The Election Was Just the Beginning

Our crisis of democracy is just getting started. There are two scenarios playing out right now, neither of which bodes well for the country going forward.

Photo by Michael Vadon on Flickr

For all of the jubilation about Biden and Harris winning and the “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead” memes, there are credible signs of our democracy either permanently crumbling into Trumpist authoritarianism, or being thrown into chaos and gridlock for at least the next four years–if not longer–resulting in permanent damage to our collective faith in the electoral system.

Our crisis of democracy is just getting started. Republicans see in the “election fraud” narrative a long tail of political gain no matter what happens on January 20th, 2021. There are two parallel Trump trains heading our way — either a Coup d’éta, or the poisoning of our confidence in fair elections and democracy. Both portend disastrous outcomes for the country.

Scenario One: The Coup

The first scenario is an outright Coup d’état in which Trump refuses to leave office and is not escorted off the premises, as Biden has claimed will happen. This may sound preposterous, but there are many signs pointing to this, and in fact, some very smart people have already gamed this out. Let me outline just a few of the ways this is starting to take shape.

Trump has repeatedly made statements going back months and years saying that he would not leave office, would not lose re-election, that there would not be a transition of power, that it would be great to be president for life like President Xi of China, that the despotic leader Kim Jong Un has a “beautiful vision” for his country, and so forth. His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, presaged this outcome in his book in which he wrote that Trump “will never leave office peacefully.”

There are several things happening concurrently to support this scenario. Let’s start with the claims of fraud in the election, which are providing the rhetorical pretext to acting on the specious arguments that the election was stolen. Take for example the unprecedented memo by Attorney General Wiliam Barr allowing DOJ prosecutors to start investigations of voter fraud before the votes are certified by the states. This memo gives legal cover to the DOJ to find some example, any example that could be considered an “irregularity,” which Trump and conservative media can amplify to validate sweeping claims of widespread fraud across the country. Whether the DOJ actually finds any evidence of this is irrelevant; it’s the perception that counts.

GOP elected officials and conservative media are all-in on the “vote fraud” fraud. Even some of those who previously seemed resigned to a Biden win, are now contradicting those statements. Senator Roy Blunt of Texas is the most recent saying, “The president wasn’t defeated by huge numbers. In fact, he may not have been defeated at all.”

Maintaining that the argument is about legal vs. illegal votes, also keeps it within the jurisdiction of the courts. Election recounts and certifications, which have yet to finish, could go to the Supreme Court where there is currently a 6–3 conservative majority.

Trump is also quickly making post-election personnel changes at the highest levels of our national security apparatus. Michael Ellis, the new head of legal counsel at the NSA was just installed yesterday. Mr. Ellis was a longtime Republican political operative who was Devin Nunes’ (yes, remember him) chief council. The NSA was allegedly under pressure from the White House to install Mr. Ellis despite protests from within the organization. I don’t need to remind you how powerful the NSA is and what they could do with a Trump loyalist at the helm of their legal team.

Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, who was known to have a strained relationship with Trump after refusing to invoke the Insurrection Act to send active-duty military troops against protesters after the killing of George Floyd, was also removed yesterday. He was replaced by Christopher C. Miller, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center. By law, the deputy secretary of defense, David Norquist, should become the acting secretary, but to Trump, laws don’t apply to him, and there are no Republicans to hold him to account anyway.

This could lead to the nightmare scenario of “faithless electors”

Because of the claims of fraud, Republican representatives across the country are arguing that the election was stolen. This could lead to the nightmare scenario of “faithless electors” in which Republican legislatures vote to send representatives to the electoral college to cast their ballot for Trump because they are “actually being faithful to the REAL election results” in which Trump supposedly won. This is not an impossibility, and with the cover of “fraud,” is seemingly more likely.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Scenario Two: Poisoning the Well

If the actual coup doesn’t work out, there is a years-long upshot for Republicans, one that will be just as damaging to our country and democracy.

Conservative rage has been a well-worn, and highly effective strategy to boost turnout at the polls. Conservative voters are continually bombarded with “end of the world” scenarios that warn of calamity if democrats are elected. It is immaterial that those predictions never come true. The “birther” movement playbook that sought to depict Barak Obama as an illegitimate president, was rooted in racial animus and highly effective in flipping house and senate seats nationwide. The GOP rolled up huge wins at the local, state, and national levels during Obama’s presidency.

Now, the illegitimacy playbook will turn to voter fraud and be used to enrage Republican voters, which the GOP will highlight relentlessly for the next four years. It’s already working. The percentage of Republicans who believe that the presidential vote was fraudulent has gone from 35 percent to 70 percent in a matter of one week.

By spreading false claims of voter fraud and illegitimate elections, even if Trump does leave office, Biden will face unrelenting obstruction from the Republicans. This obstruction, however, will take on a new, “by any means necessary” scorched-earth approach that will have the moral cover to do anything, no matter how norm-breaking, abhorrent, or anti-democratic. They will argue they are “fighting the good fight” and simply doing what’s necessary to take back a government that was illegally stolen from them.

The post-Trump conservative media ecosystem will profit from this, and the “illegitimate Biden government” narrative will be a ratings juicer for the next four years. Every poll watcher with a political grievance will find a home on Fox News and other outlets telling tales of things they supposedly heard or saw. Nevermind that the U.S. Postal Service worker widely cited by conservative media as having witnessed ballot tampering has already recanted saying that he lied. It doesn’t matter. The damage is done. The narrative is already fixed in the minds of conservatives.

It doesn’t matter. The damage is done. The narrative is already fixed in the minds of conservatives.

In the aftermath of this election, Trump himself will continue to receive the attention he so desires because the country will continue to litigate the previous election through the media.

At the ballot box, Democrats will find conservatives’ rage and energy hard to match. The feeling of “whew — now the threat of Trump is gone, we can relax” will placate many Democrats into sitting out the midterm elections, which Republicans will win in an avalanche because of high turnout and Democratic apathy. With Republicans taking back the majority in the House and keeping the majority in the Senate, they will reignite the investigation machine (“Bengazi!”… “What about her emails!”), which will be laser-focused on the “corrupt and illegal” Biden administration.

Still fuming over the Democratic impeachment of Trump for what they saw as a political stunt to remove their president, Republicans will return the favor. With a House and Senate majority, the “laptop from hell” or any other scandal, no matter how untrue or fabricated, will provide the pretext to impeach Biden. Whether this succeeds in actually removing him from office or not (depending on the makeup of the Senate) will be immaterial. It will serve the purpose of further solidifying the idea that Biden was illegitimate and nefarious, and hopefully either catapult either Trump himself or one of his acolytes to re-election in 2024 with full control of the government once again.

Mitch McConnell plays one brand of politics — hardball. Democrats will need to take a page out of his book and do some out-of-the-box thinking if they’re going to save themselves, and the country.

Associate Professor of Communication, interested in all things persuasion, dad, husband, DIY hobbyist.