President Donald Trump has so far refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. If he loses the election and declines to leave office, that would be unprecedented in American Democracy. Still, this seems to be the route that Trump is taking.
Trump is obviously priming the country to both discredit the election’s results and to resign themselves to the “inevitability” of Trump’s rule. When asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power on September 23, his response was simply, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” Even Mike Pence, often thought of as the “sane” arm of the Trump-Pence ticket, refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power during the Vice-Presidential Debate.
During the first Presidential Debate, Trump, quite horrifyingly, said, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.” He went on to add the qualifier, “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that… It means you have a fraudulent election.”
In effect, he is urging his supporters to engage in near vigilante-style monitoring of the elections. And who will their “justice” – which, more accurately, is just another rendition of voter suppression and intimidation – come down on? Minorities, women and anyone who appears to be voting Democrat. But secondly, Trump set himself up to discredit any election in which he cries, “Vote manipulation!”
Cries of voter fraud and miscounts before there is any evidence that either has happened are insidious. According to the FBI, there is “no evidence of any coordinated fraud schemes related to voting by mail this year.” Of course, we know at this point that facts don’t stop the Trump Administration. Trump and Pence talk about massive voter fraud as if it is a well-established fact, especially in terms of mail-in votes. In reality, an analysis of mail-in ballots found a possible rate of voter fraud of only 0.0025%.
Still, the chaos and novelty of the pandemic have played into Trump’s fearmongering hands, and he continues to raise unfounded concerns. “These people aren’t equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat. They cheat,” he went on. He is, in effect, preparing his party and supporters to strictly scrutinize a potential loss. All Trump has to do to throw a wrench in our democracy is make false claims about voter fraud (which, historically, he has done many times before), and that will likely be sufficient for his administration and party to, at best, launch a long, meandering investigation aimed at bringing the democratic process to a grinding halt. Or, at worst, his party may see the “fraudulent” loss of its leader as a cause to take up arms.
One could read all this rhetoric as Trump and Pence being confident in a legitimate victory, but that seems unlikely: recent polls indicate that they are trailing the Biden-Harris campaign by up to 16 points. At the end of September, FiveThirtyEight gave Trump a 21% chance of winning the Electoral College. Undoubtedly, Trump and his campaign see these dismal numbers and know they may have to take “extreme measures” to win. Clearly, three key aspects of that strategy have been discouraging the vote, discrediting the election and generating fear and speculation about the consequences of what would happen if Trump loses.
Through this strategy of avoidance and dodging, Trump and Pence have been able to sew the seeds of discontent about next month’s election without ever explicitly saying they will not accept the result. These dog whistles and buried meanings are used to prime the country to accept unacceptable things and to mobilize the most radicalized members of the party to come to Trump’s defense in the event of a loss.
And if people truly believe Trump’s insinuation that any loss he faces is illegitimate, the results could be catastrophic. Keith Mines, a national security expert, says there is a 60% chance of a second American civil war over the next 10 to 15 years. It is not hard to imagine how the refusal of a sitting president to peacefully leave office could catalyze that.
And even if the results weren’t as drastic as a civil war, the implications of Trump refusing to leave office are still weighty and horrifying. Trust in our democracy, already at an all-time low, would plummet. Citizen political engagement would bottom out. Political divides would increase to levels beyond the monumental ones that already exist. Ultimately, whether fighting would occur or not, Trump’s refusal to leave would make us all reconsider what we believe and cherish about our country, regardless of political ideology.
Americans shouldn’t be in this position in the first place, but, given the dire straits we would be in should Trump refuse to leave, it falls on us to mitigate the situation. The first step we must take is voting. The 2016 election showed us that the polls aren’t always right, and we cannot grow complacent because of seemingly high margins. In short, the larger victory on Election Day, the harder the result becomes to deny.
Secondly, we must combat misinformation; the dissemination of which is a crucial tenet of Trump-Pence’s campaign strategy. (During the first Presidential Debate, for example, Wired reports that Trump told 11 lies about voting in eight minutes.) Democratic nominees and debate moderators, for their part, need to do a better job of calling out Republican lies during debates. But, as long as they fail to do so, We The People have to spread valid, supported news and discredit voices from the alt-right that try to prepare the nation to reject the results of a democratic election.
Trump and Pence don’t want us to accept a fair election. Their campaign strategy relies on the American people questioning the very foundation of American Democracy: voting. Democratic politicians, media outlets, and American citizens must, therefore, come together to nip this nefarious strategy in the bud. If we don’t, the outcome will be detrimental.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.