Our old friend the Fascism Watch hit midnight eight months ago as Senate Republicans affirmed that there was no crime for which they were willing to hold Donald Trump responsible. Despite Trump’s using his high office to extort a foreign nation into providing lies against a political opponent in exchange for desperately needed military aid, the Senate dismissed the idea of calling even a single witness. The disdain they demonstrated then is being repeated now as multiple senators not only reverse their previous “principled stand,” but declare that they will support Trump’s Supreme Court nominee before they even know the identity of that nominee.
In 2016, the idea that Trump might refuse to respect the outcome of the election was treated as a fringe position. In 2020, the idea that Trump might hold onto power no matter what the results at the polls is still being treated as something that isn’t worth consideration. But it demands to be taken seriously, not as a wild idea, but a possible—even probable—outcome.
The question now is not: “Would Donald Trump cheat to hold onto power?” Because that question has been asked and answered almost every day of the last four years. The question now is: “Why would Trump not cheat to maintain his grip on the nation?” And there may be no good answer.
Four years ago, the Republican Party made a pretense of being against the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism of Donald Trump. Then one by one, they bent the knee. They have made it clear that their loyalty lies not with principle or party, and certainly not with nation. They’ve laid their personal fealty with Trump and Trump alone. For them, there is no going back.
The same Republicans who gave Trump a pass on impeachment, the same Republicans who declared their willingness to trample their own statements in support of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, the same Republicans whose control of the Senate is also on the cusp … have exactly zero interest in “doing the right thing.” Even before Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell discovered that the Constitution was subject to a complete end-around run by anyone willing to put their morality and concern for the nation on a shelf. Not only do they have no incentive to prevent Trump from stealing the election, they have every incentive to help.
With the Senate in his pocket, Trump has been preparing his followers for the rejection of the poll results for months. As Mother Jones points out, destroying faith in voting-by-mail has been an essential part of laying the foundation on which Trump can create claims of an invalid election.
It’s not difficult to imagine an Election Day scenario in which Trump prematurely declares victory based on his lead among in-person votes, which are quicker to tally than mail-in votes in many states and are expected to lean more Republican. Trump then seeks to invalidate the mail-in ballots that favor Democrats before they’re counted.
This leads to an all-too-possible scenario in which Republican state legislatures either vote to reject mail-in ballots outright, or rule that the vote on the election night is the only “real” vote. Attempts to appeal these decisions in court then roll inexorably upward to a Supreme Court where Trump’s latest appointee joins with Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh to install Trump for a second term—without even necessitating a “swing vote” from John Roberts. Trump continues a string of victory rallies as he prepares to hold up his hand again on Jan. 20.
Should there be protests (and there would be), Trump has also been preparing his followers for that moment. In Portland, Oregon, and in the streets of Washington, D.C., Trump has demonstrated an ability to deploy forces that are more than willing to use chemical weapons and deadly force against even peaceful protesters. He has spent months telling his followers that “Democrat-run” cities are hopeless cesspits that deserve to burn. Fox News has done everything possible to expand on that image of anarchy that needs a hard kick.
Even if the Army and National Guard decided to sit on their hands when Trump calls—and he would call—Trump and Attorney General William Barr have already demonstrated an ability to scoop up thousands of paramilitary forces from executive agencies that are more than willing to literally bust heads for Trump. That’s not even counting the Trump supporters who are willing to bring their own guns in to Rittenhouse the unarmed, a position that Fox News is now busy buffing up to superhero status.
Trump is a guy who always wants things to be “rougher.” Always wants the police to be “tougher.” Who hasn’t hesitated to call his political opponents “traitors” or to call for the death of people who have not faced trial. No matter what the outcome, why would he not use force to hold onto power?
As The Atlantic points out, this threat is much greater than most people are allowing.
A lot of people, including Joe Biden, the Democratic Party nominee, have misconceived the nature of the threat. They frame it as a concern, unthinkable for presidents past, that Trump might refuse to vacate the Oval Office if he loses. They generally conclude, as Biden has, that in that event the proper authorities “will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”
But that scenario suggests that a defeated Trump pouts in his office and waits for his exit escort to arrive. Trump could just as easily—and perhaps, more likely—simply declare the election invalid. Fox News would certainly back him. Republicans in the House and Senate might take a minute to check the wind direction before joining in. Maybe two hours. Then they would be all in. Trump could put up a front of appealing the outcome in court while Republicans launched “investigations of massive voting fraud” in the Senate. But it would all be for show.
This isn’t a nightmare scenario … or rather, it is a nightmare. It’s just one that Trump’s teams are working to make real. They are already putting in place the legal groundwork and public perception to appeal any outcome unfavorable to Trump. As Mother Jones notes: “The question won’t be whether American democracy can survive Trump. We’ll already know that it hasn’t.”
All that remains to find out is whether democracy can be renewed. For that to happen, everyone needs to go into this election with their eyes open, knowing that the more decisive Trump’s loss, the less likely he is to be successful in his all but certain attempts to deny that defeat. Everyone is going to need to work like hell to get as many people to the polls as possible on Election Day, to see that mail-in ballots are counted, and to hold responsible every official, at every level, who gets in the way of allowing people’s votes to be counted.
You can’t push back a threat if you won’t admit it’s real, and you better not go into a fight without a plan. Donald Trump will absolutely cheat to hold onto power. He’s demonstrated that again and again. He’s been impeached for it. He will not stop now. And everyone, including Joe Biden, better have a plan for what to do when it happens.