In the 1930s, when a New York publishing company was thinking of bringing out an unexpurgated English-language edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, its editors first approached the radicals of New York’s New School for Social Research, who assembled a specialist team of anti-fascist German refugees to do the translation. Why would the refugees do that — one might think — hadn’t they suffered enough? But the translators agreed readily. They wanted the world to know what Hitler was thinking, to take his ideas seriously, to grasp how different his politics was from the “normal” right-wing politics that had come before.
We should look at Trump’s comments in Tuesday’s presidential debate in the same spirit and take them as seriously as he does. We should think about the exchange when Trump was asked, “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”
He answered, “Don’t tell me about a free transition…. We won’t know. We might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over.”
Trump wasn’t saying he would reject an election that Biden won. Rather, he was threatening to use the office of the president to prevent there from being a decisive outcome against him.
Trump was talking about postal votes when he said, “Take a look at what happened in New Jersey. Take a look at what happened in Virginia and other places. They’re not losing 2 percent, 1 percent, which by the way is too much. An election could be won or lost with that. They’re losing 30 and 40 percent.”
Translated from Trump lingo, it seems that the president sees a way to win the election, and it’s more specific and in fact cleverer than most of his opponents give him credit for. But that doesn’t mean his plan will work.
When votes start to be counted, many Republican electors will vote in person, and many Democrats will vote by post. Normally, there is no correlation between how people vote and who they vote for. This year is different. COVID makes postal voting safer. But the trend to vote that way will be lower among Republicans who’ve been listening for six months while their president has discredited mail-in votes.
In-person votes will be counted first. So, even if by the time all postal votes have been counted, Biden can be shown to have won by, say, seven or more clear percentage points, Trump may be ahead on election night.
It’s much easier to challenge postal votes than it is to challenge in-person votes. What if the security envelopes are marked, or there are no security envelopes at all? What if the envelope arrives but the postmark is almost invisible? Trump wants Republican vote counters to object to every postal vote they can, raising the natural 1 or 2 percent rejection rate to more like 30 or 40 percent.
If that happens, then we may never get to the point where anyone can say with any clarity that Biden did in fact win by seven clear points, because state after state is going to be bogged down in partisan recounts.
Could this plan be Bush v. Gore the sequel?
Actually, Trump could have several further advantages that would put him on stronger ground even than George W. Bush.
For one thing, Trump is calling on his supporters to attend the polls in person and “watch” (by which he likely means “demonstrate”). “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said. “They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing.”
There’s a long and honorable tradition of neutral observers traveling to watch disputed elections in semi-democratic states. That’s not what Trump is getting at. He’s not planning to mobilize neutrals; he’s calling out his own base.
A model for this kind of behavior happened in Fairfax, Virginia, where, in September, a group of Trump supporters walked into the polling place waving flags and shouting, “Four more years.” So powerful is the megaphone of Trump’s Twitter account with its 86 million followers that we should see this as a real threat.
In addition, in 2000 the Supreme Court was split 5-4 on partisan lines. That’s why it seemed so shocking when it was revealed that Amy Coney Barrett was not merely an extra partisan vote, but a former researcher on Bush v. Gore.
Finally, Trump signaled at the debate to his armed supporters that if the election does go the way of Florida in 2000, he expects them to play their part in backing him. It’s in that context that Trump’s “stand by” order was given to the Proud Boys.
This is perhaps the most troubling feature of the next few weeks. In 2000, protests over the election largely stayed within the bounds of legality. Vote counters and judges were subject to protests and counterprotests, but save for the exception of the so-called Brooks Brothers “riot” (in which two dozen Republican staffers in their suits did little more than shout and wave their arms) no one was attacked. Certainly, no one was killed.
In turning to his street supporters, Trump is calling on people who feel no doubts about using violence. For since 2016, attacks on left-wing demonstrators have become ever more frequent. The best known remains the killing of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car at protesters after being photographed earlier brandishing a shield with Mussolini’s fasces symbol, complete with an executioner’s axe.
Since late May, more than 100 white supremacists have attempted to disperse anti-racist protests by driving their cars at demonstrators.
At the heart of Trump’s plan is the idea of using crowds of hostile people to bring the election counts to a halt, to so foul up the reality of which votes went to which candidate that no one could say any longer what was fake and what was real.
However, massive voter turnout — particularly in-person voting — could thwart Trump’s plan. So could a widespread understanding that it’s normal for results to change after election night, and it’s more likely than ever this year.
Above all, Trump’s campaign can only succeed if his people are in the streets and everyone else is at home. In spring 2020, we saw a glimpse of that danger, when Trump called on his supporters to “Liberate Minnesota. Liberate Michigan. Liberate Virginia.”
What followed immediately afterward were some of the most inspiring protests for racial justice that the United States has seen. If November follows a path that’s anywhere near Trump’s plan, then we will need the same insurgent spirit again.