Trump: three questions
Daniel Lazare looks at the possibilities in the presidential election
With Donald Trump increasingly isolated in the White House, as the George Floyd protests continue and the coronavirus prepares for a rebound, three questions loom:
- Will he lose in November?
- How will Americans even know?
- Will he depart peacefully if he does?
The fact that such questions even arise shows how broken America’s 233-year-old constitutional machinery has become. Elections are supposed to be simple. Citizens cast ballots, officials tally up the results, the winners give their victory speeches and the losers go home, licking their wounds and vowing to fight another day. But in America, they are endlessly complex. November 3, for example, will see not one, but 51 separate elections - one for each state, plus Washington DC. With the precise rules varying from one locale to another, all will take place under the stewardship of autonomous state officials, whose abilities range from the semi-competent to the perilously inept. In fact, many states will leave it to county or even municipal officials to run things, even though their skills are even worse.
A clear winner may emerge out of the chaos. But equally likely is the possibility that no-one will come out on top and that the confusion will only deepen. In Georgia, a June 9 primary turned into “a hot, flaming, fucking mess”, when a brand-new $107-million electronic voting system malfunctioned and a shortage of paper ballots left thousands of would-be voters with no choice but to stand for hours in the midday sun.1 If anything comparable happens in November in a handful of key battleground states, then the entire process could be thrown into turmoil, with consequences that would almost certainly favour the Republican side.
With that in mind, let us take the above questions one at a time in an attempt to see what the future may hold.
Will he lose?
The anti-Trump corporate press likes to portray the president as stupid and bumbling - now more so than ever. “He just doesn’t get it,” The Guardian declared a few days ago with regard to the Black Lives Matter protests. Trump is “an old man sitting at the end of a bar, holding forth with crazed opinions, overwhelming self-assurance, and taboo-busting shock value.” But now he is so thoroughly outpaced by events that he has “lost the room”.2
Perhaps. But Trump is an unusual combination of smart and stupid, while Democrats are just plain stupid through and through. So it is impossible to write him off. While he seems to be flailing helplessly, he may also be playing a waiting game in the hope that various factors break his way.
One is the economy, which earlier this month showed a small bounce, when the unemployment rate unexpectedly dipped from 14.7% to 13.3%. Trump is obviously hoping for more good economic news, as Americans file back to work, so that voters will conclude that the worst is behind them. A second factor is the pandemic, which Trump has all but given up fighting, which he hopes will not throw a monkey wrench into the works by once again raging out of control. A third is Joe Biden, whom the president is counting on to do or say something so massively idiotic as to all but knock himself out of the race. Given that Biden had to withdraw from the 1988 presidential contest after getting caught plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock, lying about his academic record and concealing the fact that he had plagiarised a law-school paper as well, that is far from impossible.
Finally, there is Black Lives Matter. Trump seems to regard BLM the same way he regards Covid-19: ie, as a curse sent down from on high for the sole purpose of making his life miserable. His solution is to take a page from the Richard M Nixon political handbook by portraying protestors as dangerous radicals in the hope of stampeding the middle class into the arms of the ultra-right. This is what Tricky Dick did in 1968 by capitalising on a wave of urban uprisings to paint Democrats as soft on crime. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the thinking behind Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ in a notorious1981interview:
By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ - that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced bussing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites ... ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.3
This time around, the code words - Antifa, terrorist, etc - are different, but the goal is the same: to make Americans think that ‘those people’ are out of control and that a strong hand is once again necessary to bring them back into line.
The task is more difficult, given that public opinion is so massively on BLM’s side that 54% of respondents told pollsters a few weeks ago that burning down a Minneapolis police station was at least partly justified in response to the atrocious killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.4 This is nothing short of extraordinary - an indication how the broad masses continue to move to the left, even as the ruling class shifts to the right. But all movements make mistakes, and a passionate, spontaneous, but leaderless movement like BLM is bound to make more than its fair share. So Trump is watching and waiting for BLM to make some misstep or other that he can turn to his advantage.
As a movement, moreover, that draws on major funding from the Ford Foundation and goes out of its way to obscure the class nature of police shootings,5 BLM is both unwilling and unable to broaden the anti-police protests from liberal young urbanites to the working class beyond. Consequently, it is unable to prevent Trump from winning them over instead. In fact, it would not know how to begin. So, while BLM may seem strong for the moment, weakness pertains across the bourgeois liberal spectrum.
How will we know?
