Fantasy Role Playing Elites Predict Post-Election Darkness Across the Land
Everyone is talking about how a group of Democrats and Republican Never-Trumpers came together for a ‘bipartisan’ election wargame that suspiciously seems to be promoting the same nightmare scenario talked up by Trump’s opponents over the last week—that the president will refuse to leave office if he does not win in November.
While Trump’s comments to FOX’s Chris Wallace last month about the possibility of postponing the election didn’t help, and there has been a wave of stories this week in the mainstream media about the president withholding support for the U.S. Postal Service, supposedly to thwart mail-in voting for the Nov. 3 election.
This seems to dovetail nicely with the results of the “secret” wargaming (which took place in June), after which the organizers, who included a who’s who of Washington elites, guaranteed the election would be contested by the losing side. According to reports, John Podesta, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, played Joe Biden. Never-Trumpers David Frum and Bill Kristol portrayed the president. Other participants included former DNC chair Donna Brazile, and former RNC chair Michael Steele.
The emphasis of their findings was clearly on Trump, who they said would likely “use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy” of denying the popular vote if he loses it. He would, with a “high degree of likelihood,” use the Justice Department and the assistance of Republican governors and legislature to “illegally” overturn the vote so he could “hold onto power.”
The Transition Integrity Project (TIP) describes itself as “a bipartisan group of over 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts.” They conducted this wargame to play out four likely scenarios. The results were all bad.
“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” Georgetown law professor and TIP co-founder Rosa Brooks told The Boston Globe. “The law is essentially… it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”
Titled Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election, the tabletop exercises anticipate a “chaotic legal and political landscape.” In general, their findings conclude that America is in for a dangerous transition period between the election and the inauguration in January 2021, regardless of who wins the presidency. In their words, “The concept of ‘election night,’ is no longer accurate and indeed is dangerous.”
If done right, wargaming the upcoming election could be a valuable exercise, considering the stakes and the volatility in American society and politics right now. But this one was clearly biased.
First, TIP minces no words, characterizing Trump as an “authoritarian leader.” Sure, the president does himself no favors in using rhetoric more commonly heard from leaders of banana republics, especially in declaring the elections “rigged” before they have even been held. His constant harping on fraudulent mail-in ballots, while not entirely unfounded, doesn’t exactly dissuade from the conspiracy theories now abounding, either.
But his remarks are also perfectly consistent with how Trump communicates in general—always upping the ante. While he may use the rhetoric of a dictator, he never really acts like one. Trump has already said he is willing to further fund the Postal Service, which will be carrying all those fraudulent ballots, depending on how negotiations with Democrats turn out. When he suggested the election be delayed, critics pointed out he does not have the authority to do so, and it was never mentioned again.
Yet the TIP wargame shows that many Democrats are not at all reassured and remain convinced that 2020 “represents an existential crisis, the last chance to stop a rapid and potentially irreversible U.S. decline into authoritarianism and unbridled nativism.” Given that the wargame resulted in only bad outcomes, with the Trump administration projected to engage in treachery, it makes one wonder—would the left accept the results of the election if Trump won?
While the group observed that supporters of both candidates would likely mount protests in the face of a contested election, TIP appears to view Trump supporters as a unique threat to the country, saying, “The Trump campaign has the real-life capacity to mobilize and, to a significant extent, steer and control the actions of Trump supporters.”
The fixation on Trump supporters as a danger to the public strikes as bizarre since nothing of the the sort ever seems to happen. The December 2019 gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, for example, was predicted by the media to end in a bloodbath, but it resulted in only one arrest. To honestly believe conservatives and Trump supporters are just itching to mount a serious uprising, one would need to ignore years of violence, including on inauguration day in January 2017, by anti-Trump and left-wing protestors, to say nothing of the months of protesting and rioting over the death of George Floyd, which have been driven by, among others, Antifa, Black Lives Matter (BLM), and hordes of young people, many of them college-educated, and even lawyers.
The TIP report seems to be just the latest episode in the “othering” of Trump supporters by portraying them as menaces to society, broadly associating them with extremists, or characterizing their views as far beyond permissible. Like all politicians, Trump has his share of problematic followers, but they are primarily lone actors and the facts on the ground simply do not support the narrative of right-wing terrorist sleeper cells ready to pounce on election night. A serious attempt was made to link the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally with Trump’s supporters, too, but it was obvious the event was the refuge of extremists, and such groups have become diminished since that day.
In the TIP report, care was taken to stress that “racial justice activists and others will likely act independently of the Biden campaign—players repeatedly cautioned that these social movements are independent, not beholden to, or a tool of, the Democratic party.” This seems like a preemptive attempt to disassociate Biden from the violent protests sure to occur in the wake of the election, regardless of who wins.
The strangest and most unsettling aspect of the wargames occurs in Scenario Three, in which Trump wins the electoral vote, but not the popular vote (it is worth noting TIP never examines a scenario where Trump wins the popular vote). The scenario assumes the public turns against the electoral college and, with Democrats, calls for its abolition, even resorting to threats of secession and refusing to recognize Trump as the democratically elected president. The scenario ends in a cliffhanger, with neither candidate recognized as the legitimate president, and the stone of possible military intervention unturned.
There is a lot to unpack in this scenario. One, the Democrats, by their own admission, would have trouble accepting a repeat of 2016. Two, TIP assumes most Americans would not tolerate four more years of Trump, despite mounting evidence that Trump supporters generally do not express their views openly, given the prevalence of “cancel culture” and the successful attempt to brand both Trump and his supporters as a sort of societal disease.
Lastly, while the report never calls for military intervention to break an impasse, we must consider recent enthusiasm on the left for such measures. Predicting some sort of slide into authoritarianism under Trump suggests the military may have no choice but to get involved, even if this isn’t said explicitly.
The wargames were not meant to be predictions nor prescriptions. But, when their underlying assumptions are tied together, the message seems to be that not only is an all-out constitutional crisis inevitable, only a definite Biden victory in November could prevent the fall of the republic. Americans should be aware of the potential for a serious political crisis in 2020. But, when closely examined, these bipartisan wargames seem to have a very partisan stench.
Edward Chang is a defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The National Interest, The American Conservative, Real Clear Defense, and Spectator USA. He can be followed on Twitter at @Edward_Chang_8.