In my last post, I addressed the dangers we face if Donald Trump, his supporters and the Republican Party refuse to accept a loss at the polls this November, and promised some thoughts on how we can protect against it. It will not be an easy task to preserve the legitimacy of the political system if a fair (or marginally fair) election is falsely denounced as being rigged against the Republicans (especially when evidence of foreign interference and voter disenfranchisement makes clear that attempts at rigging actually work the other way). This is why defeating Trump at the polls may not be enough to restore democracy. If he pushes back against electoral defeat, he will have to be extracted from office.
It will be too late to wait until January to begin preparing for this possibility. Extraction planning has to begin now. My concern is not about Trump having to be physically removed from the White House in defiance of a clear electoral loss (overstaying his welcome would require the acquiescence of the military, where he has few friends). Rather, it is about making sure efforts to muddy the waters about a Democratic victory or cast doubt on the election outcome fail. It’s about Joe Biden and his would-be administration having sufficient buy-in from the public to engage in the massive repair work that will be required to move the country beyond the Trump reaction. It’s about the new president inheriting both the authority of the office and the legitimacy to use that authority effectively.
Here are three things that the Biden campaign, the press and to some extent anyone invested in restoring democracy to America can do to facilitate the extraction process:
Fight the illegitimacy narrative. When Trump falsely yells about mail-in ballots being a source of fraud — a lie so egregious that even Twitter tagged it as misleading — he is setting up his supporters to reject the results of an election that’s going to see a record number of paper ballots cast. It’s the latest version of a ploy he has been using since 2016, when he first questioned the legitimacy of an election he thought he was going to lose, then lied about fraudulent voting to reject the fact that he lost the popular vote by millions. Despite Republican efforts to fight it, mail-in balloting is going to increase dramatically during the pandemic, so Trump has latched on to this as the easiest way to delegitimize the outcome. His message will arrive unfiltered to those whose information comes exclusively from the right wing media ecosystem, but there are plenty of voters who are neither Democrats nor Trump supporters who get their information from other sources. Their acceptance of a potential Biden victory will be essential to ensuring the transition of power, and their willingness to accept a Trump defeat will depend on how their views of the election are shaped. That’s why it’s imperative to begin pushing back against the illegitimacy narrative now.
Move quickly. Although Barack Obama was fond of saying we only have one president at a time during his transitional period as president-elect, he was aware that the interregnum between election and inauguration is when the new administration sets the stage for what it will do on day one. This will be especially so if Biden defeats Trump this year, because a defeated Trump could unleash all kinds of constitutional mayhem during those long two-and-a-half months. A defiant Trump is likely to reject the amicable transition planning we have become accustomed to during changes of administration in favor of lashing out against those who defeated him. It will be incumbent on the Biden team to move swiftly to assert the reality that they will be coming to power in January and push back against all bullying.
They will be assisted by the age-old tendency for ousted incumbents to rapidly become old news. As soon as the electorate tossed aside Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush they became irrelevant footnotes to the saturation coverage of their successors. Trump will most certainly fight against this and demand his continued place in the spotlight, and should he do so by raising daily challenges to the legitimacy of the election, Biden will need to battle on two fronts — as the elected heir to an office he is not yet empowered to hold and the winner of an election disputed by his soon-to-be predecessor. He will need to be a noisy president-elect. Every day he should roll out appointments and initiatives, send the incoming congress legislative proposals to prepare for his first days in office, and communicate the unmistakeable message that he is about to become president. It will have to be unambiguously clear that he and not Trump is setting the terms of the discussion, that America is moving on.
Win big. Nothing will ensure effective extraction more than a big electoral victory. There are any number of ways a determined incumbent, backed by his supporters and his party, can find something funny or suspicious about a close outcome. Whether it entails challenging the electoral votes of a close state or relying on constitutional shenanigans to set aside popular vote outcomes in favor of Trump electors in states with partisan legislatures, Republicans will be emboldened to press their case if the election comes down to one or two states or a few electoral votes. Now imagine a map where multiple states would have to be challenged to reverse the outcome. A map where Trump is defeated by five, six, seven points or more. A map where red and red-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia, and purple states like Arizona and Florida, all vote to send Trump packing. A result that gives Democrats control of both houses of congress and the White House, rejecting both Trump and Trumpism. That kind of overwhelming message is much harder to de-legitimize.
The fundamentals are in place for such an outcome, but there is no guarantee. It will take foresight on the part of the Biden campaign to continue the repair work they have been doing with progressive Democrats, including a vice presidential pick that will energize corners of the base with lackluster feelings about the apparent nominee. Already leading comfortably in the polls, Biden can secure a sound and potentially overwhelming victory if he is able to mobilize younger voters and progressives while boosting African American turnout to Obama-era levels.
There will be a lot of work for the country to do even in this scenario. The unambiguous rejection of reactionary politics by the rising electorate will not silence the Trumpian right, who will feel threatened by defeat, nor will it guarantee a smooth transition of power. But it is the best way to ensure the new regime has the legitimacy it will need to address the wounds of the past four years.