Short of a landslide, Americans will not know whether Trump loses or not. Rather than winning outright, all Trump has to do is come within striking distance in order to bring any number of dirty tricks to bear. And America’s ramshackle constitutional structure provides him with a wealth of opportunities that would make Nixon proud.
Republicans, for example, could turn the tables on the Democratic vote by challenging poor, black and Hispanic voters at the polls. Stringent identification laws requiring would-be voters to produce government-issued photo IDs are already in place, and estimates are that as many as 21 million citizens could be effectively disenfranchised as a consequence. Restrictive voter-registration requirements are another way of paring down the rolls, as are periodic purges aimed at weeding out voters who have changed addresses or failed to vote in previous elections. Rightwing state officials succeeded in purging as many as 16 million people between 2014 and 2016 - a cleansing operation that makes re-registration all the more difficult and disproportionately affects Democrats as well.6
That is not all the Republicans could do. They could also challenge mail-in ballots, refusing to count them due to some flaw or other, or failing to send them out in sufficient numbers before the election in states they control. Last summer, a Democratic candidate for district attorney succeeded in using minor technicalities to invalidate thousands of ballots in an election in Queens County, New York.7 So if she could do it, then Republicans or Democrats may try to do it again in the fall.
Republicans could also send in thugs to disrupt the counting, the way they did in the famous ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ in Miami in November 2000. Or they could accuse Democrats of cheating and then challenge the results in courts that are now packed with Trump appointees.
Conceivably, they could succeed in dragging the contest before the House of Representatives, where the 12th amendment, ratified in 1804, says that members may not vote individually, but rather must vote state by state. The effect would be to empower lily-white ‘rotten boroughs’ like Wyoming and the Dakotas, while short-changing multiracial giants like California and New York. The advantage to the Republican side might well be insurmountable.
Thus, Trump might once again succeed in circumventing the popular vote, and there would be little the Democrats could do to stop him. After all, if “the beautiful, exquisite, brilliant genius of the constitution” (to quote Nancy Pelosi)8 says this is the way it should be, then who are mere mortals to say otherwise? The upshot would be four more years of Trump, which is more than enough time to dismantle the last remnants of American democracy and turn the country into a Polish or Hungarian-style authoritarian state.
A day after the Georgia fiasco, Biden told late-night TV host Trevor Noah: “It’s my greatest concern - my single greatest concern. This president is going to try to steal this election.” But fears that Trump will not leave voluntarily are unwarranted, he said, because the military has made it clear it will step in if he refuses. Biden continued:
I was so damn proud. Here you have four chiefs of staff coming out and ripping the skin off of Trump. And you have so many rank-and-file military personnel saying, whoa, we’re not a military state, this is not who we are. I promise you, I’m absolutely convinced, they will escort him from the White House in a dispatch.9
What the cognitively-deprived Democratic candidate does not understand, of course, is that, once it is up to the military to decide who sits in the Oval Office and who does not, a military state is no longer a theoretical possibility, but a fait accompli. Once civilian politicians turn to the military to resolve a dispute they cannot settle on their own, they will do so again and again until the armed forces become the supreme power.
This seems to be the direction in which America’s sclerotic constitutional structure is going. But the outcome might not be so dramatic. One problem is that the ‘rule of law’ is rarely as decisive as liberals would like it to be. Instead of a showdown over whether Trump should stay or go, the upshot might very well be a long and confusing fight in Congress or the courts. If so, power will fall not to the party that is right, but to the party that can drag things out longer and more inconclusively. If anyone can be counted on to foul up such a battle, it is America’s hapless Democrats. And if anyone can be relied on to fight to the bitter end, it is Trump. Instead of a clean break with the past, the outcome may be still more messiness, confusion and legal hair-splitting.
Still, the overall direction is unmistakable: straight down.
Elections are supposedly ways of settling disputes and resolving controversies, but the upcoming contest will most likely add to the uncertainty. Short of a revolution aimed at cleaning up America’s deepening constitutional mess, the breakdown can only deepen. The broad masses will continue moving in a small-D democratic direction, while the political system drifts toward authoritarianism. Sooner or later, a rupture will occur.
Monmouth University Poll, June 2 2020: monmouth.edu/polling-institute/documents/monmouthpoll_us_060220.pdf.↩︎
See ‘Race über alles?’ Weekly Worker June 11.↩︎
The New York Times July 8 2019: nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/caban-katz-recount-.html.↩︎
Transcript of ‘House impeachment managers announcement’, January 15 2020: speaker.gov/newsroom/11520-0.↩︎