THERE ARE DAYS when a second Trump term—which would beget a third Trump term, followed by a few Ivanka Trump terms—feels inevitable. When the optimism of commentary like mine—“pseudo-sophisticated reassurance,” peut-être?—seems hopelessly naïve. When the emotional cries of “He’ll get away with it, like he always does!” and “Why have the Democrats done nothing?” and “Who will stop him?” drown out logic and common sense and a quarter millennium of U.S. history.
Last week was one of those times—until Sunday’s tax return bombshell, at least.
With five weeks to go until the election, and with over 200,000 dead from the novel coronavirus pandemic that Trump exacerbated, the stakes are literally life and death. Death of our family, friends and neighbors from covid. Death of the republic from an election stolen by an American Lukashenko and a self-styled Grim Reaper in the Senate, leveling his scythe at our democracy.
And look: to a certain extent, we are right to worry. We must be prepared, mentally and emotionally, for every outcome on Election Day, however unlikely. We must not be caught by surprise. We must be vigilant. We must be hyper-aware. As Bill Kristol writes in The Bulwark:
Sound the alarm. Put the country, the media, the voters, state and local election officials, elected officials at all levels of government, and the individuals who matter in the federal government on notice. Suitably alarmed, they can act in appropriate ways to mitigate the danger.
But there is a difference between sounding the alarm and panicking, between calling Trump out on his fuckery and giving up the ghost, between being on alert and losing our collective minds. Before we rend our garments, then, let’s take a deep breath and examine what’s actually happening.
While he has certainly explored the limits of presidential power, Donald John Trump is not a dictator. He often, if not always, talks a big game, but rarely follows it up with actual juice. His mouth writes checks his Administration can’t cash, as a drill sergeant might put it. How many times, in the last four years, has he said “We’ll look into that,” only to learn that he can’t buy Greenland or receive absolute loyalty from the FBI director or pardon Roger Stone? His statements about the coronavirus speak to this point. The numbers are under control, we’re doing a great job, the infection rate is only high because we do so much testing, it’s the latest hoax, one day it will just disappear—he comes up with these grandiose pronouncements that have no basis in reality, and the media reports them and debates them as if they are serious proposals.
Trump’s not General Zod. He’s not Lukashenko. He’s not even FDR, who had both chambers of Congress and a public mandate behind him. He’s a career criminal, inveterate tax cheat and shit golfer who spends most of his waking hours tweeting about stuff he watches on Fox News. The only thing he’s actually good at is disseminating propaganda. And all of this “coup” talk is just that—propaganda. He’s trying to scare us into paralysis. He’s trying to make us heel before we’ve even begun the fight. We are falling for what the author Teri Kanefield calls the “Strongman Con,” believing the MAGA mythmaking. As she writes in the Washington Post:
When Trump makes an outrageous statement like, “we can throw away the ballots and avoid having to transfer power,” he triggers another outrage cycle. His critics, who have watched him breaking rules and defying norms for years, think he can pull it off. They panic and announce that Trump will steal the election.
And suddenly, Trump transforms himself from a loser to a winner by creating a fiction.
That’s partly why Trump “governs” by keeping everyone in a state of high emotions. He keeps his base energized. He keeps his critics enraged. Nobody can look away because they have no idea what he will do next. We forget what happened yesterday and can’t think ahead to tomorrow.
Election stealing was in the news last week because of some “what if” articles and a few comments Trump made concerning a peaceful transition of power. Let’s start with the president. When he loses after Election Day (either that night or in the days that follow), he will scream bloody murder. He will insist the vote was rigged. He will demand that Bill Barr open investigations. He will blame Obama and Hillary and Hunter Biden. He will whine and complain, he will bitch and moan—and that’s his right as a citizen under 1A, which grants lunatics and bores the right of free speech. Maybe some of his MAGA brownshirts will get violent. Certainly it could get ugly. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it.
Reality check: Trump’s term ends at high noon on January 20, 2021, and if he remains in the People’s House at 12:01, he will be evicted like a deadbeat squatter in one of his father’s crappy apartment buildings. It is the job of the Secret Service to safeguard the president, and Joe Biden can’t be protected with Trump loitering in the residence like some post-graduate stoner who refuses to leave campus. It doesn’t matter if Trump doesn’t concede, or doesn’t accept the results. Oh, you don’t like how an election played out, Mr. President? Join the fucking club.
The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.
Trump’s state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for postelection maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states. Ambiguities in the Constitution and logic bombs in the Electoral Count Act make it possible to extend the dispute all the way to Inauguration Day, which would bring the nation to a precipice. The Twentieth Amendment is crystal clear that the president’s term in office “shall end” at noon on January 20, but two men could show up to be sworn in. One of them would arrive with all the tools and power of the presidency already in hand.
