What if Trump Won’t Leave The White House?
I’ve got a list of bookmarks as long as a CVS receipt declaring threats to the republic and democracy and the arrival of dictatorship. When I turn on cable news, the end of America as we know it—the literal end, as in North Korean-style lives for everyone—is a regular feature alongside weather and sports (back when we had sports). I’ve tried to make a career out of debunking that fear mongering. But now I’m scared too.
Joe Biden has announced his own fears. Biden (who despite appearances is the Democratic candidate for president) said he is “absolutely convinced” the military may have to remove President Trump from the White House if he refuses to leave after losing November’s election. Joe warned, “This president is going to try to steal this election…. It’s my greatest concern.” Asked whether he’d thought about what would happen if he wins but Trump decides not to leave, Biden responded: “Yes I have.” After mentioning the high-ranking former military officers who spoke out about Trump’s response to Black Lives Matter protests, he went on: “I’m absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House.”
It’s one thing when goofy Michael Moore, Donny Deutsch, or Bill Maher muses about this for clicks, or an op-ed worries Trump will unleash a diversionary war in some Strangelovian bid to stay in office. Nearly everyone on Autonomous Free Twitter knows the voting will be rigged. Some knucklehead wrote a book about it based on a fan fiction reading of the 12th Amendment. Democrats have also voiced “concerns” that Trump might use the coronavirus crisis to delay or delegitimize the election.
But this is Joe Biden saying Trump will attempt some sort of unconstitutional coup. Joe Biden, who was vice president twice. Joe Biden, Lion of the Senate, and for several centuries the gray representative of the credit card industry. Joe Biden, who is not stupid, naive, or dramatic. Joe Biden, who is, however, just a pawn in the game. They’re setting it up, aren’t they?
The New York Times, as is its role, has already fired several signal flares. They characterized Trump as a cornered despot, capable of anything to avoid losing. In another article, the Times announced, “Trump Sows Doubt on Voting. It Keeps Some People Up at Night,” which quotes a Georgetown University law professor saying that “reactions have gone from, ‘Don’t be silly, that won’t happen,’ to an increasing sense of, ‘You know, that could happen.’”
The professor even convened a group to brainstorm how Trump might disrupt the election and think about ways to prevent it. They speculated that Trump could declare a state of emergency, maybe COVID-related, banning polling places in battleground states from opening. Or Attorney General Barr could Comey-like announce a criminal investigation into Biden.
The online comment responses to the Times articles are amazing. People are ready for this. They are convinced Trump is defunding the post office so no one can mail in absentee ballots (the left imagines they’ll all be for Biden), and that Trump is sending out coded signals to his militias to take to the streets if it looks like he is losing. More than a few claim that what happens in November “will depend on where the military’s loyalty lies.” Many think the Supreme Court is a tool in all this, with Kavanaugh a lickspittle linchpin to enable the November coup through some sort of judicial invalidation of the election.
That Americans think this way is scary enough. But here’s my nightmare. After a long October of rumors from sources about some surprise (war with Iran, martial law in Seattle) fails to produce a surge in Never Trump voters, the media pivots to the cheating narrative. Trump is doing something with mail-in ballots, black people can’t get to the polls in Georgia, the attorney general in Kentucky will undercount urban areas. The media will explode like a ripe zit, splattering fake news, exaggerations, and experts, all with a single point to make: the results on Election Day will not be valid if Trump wins. Academics will fan the flames, bleating on about the importance of the popular vote and rehashing old arguments from 2016 about the invalidity of the Electoral College.
All will be forgotten faster than Robert-What’s-His-Name-Mueller if Biden wins. But if by pre-2016 standards Trump is the winner, boom! The media will refuse to concede. The Dems will issue strident local court challenges, demands for recounts, and emergency hearings in the House. They will want not a conclusion, but a crisis.
Trump will fulfill his role as his own worst enemy and hold rallies to re-declare victory over and over again. But the story everywhere else will be that he isn’t the president-elect, that the election was not legitimate, and that orange bad man’s presence in the White House after January 20 will be a Konstitutional Krisis. Privately the Democratic power brokers will whisper to their wealthy funders that something remarkably undemocratic has to be done to save our democracy.
What happens next is beyond guessing. A best case scenario is that some old school party graybeards get through to an exhausted and befuddled Biden and talk him out of it. A bad scenario has Obama emerging under the guise of being a neutral party to negotiate a (Democratic Party) conclusion. A very bad scenario has the same third-party actors who whipped Black Lives Matter protesters into a looting mob repeat the performance. By that point, nearly everyone will demand that the military step in, albeit for different reasons. A very, very bad scenario will have a real-world event intervene, like an enemy abroad taking advantage of the chaos. The need to act expeditiously will slip a “temporary” military government into place faster than CNN can play the breaking news music.
Paperback thriller material, right? But consider whether you thought Trump was a Russian sleeper agent before you call me paranoid. Since 2016, learned scholars have tested legal theories saying the Electoral College was invalid and created a constitutional Frankenstein based on the national popular vote. The idea that the election was invalid due to foreign influence still sullies discussion today. One political writer even continues to place an asterisk next to “President Trump*” to denote his questionable claim to the title.
For nearly four years, the same forces that may declare 2020 invalid tried very hard to convince us 2016 already was. There are plenty of Hillary people (including Hillary) who have not accepted 2016. Has Stacey Abrams really accepted her defeat yet? Think back to everything that happened during the last election, the gaming by Comey and the FBI to influence results. Remember how the intelligence community manipulated Russiagate. Why wait for November 2020 to have a coup? We’ve been in what Matt Taibbi calls a permanent coup for years. They’ve been practicing.
Any of the those things would have been considered crazy talk only a few years ago. None would have ever passed into the mainstream. Compare Russiagate to the Great Obama Birth Certificate kerfuffle. The idea that Obama was ineligible for office festered on right-wing talk radio. It was dismissed as fact-less by just about everyone else. Fast forward to 2016+ and America’s paper of record is happy to front a story claiming the president is subject to a foreign enemy’s blackmail based on nothing but desperate hope that it might be true.
The critical tool for the ending of democracy is people’s conditioned readiness to believe almost anything. The media tells the world what’s important using a very narrow range of truth, or just makes things up if truth is not around to be manipulated.
We are exhausted, neck-deep in cynicism, decline, and distrust. And scared. There are no facts anymore, only what people can be made to believe. That power was not well understood in 2016 and was clumsily applied. Today it is ripe for exploitation, far beyond generating clicks and ad revenue. I don’t think Trump will try to stay in office if he loses. But there are people who will tell us that to manipulate our fears and steal this election. That’s why I am finally scared.
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,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.