An Intermediate Step Toward Trump's Refusal to Leave: Mocking the Realists

by Neil H. Buchanan

As one of the people who has been willing to state openly for years that Donald Trump will not leave the White House under any circumstances short of being dragged out by uniformed officers, I have been trying to imagine and then explain how what was once unthinkable will actually go down.  It now seems that I have left out a step: intramural mockery among anti-Trump politicians and commentators.

Seeing the process in its beginning phases is both depressing and somehow seems entirely predictable (even though I never predicted it).  Understanding how it works is important and perversely fascinating.

My most recent column on this topic, published a mere three weeks ago, was an attempt to fill in the middle stage of the process -- that is, to explain that Trump's refusal to accept defeat in November 2020 will be preceded by a nonstop public-relations campaign designed to convince his true believers that any outcome other than a win for Trump will be proof positive that he (and they) were cheated by "the Deep State and the liberal elites."  His rejection of the election results will not come out of nowhere, because he will repeat and repeat and repeat it all in advance.

He will then be assisted by every Republican's direct personal and political interest in supporting his conspiracy theory.  Many of them will have lost on November 3, so the losers will surely be happy to sign on with the "it was stolen" narrative.  Even those who win will have reason to say that their own victories were gained in spite of the evil liberal conspiracy, and they will come to the aid of Trump and their fallen colleagues simply to hold onto power.

As I noted in a column last Friday, there is now only a vanishingly small amount of hope that any Republicans will draw the line and stand up to Trump, even in the most extreme circumstances.  At best, a tiny number might consider making a show of patriotism, but only if they were sure that their votes and actions would not actually stop Trump from getting away with it.  They will, in other words, speak up only after making sure that their colleagues will stand with Trump, allowing them to make empty shows of principle.

In other columns (esp. here), I have noted that Trump has been softening people up by accusing the other side of doing what he is planning to do.  That is, he constantly talks about "treason" and describes the Mueller probe and other Democratic oversight efforts as "an attempted coup" and an effort to "undo the results of an election."  That is a fairly common strategy for would-be dictators: preempting attacks by co-opting the attack lines for their own purposes.

When I was articulating versions of this argument in my recent speaking tour in the UK and nearby countries, the response from my audiences ranged from grim nodding to incredulity.  Two UK-based Americans told me after a lecture that the US's system is too strong to allow Trump to refuse to leave, and besides, Trump probably hates being President and would resign even if he somehow won.  Even beyond that level of optimism, however, the most common reaction boiled down to: "Oh, come on.  I don't like Trump, but there are some things that even he wouldn't do, and limits beyond which Republicans will not go."

Sure, they concede, Republicans did nothing to stop his declaration of a fake national emergency, or his Muslim ban (blessed by the Supreme Court even while Anthony Kennedy was still there), or his packing the courts and his administration with hacks and extremists.  But an internal coup is beyond the pale, right?

Again, I think that is clearly wrong, but in any case, as I noted above, the possibility of Trump refusing to leave has for the first time bubbled up onto the top of the news feeds, and the reaction has not been promising.

Trump recently endorsed a claim that his first two years in office were "stolen" from him, meaning that two years should be added to his first term.  White House officials have said he was joking, which means nothing, but the point is that he need not take the "I get two extra years" route because he can do what I have described above: run in 2020 and declare victory no matter what.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally spoke up about this, which led to a swift round of tut-tutting by some anti-Trump commentators.  Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty quickly scolded liberals for allowing themselves to be trolled by Trump, but her analysis mixed together the implausible coup (adding two years) with the sadly plausible one (refusing to accept defeat).  She did finally say that Pelosi was right that winning big in 2020 is the only way to prevent this, but she also argued that even giving the idea oxygen plays into Trump's hands.

Meanwhile, a three-way conversation on New York magazine's website included conservative writer Josh Barro throwing out an absurd example of bothsidesism by saying that Stacey Abrams also claimed not to have really lost the Governor's race last year in Georgia, where her opponent used the office of Secretary of State to suppress Democratic votes.  You know, just like Trump says he actually won in California in 2016, right?  It is absolutely the same thing, I tell ya!

But this is how the skids will be greased for Trump's coup.  A mere mention of the possibility has everyone clutching their pearls and saying that Democrats should not engage in conspiracy theorizing, making it much more difficult for people to prepare for the inevitable worst case scenario.  Through their own internal policing, the anti-Trump people are neutering themselves.  By the time it actually happens, it will be too late, and "I told you so" will be an especially empty response.

Let me add one more thought.  Pelosi is absolutely right to say that the best way to prevent Trump's sore-loser coup will be for Democrats to win really, really big next year.  Even though that will change the odds, however, it will not be enough.  Being the best option does not mean it will be effective.  Trump's claims of victimhood are not based in reality in any event, so he can claim "massive" voter fraud whether he loses by one electoral vote or a hundred.

Again, however, skeptical readers might agree with Pelosi and say, "He might be able to contest a narrow win, but the bigger the win, the less of a leg Trump will have to stand on.  At some point, no one will support him."  Again, a big win would be good for exactly that reason, but it is naive to think that there is a scenario in which Trump will not try to pull this off -- or in which many, many Republicans will not take his side.

Barro undermined his "this is silly" argument when he wrote this: "There are a number of reasons for Democrats to want the 'mandate' associated with a wide victory, and one reason to want it is that the president’s supporters are less likely to buy the idea that the election was stolen from them, which affects how much Republican lawmakers would feel pressure to oppose everything versus to cooperate."

Only someone willfully ignorant of Republican politics post-1994 could say such a thing.  To take but one example, Obama won solidly in 2008 and Democrats held huge majorities in both houses of Congress, yet Republicans responded to their isolation by becoming even more obstructive.  Mandate, schmandate.  Why would anyone think that, say, Chuck Grassley is going to stand up for decency simply because Democrats seem to have won "big"?

Where does all of this pessimism take us? It is difficult to see how this does not end in a constitutional and political crisis. Tumulty quotes Laurence Tribe: "If he plans to stage his own coup, I’d count on the judiciary, the military, and, ultimately, a popular uprising to stop him. Best = landslide."  Again, a landslide would be nice but inadequate.  The courts are in Trump's pocket now, leaving us in the perverse situation of actually hoping for a military counter-coup and for massive street protests (which could become violent, once Trump tells his "Second Amendment people" to go after their enemies).

This is what happens when the Republicans decide to make a deal with the devil, when the press decides to spend all of its time hyping Hillary Clinton's emails and discussing why she is supposedly "unrelatable," when people decide that they cannot be bothered to vote for a woman whom they somehow dislike, and when the centrist commentariat insists on acting as if the foundations of our democracy are not being threatened.

Shouting down today's advance warnings of a Trumpian coup is exactly the wrong thing to do, but it is on-brand for people who consider themselves political realists -- even though their trust in the self-enforcing strength of the pillars of our system has become not just unrealistic but hopelessly romantic.