The Polite Way for Nominal Liberals to Allow Democracy to Die

by Neil H. Buchanan

What if Donald Trump is declared the winner on election night next year?  I address that question in my new Verdict column today, as part of my continuing exercise in forecasting the various ways that our constitutional system is being destroyed.  (Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!)  This question is not one that I have addressed before now, but it provides another avenue through which Democrats' extreme self-doubt and overcautious instincts could fail the country.

There are essentially three ways that presidential politics could play out over the next year: (1) Trump is impeached, convicted, and removed; (2) Trump loses the 2020 election, (3) Trump wins the 2020 election.  (Other possibilities exist, of course, such as the death of an extremely unhealthy septuagenarian who is constantly enraged and has a terrible diet, but I will set those aside.)  Thus far, my writings have focused on (1) and (2) but ignored (3).

The reason for ignoring (3) is obvious, which is that Trump is not doing anything that would increase his support and has in fact spent his entire presidency pleasing people who were already going to vote for him.  Furthermore, because pleasing those supporters involves doing bigoted, hateful things, he not only alienates the people who did not vote for him (non-voters and protest voters as much or more than Clinton voters) but he energizes them.

In anything resembling a fair election -- where "fair" is defined down to include the rules as they existed in 2016 (in other words, with millions of people still deliberately disenfranchised by various Republican strategies honed over decades) -- Trump would lose to anyone and everyone.  But because he will not be convicted in his Senate trial, he will claim vindication (which will not sway any votes) and then unleash every dirty trick in the book (which most definitely could change the reported outcome).  Trump could thus "win."

In my Verdict column, I go into some detail about the impeachment situation, but my focus here is on the claim that I make at the end of the column, which is that if Trump "wins," the voices of mainstream respectability on the putative left will quickly squelch any claims that the "win" deserves to be referred to in scare quotes.

Or, to put it differently, the "liberal elite" will try make sure that everyone is well behaved and quietly accepts an illegitimate assault on American democracy.

Because my Verdict column was already quite long,  I could not expand on that claim, so I will explore it a bit more now.

The scene is November 4, 2020, the day after the election.  There have been stories for weeks about how the Russians are infiltrating vote-counting mechanisms, as well as the expected onslaught of Facebook stories about how the Democratic nominee is a pedophile who colluded with George Soros to force everyone to drink soy lattes.  Trump has just been declared the winner of the election, by some narrow margin that includes a slight advantage in the Electoral College.  For my purposes here, the details of the win are not important, only that he was declared the winner by the networks the night before.

Democratic activists have all kinds of evidence of illegal activities by Trump operatives and their Russian assistants, and the call goes out to reject the official election results.  As many point out, Trump had been saying for months that if he had lost, he would have called on his supporters to flood the streets (fully armed), whereas the anti-Trump protests call for nonviolent resistance and a full investigation.

Here is my prediction: The editors of the major papers, along with the people in the Democratic Party who (not exactly coincidentally) were also behind knee-capping Elizabeth Warren in the primaries, tell everyone to calm down and accept the results.  "It is important in America to accept losing, and Democrats should do so honorably, even if Republicans do not, " they will say.

What is the basis of this prediction?  In the mess after the 2000 election, Al Gore was told by these very elites to back down and accept defeat rather than to ramp up his efforts to continue to challenge an illegitimate result.  Papers were then filled with stories about how the election results vindicated neither side, so whoever was the winner would surely govern modestly and in a bipartisan fashion.  (Dick Cheney was not on the distribution list for that memo.)  Message: No reason to fight, because it will all be the same either way.

Recall that these claims that both sides would act responsibly came after the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot, which was the action taken by Republican operatives to literally storm the room in which some votes were being recounted in November 2000, where "several people were trampled, punched or kicked when protesters tried to rush the doors."  But again, Gore was supposed to step aside graciously and not be too rude about his claims that he had legitimately won.

Fast forward to 2004, when the big battleground state was Ohio, not Florida.  In Ohio, then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell had infamously tried to disqualify people from voting based on the thickness of the paper stock on which forms were printed (I am not making that up), and there were more than credible claims that polling places had been strategically manipulated to suppress Democratic votes.

