But what if Trump loses? What if he finishes second in the popular and electoral vote? When it looked like this was going to happen in 2016, Trump began casting doubt on the validity of the election. He raised vague, unsubstantiated claims of cheating by the other side and hinted that he might not concede the election or accede to the result. Even when he won, he railed against his popular vote loss by spreading lies about millions of fraudulent votes cast against him. He would have every reason to do it again, considering how the loss of incumbency will mean the loss of protections against criminal prosecution. The Republican Party would have every reason to support him, given how the loss of the White House would throw the party into turmoil. Certainly his base would expect him to defend their position at all costs. They are primed to accept claims that there was a conspiracy by the other camp to steal the election. This scenario, too, has all the earmarks of a crisis of legitimacy.
What would it mean for a sizable portion of the country to reject an election outcome? Would it lead to civil disobedience? A national strike? A call to arms? It’s hard to picture because it’s beyond the scope of the American electoral model, where every defeated president since John Adams has peacefully conceded power, but it is a potential consequence of what can happen when that model is actively undermined by a party beholden to a lawless president. We buy into election results because we believe the process is fair. This year, roughly half the electorate will have evidence that the other side worked to undermine the results while the other half of the electorate will be told by their opinion leaders that the process is corrupt if they lose.
The election is still a long nine months away, and events are moving so quickly that it is hard to know what Trump’s political position will be next fall. There are wrinkles we can’t anticipate that could influence how the presidential outcome is received. Republicans could win the Electoral College, for instance, but lose the House and Senate, permitting our irreconcilable differences to play out in Washington rather than in the streets, or Trump could lose so thoroughly as to make claims of a rigged election look silly. Regardless, the overarching theme of this year, starting with the Senate’s likely refusal to convict Trump of abusing his office, will be how to end the Trump Reaction peacefully, using imperfect political mechanisms ill-suited to political polarization. If the first act of the Trump administration was about destroying norms and undermining institutions, and the second act was about confrontation and accountability, this third and most difficult act is about extracting Trump from power while dealing with the forces that put him there in the first place.