The pace and freneticism with which Donald Trump and his Bannonite administration has pursued democratic rollback is daunting. This is probably a wise strategy for the White House as it makes it difficult for opponent, and those who believe in democracy, to keep up with the changes, to remain focused on any one of the myriad horrors produced by the still very young presidency or to separate out the important from the less important.
Before the Muslim Ban and the administration’s subsequent signaling that it was not intending to pay too much attention to judicial decisions, before Donald Trump managed to get testy on the phone with the leader of our most longstanding ally, the President asserted that he actually won the popular vote last November and that Democrat Hillary Clinton’s margin came from voter fraud. Those remarks now feel like they were made a long time ago and sound very much like a tantrum from a petulant man-child we now call Mr. President.
It is not. It is part of a bigger political program, one about which we should be very aware and concerned. Donald Trump is doing this not just to soothe his ego or convince himself that he is a legitimate President. He is making these statements and instructing those around him to find supporting evidence, even though there is none, for a reason. He is laying the groundwork both for more restrictive voter access laws and, more dauntingly, for not leaving office if he loses in 2020. This sounds, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s word from the last debate, “horrifying,” but it imay well be true.
In 2020, if a Democrat, or anybody else, manages to defeat Donald Trump, he will very possibly blame his defeat on imaginary, illegal votes and refuse to accept the outcome of that election. By talking about this now, and following up with shoddy reports backing up his argument, Trump can mobilize his base to support this position. I am aware this sounds like borderline conspiracy theorizing and paranoid rantings; and I hope it is. However, I say this not based on my deep disdain for the Bannonite movement, but on the work I have done in many authoritarian countries, where I have seen how these regimes consolidate, and in some cases, collapse. I have studied this, been on the ground when it has happened and have written books on it. The hints here in the US now are simply too powerful, and resonant, to ignore.
The White House is working to ensure the 2020 election will be unlike any other in American history and a step backwards for American democracy. A Jeff Sessions led Justice Department will enable, and indeed probably encourage, Republican controlled states to further limit voting rights through requiring identification, limiting the number of polling places, scaling back polling hours and other shenanigans. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch will join the Supreme Court and give a solid five votes to the conservative position on any challenge to these laws. His impressive Ivy League credentials will no doubt be very comforting to those Americans who will be unable to vote in 2020 because of the laws he will undoubtedly vote to uphold from his new position.
In that electoral context, the road to victory will be made easier for Trump, but if his popularity does not improve he will vulnerable to a strong challenger. It is certainly possible that President Trump would accept defeat, perhaps not gracefully, and slink back to a gilded life of hatefulness, anger and golf, but from what we have seen of Donald Trump over the last two years, we should also recognize the alternative-that Trump, a man who sees imaginary conspiracies targeting him everywhere, who has consistently showed contempt not just for democratic norms and conventions, but for laws and the constitution as well, and who has surrounded himself with people like Steve Bannon who are prone to fantastical reactionary thinking, will convince himself that any defeat is axiomatically illegitimate, and act accordingly.
The American people must be prepared for this, because this is the best way to ensure it does not happen. Donald Trump owes much of his political support to the American people, as well as the media and pundits, believing in the conventions and limits of American democracy. This began with the widespread belief that a flamboyant huckster and failed businessman could be a plausible candidate for president, but has also included disbelief that white supremacists could be so deeply involved in Trump’s campaign, or that the campaign could have actually been assisted by Moscow. In four years, it is a very real possibility that Donald Trump will threaten what may be the most sacred convention, and indeed law, of our democracy, that people who win elections take office and those who lose get out of the way. The signs that he is preparing to do that are beginning to emerge and we would be very foolish to ignore them or hope they will simply go away.