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The Most Hysterical Worst-Case Election Scenario

If you’re worrying that Democrats wouldn’t concede a Biden defeat, you’re just concern-trolling while American democracy wobbles.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has surveyed the state of the 2020 election and drawn an unusual conclusion from it. “As someone who has argued against catastrophism—I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making, and I don’t believe America is a failed state—I find myself truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result,” he wrote on Saturday in The Atlantic.

I envy Hamid’s peace of mind. I am personally worried about a great many scenarios that could arise between now and Inauguration Day, especially if the results after Election Day are close or contested. I worry about protracted legal battles, spasms of political violence, foreign meddling, constitutional crises, and would-be authoritarians who salivate at the chance to suppress their purported enemies. I hope that the United States will maintain its two-century record of peaceful transitions of presidential power, but I can’t guarantee it.

Still, it’s worth wrestling with the underlying premise of this question. If Trump is sworn in for a second term by Chief Justice John Roberts on January 20, 2021, how would his critics on the left handle another four years? Hamid fears mass disillusionment with electoral politics. “A loss by Joe Biden under these circumstances is the worst case not because Trump will destroy America (he can’t), but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy,” he warned, suggesting that it would lead to more riots and protests like those in Portland and Seattle in recent months.

I take issue with two premises laid out here: that liberals’ disillusionment with the democratic process wouldn’t be justified, and that it would also be the worst possible result in November. Hamid’s question flows from a number of conclusions he’s drawn about the past few years. He correctly notes that many of Trump’s critics have struggled with the 2016 results, while suggesting that their concerns about Russian interference or voter suppression were misguided or misplaced. Hamid argues that since Trump is a far more well-known quantity now than he was four years ago, and Biden is a less polarizing candidate than Hillary Clinton was, the psychic shock of a second Trump victory would be even greater than the first.

But what does it mean for a political party—or any person, for that matter—to “not accept the result?” Does it mean Joe Biden won’t admit defeat if he receives fewer votes in key states? Calling (or not calling) an opponent to concede is a pure formality that doesn’t actually carry any legal weight. Biden could vent and complain and denounce the results from November until the sun burns out, and it wouldn’t change the vote totals or affect the state-by-state Electoral College count. Any legal challenges would be resolved by the Supreme Court; perhaps with the benefit of hindsight after Bush v. Gore, or perhaps not.

There is no question that Trump is the lawful president of the United States right now. But whether he carries a democratic mandate is an entirely different matter. A majority of Americans rejected him at the ballot box in 2016, and he only assumed power through a flaw in the Constitution that occasionally hands the presidency to someone who doesn’t receive the most votes. Trump has never enjoyed a majority of public support in polling averages since that fateful November night. His efforts to pass major legislation through Congress on immigration or health care largely failed because lawmakers from both parties realized how deeply unpopular they would be if implemented, and he’s largely given up on trying to enact sweeping policy changes through anything but executive order.

If Trump somehow wins in November, it will also matter how he reaches that victory. (I’ll assume for this column that he didn’t use federal agents or the military to seize ballot boxes in key states or engage in any other extra-legal skullduggery, since that would raise a host of other issues.) It’s almost axiomatic among observers, even on Trump’s side, that he won’t win the popular vote. As Hamid acknowledges, the president’s path to victory runs once again through a narrow gauntlet of states that might provide him with an Electoral College majority. “That will fuel disillusion not just with the election outcome but with the electoral system,” Hamid wrote. “The popular-vote numbers will be used to argue that Trump won without winning—again.” He continues:

Liberals have convinced themselves that Republicans are, in one way or another, cheating. In addition to all of Trump’s norm-breaking, the GOP is gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, and shutting down polling places in Black neighborhoods. Yet Republicans wouldn’t have been able to do these things if they hadn’t won enough statewide and local offices in the first place. They have put themselves in a position to enact their favored redistricting and election procedures by finding candidates and pursuing policies that made them competitive in formerly Democratic states, demanding a level of party discipline that Democrats can seldom muster, and getting their supporters to turn out for down-ballot races. Republican manipulation is what the democratic process itself has produced, however unfair, and it can be undone only through that same process, however flawed. To some degree, this is just how the game is played, and Democrats need to play it better if they want to win the Electoral College. Having won the presidency twice in the recent past, Democrats are surely capable of prevailing via normal means, but promising voters a slightly improved version of the present may not necessarily be the best way to do it.

