Attempts to overturn the results of our election, or to delegitimize a president before he even takes office, are attempts to overturn the system of transfer of power that has served America well. There is no measure of exaggeration here; Americans are questioning the results of a democratic election.
In what in another era would be left for conspiracy theorists, powerful mainstream forces want to prevent the president-elect from entering the White House. They seem to believe he is such a threat that it is necessary to destroy a part of democracy in America to save it.
Some efforts are silly, such as petitions asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, followed by a do-over. Political scientists claim they’ve found untested ways for the Electoral College to vote for Hillary Clinton, or to postpone a vote until another plan can be worked out.
A very serious aspect of all this is that the Central Intelligence Agency, via anonymous leaks to select media, has declared that Russia interceded in our election in favor of Donald Trump. It is important to unpack what the accusations are: someone working for the Russian government broke into the Democratic National Committee servers and Clinton campaign head John Podesta’s Gmail account and delivered those emails (which the Clinton campaign sometimes implied were bogus or altered) to places like WikiLeaks, with the intention of helping Trump win the election.
Some argue, further, that the emails may have been the deciding factor—that Trump’s strengths as a candidate and Clinton’s weaknesses were not significant enough on their own to have swayed the winning 74 electoral votes in Trump’s favor. Others speculate that President Trump will act in Russia’s interests and against those of the United States, or that Trump was a willing participant in any Russian ops.
All is supposed to be revealed in the form of some sort of intelligence assessment.
Leaving aside how clever use of redactions can present “evidence” in misleading ways, real intelligence assessments are rarely black and white, especially when seeking to explain why an action took place, its ultimate political goal. An intelligence service can conclude that Country X executed 12 dissidents last week. It is much harder to say why, or why now, or why those 12, or what those executions mean in the long game.
Similarly, while technical means may be able to point to a hacker with connections to Russia (though hackers include in their tradecraft leaving false clues), determining whether any hacks were standard information-gathering as engaged in by all sides or an active part of a campaign to change the course of our election is a tough job. Those who expect a slam-dunk report on what the Russians did, why they did it, and how it affected the election are very unlikely to get it. For example, divisions over the conclusion are already emerging between the FBI and the CIA. Yet, with Podesta’s support, nine Democratic electors and one Republican are demanding security clearances and a Central Intelligence Agency briefing before they vote in less than a week.
So what will be done?
The current hope is for the December 19 Electoral College vote to put Hillary Clinton into the White House. That would require breaking with some two centuries of practice, moving against the will of the voters as expressed through the current system, and destroying the orderly transfer of power that marks a democracy. A divided America will become more divided, perhaps past the point of healing.
But if Trump prevails in the Electoral College, what next? There is no constitutional provision for a second election. Bomb Moscow? Keep Barack Obama in power? Dispatch a lynch mob to Trump Tower?
Of course not. Instead, America will face the challenges of a complex world with a delegitimized president, under the shadow of conspiracy theories, accusations, hearings, and possibly threats of impeachment. Every decision President Trump makes, as with his every cabinet choice now, will be weighed against the accusations. America’s Russia policy (in Europe, the Middle East, Asia) will be held hostage to rumors and leaks.
The differences between the Bush-Gore election in 2000 and now are significant. The post-election fight then was between two candidates to decide a winner. Trump is the president-elect, and the process, whatever it is, seeks to overturn, not decide, that result. And the Bush-Gore struggle took place in open court, not via leaks and classified documents.
There is also the argument—basically a variation of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”—that Americans should be willing to submit to post-election recounts and investigations, themselves often inconclusive or subject to another round of questions, to “prove” nothing went amiss. But there is danger in mistaking a potential body blow to the electoral process for benign verification. It would be a level of verification, of course, unprecedented in our history of 58 presidential elections.
An additional danger is the McCarthy-esque conflating of opposition to these efforts with a lack of patriotism, or even with support for America’s enemies. To remain skeptical is to stand against the United States. To question the Central Intelligence Agency is to disrespect our intelligence professionals. Journalists who do not support the accusations are said to be either active Russian agents of influence or “useful idiots” too dumb to know they are being manipulated. The former acting director of the CIA said Russia’s actions were “the political equivalent of 9/11” and implored Americans to act.
The most dangerous parts of all this, however, regardless of outcome, will be felt long past Trump’s tenure.
Democrats and Republicans will have four years to consider how this process of delegitimizing a president-elect could work more effectively next time. The people who support extra-constitutional steps now because of Donald Trump will find those same steps available to use against a candidate they favor. Voting can become only a preliminary gesture, with the real struggle starting after the election itself. Once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it next time.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His next book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.