The November election has sparked worry for Americans across the country of every class, creed and political leaning. These concerns are well-founded; a variety of factors indicate that this year will test America’s pattern of peaceful and cooperative transitions of power and test the strength of the Union in ways not seen since the Civil War. President Donald Trump’s recent comments on the election are without precedent in American history — the latest in a series of failures to obey the central oath of his office and to uphold the Constitution.
Election concerns have revolved chiefly around one scenario: a win for Vice President Joe Biden. The political nightmare circulating through opinion sections, prime-time news and private conversations deal with Trump’s inability to accept a loss. While a Biden win may be the most likely outcome of this year’s election, it’s certainly not the only possibility. Wishful thinking about the outcome of the election may blind us to a disastrous outcome: a clean, fair win for Trump that Democrats may be unable to accept.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, discusses the possibility of an outright Trump win in his piece for The Atlantic, titled “The Democrats May Not Be Able to Concede.” Hamid points to the difficulty many Americans had accepting the 2016 election, arguing the results produced a sense of cognitive dissonance and despair that has made radical politics and non-peaceful means more attractive to many Americans.
Four years later, voters are more polarized than ever. A summer of protest has led many voters to a dismal view of the U.S. legal system and electoral college, which — flawed or not — will decide the winner of this year’s election. The Supreme Court, likely to be involved in a contested election, will have had the void left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filled by Trump – whose nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is already being tarred by the The Nation as an “extremist” and by Newsweek as “inspiration for the Handmaid’s Tale.” Assuming that the Supreme Court hands down a Trump win, will Democratic contesters accept the court’s deliberations as legitimate?
The energy that has coalesced around racial justice protests this summer would likely inspire powerful street demonstrations against a Trump win. But a rejection of legitimate results might also come from party leaders. Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an emblem of the Democrat old guard, has said that Biden “should not concede under any circumstances.”
The Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of former high government officials dedicated to ensuring a normal election and transition, ran a series of simulated war games to understand how Biden and Trump teams might respond on election night and in the following days. While simulations reliably saw Trump challenging the election’s legitimacy and greatly damaging the transition, his attempts to maintain power consistently became untenable in the long term and resulted in his concession. Only one scenario saw the outright rejection of election results and a refusal to concede: a clear win for Trump in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by millions.
In that case, officials assigned in the simulation to act on behalf of the Biden campaign organized mass labor and capital strikes, recruited
celebrities and former government officials to support a protest against the result and ultimately sparked discussions of secession along the coast. The campaign, in other words, acted to instigate a massive democratic meltdown.
None of this goes to say that blame for the country’s normative breakdown rests on the shoulders of the Democratic party. Trump has been a consistent enemy of our political institutions since before his election, and Republican Party leadership has been happy to collaborate. Trump has challenged the fundamental promise of a fair and stable democracy, which is that losers in elections can trust that they will be given another chance.
Still, if media actors and politicians continue to damage their claim as defenders of law through pre-election hyperbole and anti-institutionalism, then, as Atlantic Staff Writer Caitlin Flanagan wrote, “once again, Donald Trump may claim both the low road and the upper hand.”
John Emmons ’23 is from Seattle, W.A. His major is undeclared.