Over the course of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency we have seen him consistently attack any news story, or news outlet, he doesn’t like as fake news. He has also constantly sought to misrepresent the size of his electoral college victory last November while positing that the only reason Hillary Clinton won the popular vote was because of widespread illegal voting. Trump has continued to traffic in odd and dangerous conspiracy theories and to seemingly believe the most outrageous news stories and sources.
Given this, perhaps we should take a moment and imagine the evening of November 3rd 2020. Many Americans who are longing to restore our democracy are anxiously looking forward to that date. Imagine that on that night, at around 11:30PM on the east coast, CNN calls Florida and Michigan for the Democratic ticket and announces that the Democratic candidate has won the presidency. A few minutes later, CBS, ABC and NBC follow with the same announcement. This would be a moment of great rejoicing for many Democrats and would represent a triumph for democracy in America. That scenario, so far, is imaginable, but by no means guaranteed.
If the major news media, other than Fox calls the election in 2020 for the Democratic ticket, which of the following Tweets from Donald Trump is more likely “I congratulate the Democratic candidate on her/his victory and look forward to working with them on the transition,” or “FAKE NEWS CNN is saying I lost. Other FAKE NEWS media will do the same soon. But Fox hasn’t called the race yet. I WON despite illegal votes cast.” If you think the first Tweet is more likely you have either been living under a rock for the last two years or are allowing blind optimism to outweigh all the evidence that surrounds us. Moreover, if Trump sends out the second Tweet roughly 35% of the American people will believe his notion that he is the victim of election fraud.
While the idea that an American president would refuse to accept an electoral defeat and leave office is something that should, and probably does, shock most Americans, it is an idea about which we should begin thinking. If we want to stop this from happening it is much better to begin exploring how Trump will seek to do this now then to be caught by surprise three years down the road. We should begin by recognizing that Trump has consistently responded to bad news whether about a piece of legislation, poll numbers or now even his own words in a damning videotape by angry denials and lashing out at the bearers of that bad news as liars and worse.
Donald Trump’s downward spiral of paranoia, anger, mental illness and racism has only gotten worse throughout his first year in the White House. Trump has sought to create his own reality and to bury himself in that reality as a way to avoid confronting information he would rather not accept. This began in the very earliest days of his presidency as the new President refused to accept that the crowd for his inauguration was smaller than the crowd at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009. He has similarly consistently received and repeated information from sources that share his worldview, but have a tenuous relationship with the truth.
There is no reason to think this will change on election night in 2020. Additionally, Trump will use the months leading up to the election to prepare his base for the news that the election was stolen from him. As the 2020 election approaches you can expect many untrue stories about illegal voting to be disseminated by the White House and their allies, poll numbers that show the Democrat ahead to be attacked by the President and his supporters and never ending complaints by Trump about how the media is favoring the Democrat. This is how Trump will lay the groundwork for refusing to accept defeat. The 2018 midterm elections will be a rehearsal for this as many of these ideas will surface as that election approaches.
This is speculation, but it is speculation based on signs that are already impossible to miss. It is possible, I suppose, that as November of 2020 approaches Donald Trump will begin to subscribe to conventional political norms and accept the results of that election with dignity, but I would not bet the future of American democracy on that happening. While there are no easy solutions to this dilemma, it is important to recognize the depth of the problem that confronts American democracy. We are way past the point where we should be surprised by the latest Twitter outburst, offensive remark, corrupt practice or denial of reality from the President. Instead, we must begin to anticipate this and develop strategies for overcoming this ongoing threat to our democracy.
Photo: cc/The White House