The upcoming presidential elections could present a great test of American institutions. If the sitting US president loses the election and refuses to concede power — well, what happens? And how might he go about trying to pull it off?
SLU professors Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Barghava tackled these questions in a recent article on The Intercept. First, they describe the tactics Trump is already using to undermine the elections:
Trump is questioning the legitimacy of an election that will rely on mail-in ballots, even though he himself has often voted absentee. He has threatened to withhold funding from states that are trying to make it easier for people to vote, and he is undermining the U.S. Postal Service, both of which are essential, especially in a pandemic. His Republican allies around the country have been passing voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and cutting the number of polling places in urban areas, forcing people to stand in line for hours to exercise their right to vote.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of evidence — from foreign interference to white nationalist “poll watchers” — that Trump and the Republican party are “already trying to steal the election.”
But if it doesn’t work, what tools could he trying to deploy? The authors have their suspicions:
To steal the election, we suspect he will adapt the standard playbook of authoritarians everywhere: cast doubt on the election results by filing numerous lawsuits and launching coordinated federal and state investigations, including into foreign interference; call on militia groups to intimidate election officials and instigate violence; rely on fringe social media to generate untraceable rumors, and on Fox News to amplify these messages as fact; and create a climate of confusion and chaos. He might ask the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security — which he has now weaponized against democracy — to deploy to big cities in swing states to stop the vote count or seize ballots. If he does all this right, he’ll be able to put soldiers on the streets, inflame his base, and convince millions of people that the election is being stolen from him.
From there, could he create a “false justification” for right-wing state legislatures to appoint Trump-loyal electors? If so, the authors have a clear prescription: “take to the streets.” They go on to describe the fecklessness of institutions to beat back Trump on their own, making a strong case for why people power — and movements — will be the necessary ingredient for ensuring the transfer of power. And, they argue, the work to build that power needs to start immediately.