The Next Nightmare

Polls currently show that all of the major Democratic presidential candidates are pulling way ahead of Donald Trump. While Democrats should take nothing for granted, there is at least some reason hope that Americans will turn out in large numbers and Trump will be soundly defeated in 2020. That victory would be both exciting and an enormous relief, a moment when we can collectively begin to believe that the national nightmare is ending.

If that does happen, the next nightmare will likely begin. It may be minutes, hours, days, or even weeks, but at some point between Election Day November 2020 and Inauguration Day January 2021, odds are that Trump will declare that the election was “fake news” and refuse to vacate the White House. There will be no peaceful transfer of power.

This past weekend showed some disturbing signs of this. Internal polls commissioned by the Trump campaign were leaked, showing that he is trailing badly in several battleground states. In response, Trump angrily called the polls “fake” and then fired the pollsters.

He also suggested on Twitter (where else?) that it was possible “the people would demand that I stay longer” than two terms of office, using his joking-not-joking strategy to suggest that he’s not hemmed in by laws or the Constitution when it comes to retaining power.

A talking point of Democrats who are reluctant to begin an impeachment inquiry is that Trump needs to be removed at the ballot box, not by impeachment. The argument is that Trump can’t be removed from office through impeachment since Republicans, who control the Senate, will refuse to convict him no matter how much evidence there is. Which is true. With rare exceptions, Republicans have shown that there is no level of criminality Trump could display that they are unwilling to accept, so long as it allows them to retain power.

But it’s also why there’s a real danger that, if and when Trump refuses to leave office after an electoral defeat, Republicans will go along with it. And why not? They haven’t drawn any line yet when it comes to Trump cheating or breaking the law. On the contrary, Republicans were already flouting the law in their attempts to retain control over all levels of the government even though a majority of Americans have rejected them at the polls. So far, there appears to be no limits to what Republicans will allow, so long as it entrenches their power.

Republicans have been doing it even before Trump came along. Gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts predated his candidacy, taking off in earnest after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Mitch McConnell refused to hold any hearings for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, on totally bogus pretenses so he could hold the seat open for a Republican president to fill. This trend goes back to the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, in which the Supreme Court’s conservative majority handed George W. Bush the presidency rather than allowing a recount in Florida.

McConnell’s response to the Russian criminal conspiracy to undermine the last election has been to reject any effort to prevent such conspiracies in the future. Bills have been written and passed by the House to shore up election security and McConnell simply refuses to bring them for a vote. Trump made clear, in his interview last week with George Stephanopoulos, that he fully intends to cheat in 2020 the same way he cheated in 2016. McConnell’s response has basically been, “Cool!”

Republicans are so complicit in Trump’s criminality that it is simply a statement of fact to note there is no chance that the Senate would vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial, no matter how serious his crimes are. If they refuse to throw him out for being a criminal, why would they throw him out because he lost an election?

We have to presume that Trump and the Republicans will not be hemmed in by law or custom when it comes to holding onto power they haven’t earned. It would be deeply unwise for Democrats to pin their hopes on the possibility that Trump will suddenly, after all this time, become the kind of man who would admit he lost an election, or that Republicans will finally decide that there’s such thing as “going too far” when it comes to taking power in defiance of democratic will.

How should we deal with it when Trump declares the election void and Republicans back his play? The time to plan for that is now. Being caught flat-footed and scrambling to catch up will only make it easier for Trump to entrench the idea that his hold on the White House is absolute, just as he and Republicans have entrenched the idea that it’s normal and acceptable for the Senate to refuse to convict him no matter what.

Unless Democrats move swiftly and forcefully when Trump refuses to leave the White House, (and they need to plan for “when,” not “if”) Republicans will be able to make the Trump Dynasty feel inevitable, as they’ve done with other successful efforts at gutting American democracy.

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