Donald Trump is scared. He has spent the month of October telegraphing his fear, oscillating wildly between grandiosity and desperation as he negotiates with himself about how to confront the humiliating rejection of epic proportions that he senses is barreling his way. One moment he fancies himself invincible, reportedly thinking of emerging from Walter Reed Hospital in a Superman t-shirt; the next moment he is begging the suburban women who are poised to deliver a fatal blow to his presidency to “please like me.” His “fight or flight” impulses are getting a public workout as he directs his white nationalist foot soldiers to “stand by” while simultaneously musing about fleeing the country. Reporters may dismiss the latter comment as a joke, but Donald Trump does not have a sense of humor. Without the veneer of protection afforded by his office, Trump’s massive legal exposure makes him a genuine flight risk, provided there are golf courses in Riyadh.
The response by the Biden campaign to this unhinged behavior is to implore its voters to turn out in numbers so large as to make the outcome of the election unambiguous. And they are correct that a lopsided result will curtail Trump’s ability to steal a second term against the will of the voters and make his flight options more appealing than fighting a loss. But it is also a barometer of how badly this country has lost its bearings under a Republican president who rejects the constraints of democratic norms and a Republican Party that rejects free expression of the popular will. Since when does a candidate have to win overwhelmingly to claim their legitimate right to hold office? The Electoral College already prices in a two or three point premium on the Democratic vote. Now we’re facing a seven or eight point requirement as the cost of assuring the transition of power.
Polling suggests we are accelerating towards a moment of extraction when a majority of Americans will voice their desire to remove Trump from office. But will this preference be honored if it is the will of the electorate? Donald Trump has implied it will not. Mike Pence has ducked the question. So have most Republicans. Instead, Senate Republicans are working overtime during a pandemic to install a Supreme Court justice before the votes are counted, in defiance of their own argument four years ago that the election should determine who gets to make the appointment. The message to the public is clear: we are not interested in the verdict of the electorate if it does not support us.
The clearest expression of this message came recently from conservative Republican Senator Mike Lee, who tweeted “we’re not a democracy” and “democracy is not the objective,” giving voice to the belief that in the American republic the majority — which coincidently rejects his party’s agenda — is not intended to rule. This perspective justifies Republican hypocrisy on judicial nominations; gerrymandering that for the better part of a decade has prevented majorities from claiming legislative control in a multitude of states and, until recently, in the United States Congress; legislation passed by gerrymandered legislatures to hamstring Democratic governors when Republicans lose their grip on statewide elections; widespread efforts to disenfranchise the Democratic electorate; and of course a presidential strategy that relies on the Electoral College as a vehicle for winning while finishing second. It puts the automatic acceptance of a Trump defeat in doubt.
Lee and his fellow partisans are deliberately confusing what we might call “minority rights” with “minority rule” or, less charitably, confusing minority rights with authoritarianism. It’s true that we live in a republic that gives rights to numerical minorities. Institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College are designed to represent states, not people, so it is possible for a minority of the population to hold a majority in the Senate or choose the president. But we live in a democratic republic, where the idea is to protect minority rights in the service of giving voice to the majority when the majority prevails at the polls. That’s why we have elections, and why in most elections the winner is the candidate with the most votes.
As the notion of who theoretically gets to participate in the republic evolved from white landowning men to white men, then to all men and then women and men, the range of voices contributing to the majority changed but the principle of listening to those voices did not. If Republicans lose the White House and Senate in a fair election, they still would have representation as the congressional minority party, where they would be expected to observe the age-old norm of respecting the legitimacy of the winning side. That means serving as the loyal opposition — compromising where possible and raising principled objections — but not undermining the election, challenging the results, or relentlessly obstructing the congressional agenda. It does not mean delegitimizing the opposition or undermining their ability to govern. And you don’t get to claim monopoly wisdom on what it takes for “the human condition to flourish,” as Lee put it in his objection to what he termed “rank democracy.” You want to stay in power? Enter the marketplace of ideas. Make your case to the voters. Win elections.
The problem is they can’t. Republicans have long understood they cannot make their case successfully to an electorate that is rapidly trending away from them, and have become increasingly dependent on anti-democratic methods that are now being justified by anti-democratic rhetoric. These impulses are about to collide with an electorate already casting judgment on the last four years in ridiculously large numbers. If their verdict is loud, it will constrain Trump’s anti-democratic impulses. But even if this best of bad outcomes comes to pass, we shouldn’t have come so far down this road. If extraction succeeds, it will fall to Democrats to figure out how to repair the considerable damage Republicans leave behind. That means taking on the difficult and unglamorous task of institutional reform to prevent continued abuse by a party that does not recognize the legitimacy of the majority to express its will.