Are you freaking out about Donald John Trump’s week-long stream of statements to the effect that he won’t cede the presidency if he loses in November? Has your stomach not been the same since he talked about wanting to “get rid of the ballots”? Are you so tired by 2020 and so sleepless, so tortured by nightmares of Trump staying in the White House by force that you have no energy to help get out the vote that could crush him in a landslide?
Then you, my friend, may be an unwitting victim of the Strongman Con. Trump is reportedly laughing behind the scenes at how much of a fuss he’s kicked up with his democracy-defying act. All the attention is on him again: just the way a narcissist likes it. His opposition, which far outnumbers his supporters, is terrified: just the way his base likes it. Don the con, perpetual perpetrator of scams and bankruptcies and frivolous lawsuits, past master at making himself and his company look bigger and meaner than they actually are, thinks he’s getting away with it again.
Which he will — if we all panic and turn him into an unbeatable dictator in our minds, instead of a weak-ass wannabe. A number of difficult steps stand between Trump and seizing power. He could not simply snap his fingers and prevent Joe Biden from being sworn in as Commander in Chief in January. But what he can do now is his damnedest to depress turnout and sow doubt, starting with mail-in ballots.
The TV star wants to mesmerize you into forgetting you are seated at the machinery of democracy, which is designed to unseat losers, while thrilling and emboldening a minority who long for a strongman to wreck that machinery.
Trump engages in wishful thinking, which everyone takes seriously, which then lends credence to the fantasy and helps Trump bring about the outcome he wants.
Undermining confidence in democratic institutions (i.e. persuading people the election is rigged) undermines democracy.
— Teri Kanefield (@Teri_Kanefield) September 25, 2020
The Strongman Con is a term coined by author and lawyer Teri Kanefield, who turned a sanity-saving Twitter thread on this week’s Trump campaign shenanigans into a must-read column Friday. But what it describes is something historians of autocracy have been telling us for years: Democracy only dies if a majority believe it no longer exists, or deem it not worth the effort to keep it alive. Dictators become dictators by puffing up their chests and talking tougher than they can walk. Mussolini marched on Rome with a mere 30,000 men; the authorities believed him when he said he had 300,000, so they gave in. “Give them faith that mountains can be moved,” Mussolini said, “they will accept that mountains are moveable. Thus an illusion may become reality.”
The real battleground is the mind, where Trump wants your faith, but will take your fear. So it’s important to remind your mind of the power already gained by putting minds together. The state of the anti-Trump coalition is surprisingly strong, and it has been solid for at least two years.
“People totally forget that the GOP lost the midterms by 8 percent,” Kanefield notes — roughly the same as Biden’s nationwide lead over Trump, the most stable lead in presidential polling history. “Losing the midterms was not good for the GOP. If they could have avoided that, they would have. They couldn’t avoid it. They lost.”
Trump doesn’t want you focusing on that, because it makes him look weak, and weakness is his kryptonite. He is very keen for you to fill your nightmares with overblown estimates of his support. “Being overestimated is how wannabe Strongmen appear powerful,” says Kanefield. “It makes them feared and respected. Trump is first and foremost a conman. He wants his supporters to think he is invincible. He wants you to think that he can’t be stopped.”
The con is so powerful that every Facebook feed appears filled with at least one variation of “oh, Trump will just cancel the elections” or “you know, even if he loses, he won’t leave.” Thankfully, the first specious prediction is heard less the closer to November we get. U.S. elections are, for better or worse, fundamentally local affairs. Trump cannot suddenly decide to shut a nationwide election down without the military. And the military, a majority of whose members dislike Trump, has explicitly said it won’t get involved in the 2020 election. Its leaders are still smarting from Trump using them as props in Lafayette Square.
As for the second argument, that Trump would simply refuse to make way for an incoming president-elect — well, he can try all he likes, but his options would be very limited. Administration officials are already quietly preparing the ground for a transition. The Supreme Court, even with an extra conservative justice, would be hard pressed to simply stop a transition because Trump insisted. Remember, this is the highly-divided Supreme Court that just voted unanimously in favor of presidential electors voting the way their states tell them. Chief Justice John Roberts may be more right-wing than we remember, but he also cares about the court’s legitimacy.
If a majority of electors vote for Biden, then Roberts will be swearing Biden in at noon in front of the Capitol on Jan. 21, 2021. In that moment, Biden would be invested with all the responsibility of Commander in Chief. If Donald wants to have a tantrum and it takes all afternoon for the Secret Service to coax him out of the Oval Office, Joe will barely skip a step on his way to the socially-distant inaugural ball. Power does not reside in a building, not even a famous one.
Okay, so we’re looking at electoral college shenanigans, right? A GOP state legislature replaces its slate of electors, perhaps on the grounds that mail-in ballots don’t represent “the will of the people.” That’s what one unnamed Trump operative in Pennsylvania suggested to the Atlantic this week — again, planting an idea to cause maximum freakout. But Pennsylvania law is quite clear on who the electors go to, and which ballots count. The GOP legislature could try changing that law; the Democratic governor would veto them. Same goes for Michigan and Wisconsin, and these are the three states Biden really needs to flip to win.
Which is not to say there aren’t troubling scenarios. There are tons of them! The threat of Trump supporters stalking polling places and preventing people from entering is real; it happened during early voting in Virginia, though it only lasted an hour, and poll workers were able to disperse them. We should be prepared for Trump to claim victory preemptively on election night, if there’s a moment he appears to be in the lead in battleground states. He could then file multiple spurious lawsuits to stop the counts; we should be prepared for Attorney General Bill Barr to bring the weight of the Justice Department behind them, if he thinks he can save his own neck by doing so.
But Biden has an expert team of 100 election lawyers and solicitor generals poised and ready to go, and half a billion dollars in hand with which to fight — more money than Trump. States like Florida start counting absentee ballots ahead of time, ready to announce on election night (though of course we should worry about the Florida GOP’s voter suppression efforts before the election.) In slower-counting states (though even Pennsylvania starts counting the mail-in vote on election morning this year), there is more risk of some Trump-friendly judge torching his reputation to shut down a mail-in ballot count, but he’d better hope the next judge up the appeals chain agrees with him.
With multiple red battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and even Texas are in play — the Trump campaign would be stretched awfully thin trying to fight the law in all of them. Counts set in motion are legally hard to stop; Bush v. Gore was a travesty, but it concerned a recount that began in December, not a first count. For all Trump’s flood of federal judgeships, some 75 percent of active federal judges were not appointed by him. Pre-election, Democrats have been buoyed by a raft of decisions against voter suppression. Of course we rarely hear about them, because 2020 barely has time to pay attention to anything that’s not on fire.
But they are encouraging signs nonetheless, as are the polls that continue to suggest America at large has the measure of Trump. Is he a strongman or a cowardly lying wimp? Some 57 percent say wimp.
In most election nightmare scenarios, Trump’s main strategy continues to be what it has been all along —convincing you that his version of reality is correct, whether you oppose it or support it. He wants us to think that mail-in ballots, used by the military for centuries, are somehow inherently dubious, so you won’t protest if they’re not counted. As long as we remain aware that this is the trick and has always been the trick, we remain immune and strong. As Alice Walker wrote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Here is how we stop worrying. We bear witness to the outrage; we don’t ignore it; we don’t fail to take the threat seriously. But then we evict Trump from our heads faster than his slumlord father tossed out his tenants. And we get back to the serious business of helping millions of Americans to vote in numbers too big to lie about.