How did the supposedly liberal press react?  Here is a nice summary from a Harper's article in 2005 by Mark Crispin Miller (beautifully titled: "None Dare Call it Stolen"):

"The press has had little to say about most of the strange details of the election—except, that is, to ridicule all efforts to discuss them. This animus appeared soon after November 2, in a spate of caustic articles dismissing any critical discussion of the outcome as crazed speculation: 'Election paranoia surfaces: Conspiracy theorists call results rigged,' chuckled the Baltimore Sun on November 5. 'Internet Buzz on Vote Fraud Is Dismissed,' proclaimed the Boston Globe on November 10. 'Latest Conspiracy Theory—Kerry Won—Hits the Ether,' the Washington Post chortled on November 11. The New York Times weighed in with 'Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried'—making mock not only of the 'post-election theorizing' but of cyberspace itself, the fons et origo of all such loony tunes, according to the Times."

Will that happen next year?  Consider the beginning sentences of Miller's next paragraph:
"Such was the news that most Americans received. Although the tone was scientific, 'realistic,' skeptical, and 'middle-of-the-road,' the explanations offered by the press were weak and immaterial. It was as if they were reporting from inside a forest fire without acknowledging the fire, except to keep insisting that there was no fire. Since Kerry has conceded, they argued, and since 'no smoking gun' had come to light, there was no story to report."

It is all too easy to imagine that, once again, The Post's editors and those like them will repeat the no-smoking-gun claims, saying that "there is no irrefutable proof that Trump's win is illegitimate."  And as I noted in my Verdict column, the voices of reason will quickly accuse those on the left of being "just as addicted to conspiracy theories as Trump is, and everyone should calm down."

Why would these nominally left-leaning institutions and people bend over backward to pretend that nothing had happened?  One does not need a conspiracy theory to explain it.  Taking a stand makes one look ... gulp ... partisan!  As I noted in my column, we already have seen the mainstream press -- including genuinely left-leaning columnists like David Leonhardt of The New York Times -- now casually refer to Democrats' discussions about expanding the Supreme Court as "court-packing," a framing that all but guarantees that the ideas will be rejected by those who view themselves as respectable.  Who cares that it would be a response to court-packing?

This desire to be seen as cool-headed will surely color press coverage of anything that comes from the left if Trump is declared the winner next year.  The old line, "It's not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you," has an analogy in conspiracies, which is that some stories about nefarious efforts to hijack our democracy are true.  To maintain their credibility, however, the tut-tutters will tar everyone with the same brush of "conspiracy theorist," as if everyone who knows that the Russian intelligence services are trying to get Trump reelected is a loon.  Fiona Hill becomes no different from Alex Jones.

Rather than do the harder work of actually explaining what is happening -- that the evidence of a conspiracy in support of Trump's reelection is real and credible, unlike the evidence for any of Trump's fever dreams -- it will be much easier to say, "That sounds like a conspiracy theory.  We all need to take a deep breath."

Again, we have seen this false equivalence already with the completely wrong condemnation of the "Lock him up!" chants, as I discussed here on Dorf on Law last week.  Yet no matter how clear the difference, there is always someone who fancies himself quite "objective" who will pop up to say that it is all the same.  There is extensive documentation of Trump committing multiple crimes, while Clinton was fully investigated and not charged?  Maybe, but everyone who calls for either one to be prosecuted is automatically accused of "wanting to lock up their political opponents."  Cue some inapt and mangled references to Montesquieu or Orwell, and these people can distinguish themselves from the rest by saying, "I do not get into the partisan muck.  Both sides need to be get a grip."

And that is how it might well end, not with my nightmare scenario in which Trump loses in 2020 but (fully backed by the Republican Party) declares himself the legitimate winner, but with the opinion makers on the left too scared to call an illegitimate win by Trump illegitimate.  Better to protect one's own reputation for sober reflection, I guess.  Polite society has its imperatives.