Last January, I expressed concern that Donald Trump will attempt to de-legitimize the election if he loses. I addressed conditions that I felt could lead to a dangerous post-election standoff, but when I said there may be wrinkles we can’t anticipate that could influence how the presidential outcome is received, I wasn’t exactly imagining a pandemic or an economic collapse. Now with Trump set up to be evaluated for his response to the crisis, and with that response generating public disapproval deep enough to have fellow Republicans worried about November, I feel a certain urgency to revisit the issue. Should Trump go down to defeat (which right now looks much more probable than not), and should he challenge that defeat (is it possible to imagine he won’t?), we could face a transfer of power crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1876, if ever. We better start preparing for it now.
In my January post, I identified Trump, his supporters and the Republican Party as the major players in a potential crisis. They are the three-legged threat to the smooth transition of power we have taken for granted since 1800. All three acting in concert to reject the election outcome would unleash a legitimacy crisis that would pose the greatest challenge to the republic since the Civil War. But it will require all three to make it happen — any one of them could keep us from the brink by accepting defeat. The very real problem is that each has motivation not to relinquish power. The downfall of the Trump administration would be correctly experienced as a catastrophic loss with lasting consequences for Trump, his supporters, and the party he now controls.
America could avoid a crisis if Trump stated unambiguously that he will accept the verdict of the American people. If that sentence sounds funny to you, it’s because you’ve lived through the past three years. You recognize that Donald Trump is incapable of accepting defeat in any form. His persona is built around winning. The biggest insult he can imagine is to call someone a loser. Although mental health professionals are divided over whether to refrain from diagnosing him from a distance or step outside professional constraints to warn the public about his dysfunctional behavior, you don’t have to be a psychologist to see that Trump is driven to act in deeply anti-democratic ways. He believes he knows more than anyone, lacks empathy for everyone, is unwilling to accept limits and thinks rules are for other people. He may well be incapable of processing a rejection so large and humiliating that far more stable candidates have never fully gotten over it. Besides, leaving office exposes him to all sorts of legal jeopardy. For psychological and liability reasons, he will feel he needs to stay.
We could, however, avert a confrontation if Trump’s supporters respected an electoral loss as legitimate. Trump could facilitate this with a system-affirming call for unity in the tradition of other defeated candidates. But again, you’ve been paying attention, so you know Trump wouldn’t even appeal for unity to address a pandemic. His response instead has been to inflame our political divide — the same divide that threatens the legitimacy of the election. Through his words and actions he has turned wearing masks and social distancing into cultural litmus tests — ways of openly demonstrating which team you’re on. During a moment that cries out for national unity, he has made it clear he intends to defend his supporters from the threatening influences of science and by extension the threat posed by rationality.
Trump’s retreat into the fantasy that the virus will just disappear and we can all return quickly to normal comes from the same place as his fantastic promise that he can protect his white supporters from losing their privileged status. Protecting privilege is a powerful fantasy — it is the fundamental basis for Trumpism. The need to uphold that promise is the thing that binds Trump’s followers. Of course they would believe him if he challenged the legitimacy of an electoral loss. Of course they would not accept Joe Biden as a duly elected president.
Even if Trump and his supporters reject defeat, we can still avoid a crisis if the Republican Party finally breaks with Trump and withdraws their support for any efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the election. It is not entirely impossible to imagine an unambiguous defeat convincing party leaders that parting ways with Trumpism is their quickest way back to power. Unfortunately, their behavior in recent years is not encouraging. Ever since Republicans began embracing minority viewpoints, their leaders have become increasingly willing to reject the legitimacy of the other side in order to protect their power.
This is an ominous development. When Mitch McConnell refused to permit a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he justified it with the fabricated claim that a nomination in an election year should be held up pending a vote of the people. But would McConnell permit a vote on a Trump nominee if a vacancy occurred this year? Of course he would, because apparently only Republicans have a legitimate right to nominate justices. This is what Attorney General Barr implied when he dismissed the judgment of history for his decision to drop charges against Michael Flynn, saying “history is written by the winners.” It’s what Republican senators said when they acknowledged that House Democrats had proved their impeachment case but decided they didn’t want to convict a Republican president, despite having taken an oath to be impartial jurors. Would they have convicted a Democrat under the same circumstances? It’s a rhetorical question.
No political party wants to hand over institutional power. But they do. Constitutional democracy is predicated on recognizing the legitimacy of the other side and stepping back when it’s their turn to make decisive judicial appointments, or taking actions consistent with the rule of law and the Constitution even if it hurts politically. It means holding fair elections and accepting the results when you lose.
With Trump behind in the presidential race and facing the possibility of defeat in a few months, the country sits on the brink of a massive crisis because of the confluence of a president psychologically incapable of accepting defeat, a base unwilling to be governed by people who do not look like them, and a party elite that only respects its own legitimacy. It’s a toxic combination that requires imagining what it will take to defeat Trump in November and extract him from office in January. The damage to our institutions and our capacity for self-government will be enormous if we are not prepared.
I’ll have some thoughts on what we can do in my next post.