Republican politicians have dismissed the concern as baseless, while some liberal observers have suggested President Donald Trump’s only goal is to destroy faith in the system and cast doubt on the possibility of a fair election.
With the election a month away, journalists and politicians have grown increasingly vocal that they believe President Donald Trump will do anything to stay in power. With Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading in the polls and an increased turnout in early voting, a narrative has developed that Trump is setting the foundation for a legal or political fight to hold onto the White House.
These fears have been fed by The Atlantic, with an article entitled, “The Election That Could Break America.” Barton Gellman, the article’s author, imagines a host of ways Trump could hold onto power in a quasi-legitimate fashion.
While other publications like Forbes have amplified these concerns, Republicans and some liberals have denied there is any possibility Trump could or would do anything to steal the election if he lost the popular vote.
Republican politicians have dismissed the concern as baseless, while some liberal observers have suggested Trump’s only goal is to destroy faith in the system and cast doubt on the possibility of a fair election.
“What if Trump refuses to concede?”
The article in The Atlantic laid out a “worst case” for the 2020 election: President Donald Trump uses his power to secure victory even if he loses at the ballot box. In this scenario, Trump uses his presidential authority and the backing of political allies to negate or overturn votes for his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
In one scenario, based on the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, state legislatures could bypass the vote and pick electors directly. The electoral college historically votes in accordance with the popular vote of their respective states. If there is doubt around the legitimacy of the vote totals, though, Republican state leaders of battleground states could choose their own electors and tip the election to Trump.
Other scenarios, including a situation where a final count cannot be fairly determined, may require a ruling from the Supreme Court. In that case, a decision could be made by a court in which up to three of the nine judges were directly appointed by Trump himself, assuming the president’s latest nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, is confirmed by the Senate.
If there is an underlying assumption to Gellman’s concerns, it’s summed up thusly: “Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.”
Sowing the seeds of doubt
There is certainly evidence to support Gellman’s pessimism about the election results, most of it coming from Trump himself.
On the first day of the Republican National Convention in August, Trump made an unscheduled appearance, in which he claimed “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election.” Since that appearance, Trump has continued to tell his followers that Democrats will lose the election unless they cheat.
One of Trump’s main targets throughout the campaign has been mail-in ballots, which he has frequently claimed are likely to allow for increased voter fraud. In reality, voting by mail is considered a safe and secure method for voting and has been done for years in multiple states without issues. Voting by mail is a common method for voting early. Trump has already voted by mail this year.
In May this year, Twitter took the unprecedented action of fact-checking a Trump tweet when the president falsely claimed “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”
Nonetheless, Trump has continued to insist that many mail-in ballots will not be legitimate. On Wednesday, September 23, Trump refused to say whether he would commit to a “peaceful transfer of power” if he lost. Trump gave the use of mail-in ballots as his reason:
“You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very a peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”
Republicans deny a Trump “coup”
In 2019, Politico considered the same scenario at the root of The Atlantic article: What if Trump refused to accept defeat. That article called the idea “far-fetched,” saying, “Constitutional experts and top Republican lawmakers dismiss the fears as nonsense, noting there are too many forces working against a sitting president simply clinging to power — including history, law and political pressure.”
At the time, Politico believed Trump’s likeliest path for trying to hold onto power was through a legal battle, one that they nonetheless believed would be fairly decided by the courts. Of course, 2019 was a pandemic ago and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still on the Supreme Court. It is hard to quantify just how much has changed in the 15 months since the Politico article was published.
Both the 2019 piece and a more recent Politico article from September 27 quoted Republican allies of Trump who have insisted that, of course, Trump will step down if he loses. Most of them, like Trump himself, insist the president will win reelection so the question is moot.
Speaking about a “peaceful transfer of power,” Senator Tom Cotton stated, “I’m confident it’s going to happen again in 2025 after President Trump finishes his second term.”
A loss of confidence
Michael A. Cohen, a columnist for The Boston Globe (not Trump’s former lawyer), also believes that Gellman’s theory is far-fetched. He argues there are too many checks and balances on a state level for even Trump’s staunchest allies to circumvent.
“To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric is incredibly dangerous,” Cohen concludes. “The president is threatening to cast permanent doubt on the outcome of a presidential election, which could have troubling long-term ramifications. But we play into Trump’s hands by treating his bluster as determinative.”
In a Twitter thread on September 23, Teri Kanefield, a lawyer and author, argues that Trump and his allies are trying to create chaos and confusion specifically to create an environment in which stealing the election is possible.
Like Cohen, Kanefield believes not enough Republican state legislatures would go along with Trump’s attempt to steal electors. Instead, she contends the president’s real goal is considerably broader: “Trump is trying his best to get you to lose confidence in democratic processes.”
Kanefield argues The Atlantic article plays into Trump’s hands because it helps perpetuate the narrative that Trump can steal the election. The more pundits and politicians talk about the possibility of a stolen election, the more voters doubt the outcome and lose confidence in the results.
“Look how much time we spent on this,” Kanefield says. “Win for Trump.”
A strategy of doubt
During the 2016 election, when most polling suggested he would lose to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump was also being accused of undermining voter confidence.
Time wrote just weeks prior to the election:
“Donald Trump is going further than ever before in trying to undermine voters’ faith in the American political system, tweeting Sunday that the election is being stolen from him at the ballot box. It’s the latest component of the Trump conspiracy in which he claims the media, Republicans, global elites, and the federal government are working to stop him.”
Even after Trump won the electoral college vote and secured the presidency, he insisted Clinton’s nearly three million popular vote lead was due to immigrants voting illegally. Despite no evidence for this claim, Trump organized a commission to ferret out fraudulent voting. In August 2018, it was reported that the commission found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
There is evidence, however, that the Trump presidency has coincided with a loss of faith in American democracy. In June of this year, a study by a group of academics known as Bright Line Watch found the percentage of Americans who believed elections were free of fraud had dropped from 60% to 45% since Trump took office.
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