Donald Trump’s most committed defenders have adopted a curious line. The president’s penchant for provocative comments, reckless antagonism, or outright falsehoods is, to them, evidence of his strategic depth. He’s just trolling you, they insist; and you have to admire how he drives his opponents crazy. Indeed, a brief survey of the national political landscape reveals that, if that is his plan, it’s been wildly successful. And yet, Trump’s defenders take no solace in his achievement. Well, we all have no choice but to vote for him now, they confess. Haven’t you noticed? Everyone’s gone crazy.
The president’s latest inflammatory comments are typically exasperating. “Win, lose, or draw in this election,” Trump was asked on Wednesday, “will you commit here today for a peaceful transferal of power after the election?” The correct answer—indeed, the path of least resistance—to a question involving “peaceful” anything is a perfunctory “yes.” But that was not the answer the president gave. “Well, we’ll have to see what happens,” Trump replied. Like an impressionist painting, the stream of consciousness that followed this ominous evasion is open to interpretation. But there was no ambiguity about the president’s intention. He wants Americans to fear that he might not leave quietly if the election doesn’t go his way.
There has been a lot of speculation about how Trump could act on these threats. His legal teams might seek to gum up the works and contest ballots, though that’s hardly abnormal behavior from a campaign. There’s an outside possibility that the White House could lean on loyal functionaries and legislators in competitive states to avoid certifying election results or short circuit the process by which a state’s electors are chosen. The president is sure to call into question the validity of the vote. After all, he contested the validity of the last presidential election even though it was an election he had won. And yet, as an expansive essay by the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman makes clear, extraordinary Republican legal machinations are not the primary concern.
“Trump’s strategy for this phase of the Interregnum will be a play for time as much as a concerted attempt to squelch the count and disqualify Biden votes,” Gellman wrote. “The courts may eventually weigh in. But by then, the forum of decision may already have moved elsewhere.” The “elsewhere” to which he alludes is American streets, where animated and conspiratorial mobs of Trump fans and opponents alike will exert potentially violent pressure on the American political system. Meanwhile, a bipartisan cast of power-mad wreckers in Washington will go about dismantling the system over which they were elected to serve as custodians. Cheery stuff.
The danger in Trump’s comments isn’t that they herald a coming usurpation of political power—albeit one so sloppy that it would rival the drunken August 1991 antics of the Soviet State Committee on the State of Emergency. Trump’s critics are right insofar as the threat his behavior represents is in its capacity to inflame a narrow band of American society, giving way to the potential for (even more) street violence and creating permission structures for reckless actors to act recklessly. But what Trump’s most vociferous critics fail to appreciate is that this president’s cozy relationship with chaos is one of the reasons that he is an underdog in the first place.
Why, for example, has Donald Trump not benefited from the ongoing violence and civil unrest in American cities? Polls suggest that this instability is a growing concern for much of the electorate, and, as a matter of politics, the issue is one that has set the Democratic coalition against itself. Much of the unrest is attributable to Democratic constituents in Democrat-led cities demanding concessions of Democratic politicians and, by and large, not receiving them. And yet, the Republican president consistently trails his opponent on the issue of who would be better equipped to handle this disorder. That’s less attributable to Biden’s political acumen than the fact that Americans see Trump as an agent of the very chaos he claims to oppose.
His inability to see beyond himself and his own immediate political interests is always on display. The president’s commitment to social stability and the rule of law is exposed as hollow when he celebrates the “backlash” to urban instability evinced by agitators and malcontents waving Trump banners. It is evident when he endorses, albeit tacitly, calls for the imprisonment of his political opponents, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And it is inescapably clear when he reserves the right to appeal to potentially violent remedies to political outcomes he dislikes.
It will be a shock to the system if the president refuses to concede, but it won’t come as a surprise. Trump has not been particularly coy about his intentions. Moreover, by laying the groundwork to contest the legitimacy of the election as he has, he’s revealed that his objections will be a contrivance. The president’s allies will engage in motivated reasoning and craft ad hoc rationalizations to “prove” the correctness of Trump’s claims. Still, by getting out in front of the issue before the votes have even been counted, Trump has preemptively robbed his own claims, whatever they may be, of legitimacy.
Whatever rationale Trump lands on to justify his victimization, there are plenty of Americans willing to convince themselves that he’s right. That’s dangerous, but it is not new. George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 was supposedly tainted by the Supreme Court’s intervention in South Florida’s recounts. The 43rd president’s reelection was rendered suspect by the allegedly dubious integrity of Ohio’s voting machines. If Mitt Romney had won, his presidency would have been shadowed by the very same conspiracy theory. And, of course, some never accepted the legitimacy of the current president.
And yet, the republic muddles on and performs its core functions in much the same way it has for centuries. Narratives that salve the wounds of partisans on the losing team aren’t the threat to national stability those same partisans want them to be. Those who worry that Trump is setting the stage to steal the election consistently fail to entertain the prospect that the shoddy intrigues of which they’re so afraid are contributing to the factors that could culminate in his unambiguous loss.