Yes, and the other would arrive with the popular vote and the Electoral College decisively won. Guess which guy the Chief Justice will swear in? Hint: not the one who will have problems navigating the ramp.
While we can’t dismiss Gellman’s scenario out of hand, we can certainly consider the source. This is a reporter who rose to prominence by leading the Washington Post’s coverage of Edward Snowden—and who contributed to the “Oh no, the Deep State is spying on us!” hysteria, just as Snowden’s Russian handlers hoped for. This is not to say Gellman is a bad actor, just that he seems to be fond of conspiracies, and we would do well to bear that in mind.
And Gellman isn’t the only purveyor of speculative fiction. Two months ago, the writer/researcher Seth Abramson published a piece at Newsweek bearing the rosy title, “Yes, Trump Can Sabotage Election Day.” He dismisses the notion of “violent coup,” but writes that “the far more troubling scenario is one in which Trump perverts our democracy and ruins our 2020 general election by urging his supporters not to participate in it at all.” By telling his MAGA followers to skip the election entirely, Abramson argues, Trump will lose by so much that Biden’s margin of victory will appear suspect, and therefore must mean hijinks had ensued:
Imagine it: the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government declares via social media and television that the upcoming election has been postponed; the nation's judicial branch, not yet engaged in the matter in any way, remains silent; and Congress, our legislative branch, divided by historic levels of partisanship and now thrown for a loop by Trump's historic declaration, is unable to respond quickly or effectively. In consequence, tens of millions of American voters stay home on November 3 either because they believe in good faith that the president has (or should have) the authority to postpone an election—even though, to reiterate, he definitely does not and should not—or because they've been assured by their favored candidate that the election has been rigged by a faulty mail-in balloting system. The result: a Joe Biden victory whose final tally is lopsided in a way one ordinarily doesn't see outside autocracies or failed states, something on the order of 75 percent (Biden) to 25 percent (Trump).
In this Doomsday scenario, Biden wins easily, and the Dems take the Senate and keep the House—but what if the states refuse to certify the vote? There’s a lot of this going around, the assumption that governors, state legislatures, and Supreme Court Justices will smile and nod and actively destroy democracy on behalf of a broke-ass phony. I don’t want to lump Abramson in with Gellman. Seth has done a better job than most these last four years in providing much-needed context for the Trump/Russia story, and we should certainly take note of his warning. But the scenario he describes is so far-fetched that we haven’t heard boo about it since the end of July.
Here’s the calculus: Stories like that get a lot of clicks. If these writers are wrong, the pieces will be long forgotten by Inauguration Day. If they are right, they get to pat themselves on the back for their incredible prescience while the republic burns. For the self-promotional scribbler, there is no downside to cranking this stuff out.
This is not to say that we should all bury our collective heads in the sand. Trump and his minions are surely looking under every rock to devise a way out of this pickle. Because many of them will be indicted when the dust settles, they have every incentive to sabotage the process. And we know they’ve been game-planing the various scenarios. Olivia Troye, a former counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to Mike Pence, said that when she was working on the VP’s coronavirus task force, she and other staffers had conversations about what would happen if Trump refused to concede and refused to leave. Newsflash: of course they did. How could they not? Everyone in the country is talking about this! But now, at long last, we know what Pence’s vaunted coronavirus task force was actually doing instead of working out a viable pandemic response plan.
Those scary reports of “Trump’s advisors” and “White House staffers” who are “looking into” ways to avoid the peaceful transition of power, meanwhile, likely mean Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller are furiously Googling plots from political thrillers, trying to concoct some way, any way, to stay in power and avoid the hoosegow.
Once again, Kanefield provides a welcome reality check. Trump, she reminds us,
does not control elections in 50 states and the District of Columbia. He cannot get rid of ballots. He does not decide who won the election. He does not choose when he leaves the White House. And on top of that, he loses constantly. Did Mexico ever build that wall? Did Democrats not win the 2018 elections? If Trump could fix elections, Nancy Pelosi would not be speaker of the House. In Wisconsin’s special election just this past April, Trump threw his support behind Dan Kelly while the GOP did all it could to suppress the Democratic vote. Kelly still lost.
These people are desperate. These people are losing. They have to try the Hail Mary pass—but their quarterback is more Garo Yepremian than Roger Staubach.
Some things to consider, in the next sure-to-be-madcap five weeks:
The military is defending our electoral processes, even if Trump and Barr are not.
The venerable David Ignatius, as plugged in as a columnist gets, wrote this in the Washington Post, in a piece titled “The Military is Providing an Unexpected and Powerful Line of Defense Against Russian Interference:”
But there’s a backstop: The U.S. Cyber Command is quietly pushing ahead with the effort it began two years ago to “defend forward” against Russian influence operations — which means getting inside Russian cybernetworks to detect and disrupt attacks.