Here is where Hamid’s argument starts to fall apart. His fear is not that Republicans will reengineer the electoral system so Democrats can’t win, but that Democrats won’t accept the legitimacy of such a system. Closed polling places in Black neighborhoods and lawmakers who immunize themselves from ordinary electoral consequences are taken as a valid outcome of the democratic process instead of a fundamental corruption of it. The long right-wing campaign to suppress voters to secure power is chalked up to “party discipline” and “how the game is played.” Hamid claims that Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories show how Democrats can win the presidency “via normal means,” without considering that many Republicans are fighting tooth and nail precisely to prevent that from ever happening again.

Liberals would almost certainly accept a second Trump term as a matter of law. There will always be some despondent folks on social media willing to indulge in some loose talk, but I doubt that they would refuse to pay taxes or swear allegiance to some sort of Biden administration-in-exile if the former vice president loses. Hamid’s wish for liberals to treat an Electoral College–only outcome as democratically legitimate, on the other hand, is a bridge too far. I turned 31 years old in August. If Trump wins in November solely through the Electoral College, I will have spent slightly less than half my life living under presidencies that began in defiance of the American people’s wishes by the next election in 2024. Given Trump’s efforts to corrupt the census and tilt the reapportionment process in his favor, things will likely get worse before they get better.

If anything, I am far more afraid of what Trump would do with another four years in power without a democratic mandate. In an interview on Infowars over the weekend, longtime ally Roger Stone said Trump should declare martial law if he loses the election in November and rule by extralegal force. He also called for Trump to use government resources to suppress votes in states where he might not win. “The ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state,” he demanded, citing false allegations of mass voter fraud. “They are completely corrupted. No votes should be counted from the state of Nevada if that turns out to be the provable case. Send federal marshals to the Clark County board of elections, Mr. President!”

Stone’s antipathy toward democracy is hardly new. The longtime GOP operative and Richard Nixon fanboy was convicted of lying to Congress about Russian interference efforts last year and then granted clemency by Trump in July. But he also isn’t alone in ratcheting up his rhetoric as Election Day nears. Mark Levin, a popular right-wing radio host, encouraged Trump last week to invoke the Insurrection Act to “put down the enemy” if he wins reelection. “The enemy is Antifa, the enemy is Black Lives Matter, and the enemy is anybody that is going to use rioting, arson, looting, violence against our country to try to overthrow our country,” he claimed. “Those are traitors. That’s treasonous.”

And then there’s Michael Caputo, a Stone acolyte who now serves as the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to The New York Times, Caputo recently claimed on Facebook that government scientists were committing “sedition” and that there was a “resistance unit” in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that sought to undermine the president. Ironically, Caputo himself has reportedly tried to edit the CDC’s benchmark Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports to align with the president’s upbeat predictions about Covid-19. But his discussion turned even darker on the subject of the upcoming election.

“I don’t like being alone in Washington,” he said, describing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.” He then ran through a series of conspiracy theories, culminating in a prediction that Mr. Trump will win re-election but his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., will refuse to concede.

“And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing.” He added: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

This rhetoric mirrors Trump’s own troubling remarks about the election, as well as his predilection for endorsing violence. There are some signs that Trump’s comments about the election may be mostly bluster, of course. As I noted in July, he and his family have signaled what they might do after he leaves the White House, suggesting at minimum that they don’t expect him to declare himself president for life on November 4. Federal law also requires that incumbent administrations provide resources and briefings to major-party candidates for a potential transition of power after the election, regardless of their chances. So far, there are no indications that the Trump administration has hindered or undermined that ongoing process.

But I am still worried that even if things go relatively smoothly in November, some of Trump’s followers will take up arms after the election, either to punish his defeated opponents or to retaliate against them for winning. I fear that even if the overwhelming majority of his supporters don’t carry out acts of political violence, his words may nonetheless inspire another Cesar Sayoc or Christopher Hasson to plot a campaign against his perceived enemies. And if Americans take to the streets to express their opposition to the Trump administration’s policies, I worry that more armed gunmen like the one in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month will insert themselves into situations with potentially lethal consequences.

The most curious thing about Hamid’s piece is that after all his hand-wringing, he never really gets around to providing a convincing or comprehensive game plan about what liberals should dothough his specific admonition for them to get better at “how the game is played” could be taken as gerrymandering districts and suppressing the vote with equal vigor. It’s puzzling that someone so gravely concerned about the decline of faith in our democracy would prescribe a second dose of it; it’s also hard to see what might provoke his suggested “mass movement to change” the Electoral College other than this loss of faith. But these are mere puzzlements. It’s understandable that Hamid is worried that Democrats might become disillusioned by electoral politics if Biden loses in November. But it matters less whether liberals lose faith in democracy than whether that faith is no longer justified.