Cyber Command’s operations against Russia in recent months have been “very aggressive and very effective,” said one defense official — to the point that they’ve disoriented some Russian operations planners. Thanks to these efforts, it will be “virtually impossible” for the Russians or anyone else to penetrate voting systems in the roughly 8,000 jurisdictions around the country, the defense official said.
Once again, the “suckers and losers” are there for us.
Don’t sleep on NATO.
NATO is treaty-bound to come to our aid if we are attacked. I don’t anticipate the marshaling of forces along the Russian border, but is it crazy to think that Germany, France, the Netherlands with its kick-ass intelligence services, and even cyber-hip smaller nations like Estonia might have a vested interest in protecting us from Russian cyber-incursion on Election Day? The Dutch had eyes so deep on the “Cozy Bear” hackers that they knew who worked what shift, where they sat, and when they went out for coffee. Our allies have more than enough capability to shut this shit down.
Republicans enjoy power, but they don’t actually like Trump.
When was the last time Lindsey Graham looked happy? Or Rand Paul? Or Ted Cruz? Or Little Marco? Or that hateful shrew from NY-21? They may need Trump. They may even be owned by Trump. But they don’t actually like him. When the time is right, those GOP who aren’t compromised will jump ship.
Pelosi has arrows in her quiver.
Nancy Pelosi, the haters contend, has not been assertive enough as Speaker of the House. But she is also in a delicate position. She controls the less powerful of the two chambers of Congress. Trump and the GOP control the mighty Senate and the entire executive branch, which is now rife with traitors, lickspittles, lunatics, and hacks. Further, Pelosi understands that anything she does can be weaponized by the Republicans. She went to a fucking hair salon, for fuck sake, and it was an actual news story for three days. If she seems too eager to remove Trump, the GOP spin doctors will pounce. It’s a hard needle to thread.
Even so, she’s done quite a bit. I mean, she did impeach the guy—that’s only happened twice before in 250 years. Not only that, she was savvy enough to tap Adam Schiff to manage the process. It’s not her fault that a corrupt, poltroonish Senate and a checked-out, sanctimonious Chief Justice refused to allow a fair trial. Under her leadership, the House cranked out scores of bills to help the American people. It’s not her fault Mitch McConnell won’t allow the Senate to vote on them. Furthermore: has any individual pushed back harder against Trump, or owned him more consistently, than Nancy?
My thinking is that she has saved up her many arrows in case of emergency. What if Trump wins? What if the electoral process is compromised? What if the Senate tries to do crazy shit during the “lame duck” period, at Trump’s desperate behest? That’s when she impeaches Barr, and Pompeo, and Mnuchin, to spotlight their crimes, and ties up the Senate. That’s when she impeaches Trump a second time—in late January, when she has more votes. That’s when she tests the awesome power of inherent contempt.
In this cynical age, it is hard to find anyone in whom we can fully trust. Me, I trust Nancy Pelosi. I trust Adam Schiff. I trust Eric Swalwell. They know what Trump is, and they also know, better than I ever could, what they can do to take him down.
The tax story was not the last bombshell.
It took four full years, but a newspaper finally got to examine Trump’s taxes. It was worth the wait. Dropping two days before the first debate (if it happens), the damning investigation by Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire exposes Trump as the broke loser phony we all assumed he was. I can say—and I’m not just speculating—that the New York Times story was only the beginning of what will be a brutal five weeks for our Bankrupt-in-Chief and all those who aided and abetted his crimes.
Margin of error cuts both ways.
The MSM, desperate for a horse-race between Biden and Trump, always gooses the margin of error to favor Trump, to keep the polls closer. But as my man Fred Harding says—and he knows a thing or two about odds and polls—the margin of error may just as easily favor Biden. If Joe’s up eight, he may really be up 11. We don’t know. But the numbers are not good for President $750:
Between now and the election, there is only so much we can do. Vote, in vast numbers. Encourage others to vote. Donate generously to the Biden-Harris campaign—they will need the war chest for the lawyers, to combat GOP fuckery—and to the close Senate races (in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and if you’re feeling optimistic, Texas; there is enough money now in Kentucky and Maine). Call out the bullshit, loudly. Keep the focus on the coronavirus numbers: the death toll exacerbated by Trump’s criminal mismanagement of the response, exceeded in American history only by the Spanish Flu, the Second World War, and the Civil War. One candidate has a plan to contain and defeat the pandemic, the other is actively trying to kill us.
And above all: don’t despair, don’t panic, don’t go to the dark place. There will be time enough for that if he somehow wins, but if we stand together and show up at the polls, we shall prevail.