He’s not Leaving
The headlines may have focused on salacious payments to porn-stars, but Michael Cohen made it clear during his recent public testimony that the primary reason for his appearance was a warning.
“Given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and that is why I agreed to appear before you today.”
Cohen’s message was a stark reminder that the debate about which Democrat can beat Trump is in many ways overshadowed by profound concerns about the successful staging of a national election in 2020, as well as the democratic credentials of next year’s lead protagonist. There are plenty of reasons to fear that the election will not be free or fair, and that a loss for Trump would not be accepted by this irascible president.
First, let’s look at the mechanics of the electoral process.
Before 2016, we already knew that America’s election system is riddled with problems. The electoral college is arcane and unfit for purpose – Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, yet by 2020 will have held power for twelve of the last twenty years. Gerrymandering has left many congressional seats effectively uncontestable. Holding an election on a working day means poor people often can’t get away from work in order to vote. Voter suppression measures overwhelmingly target minorities and the poor.
Each of these systemic issues favour the Republican party.
Despite this, the right person seems to win most of the time. In the modern age, only the 2000 election of George W. Bush was genuinely contestable. But then along came Donald Trump.
Trump won in 2016 because a hundred disparate factors combined in one moment of time, to make the seemingly impossible become reality. We now know that in addition to conducting the most incendiary political campaign in American history, Trump was working every underhand angle he could find, and surrounding himself with crooks and grifters willing to do anything to gain power. Trump’s national security advisor was a paid agent of a foreign country. His campaign manager handed priceless internal polling data to a Russian closely connected to Vladimir Putin. His friend Roger Stone worked as a conduit for Russian intelligence (via Wikileaks). Again and again, Trump’s surrogates, allies, friends and family members had contact with Russians that seem inexplicable when viewed outside a broader narrative.
We don’t yet have proof of collusion, but ask yourself – why would a Russian like Konstantin Kilimnik have had any interest in an American political party’s polling data, if not to seek undue influence? Why would the head of the Republican party’s election campaign offer such a man regular private briefings, and why would such briefings be sought? Is it plausible that Russia’s placing of social media advertising during the campaign was unrelated to this relationship? And is it a coincidence that Russia began hacking Democratic servers the very same day that Trump said ‘Russia, if you’re listening…’
You would have to be blind or a fool not to connect the dots here. Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St Petersburg, is known to have churned out a never-ending river of content aimed at influencing American voters. Facebook alone estimates that 126-million people saw content made by the IRA between January 2015 and January 2017. And there is no doubt which side Russia supported – it was the side whose lead players kept having clandestine meetings with Russians, then lied about them. Consulting firm Cambridge Analytica claimed to have data points on over 220-million Americans in late 2015, a year before the election. The links between Trump and Russia were electoral dynamite.
Despite all this, Trump won the presidency by a tiny margin – a total of just over 75,000 voters in three swing states gave him the White House. Outside or malign influences may have been the difference between winning and losing, and whether personally compromised or not, Trump is loyal only to those who give him what he wants, so he is likely to feel a sense of loyalty toward those who made him President.
It’s a mess. America has profound issues with its democracy, and is led by a man who was arguably given the reins of power by a deadly adversary. There are plenty of ways that America could protect its elections from outside influence, but Trump has done nothing. What incentive does he have? Under attack at home, Trump may seek out Russia once more in order to save his political skin. And, given the return on investment Russia has seen, what reason would they have not to redouble their efforts in 2020?
Which brings us to Trump the man, because in any discussion relating to the 2020 election, Trump’s disdain for democracy has to be a serious concern. Michael Cohen and plenty of others have warned us that the peaceful transition of power – the centerpiece of any democracy – is unlikely should Trump lose. And Cohen wasn’t speculating. There’s overwhelming evidence already.
Trump was at his most belligerent and bizarre in the weeks running up to the 2016 election, when nearly all the polls suggested he would lose. Trump claimed the election was rigged before it had even happened. He repeatedly refused to say that he would accept the results, unless he won. Trump often speaks in a linguistic code that masks a darker message, one that is clearly understood by his fanatical supporters. In 2016, Trump had his retinue of underworld surrogates amplify the substance of his words. Roger Stone warned of a ‘bloodbath’ if Trump lost, and Trump rally attendees regularly voiced calls for unspecified ‘revolution’ or the taking up of arms, should Clinton win.
Even winning didn’t seem to be enough. Trump still holds on to the ludicrous idea that 3-million illegal votes were cast in 2016, despite sleeping each night in the White House. He set up a voting integrity commission after the election, which was quietly disbanded when they found nothing to report. Trump is happy to break any rule in order to win, and appears to believe that if he loses, it must be because he has been cheated.
You can already see this pattern begin to form for the next time around. In the last few months, Trump and his surrogates have begun to discuss the 2020 election using a notable and unusual word. It’s not just that Trump will win (they say), but the election is also one that the Democrats have no chance of ‘legitimately’ winning. When losing isn’t an option, the ground has to be prepared to pour doubt on the whole process, often well in advance.
Trump has repeatedly voiced admiration for dictators, and made genuinely dangerous threats against the ultimate reality of democracy – that in the end you have to go. When Xi Jinping made himself ruler for life in China, Trump said ‘maybe we’ll give that a shot’. After a meeting with Kim Jong Un, Trump observed how strong a leader Mr Kim was, adding ‘he speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same’.
So how Trump eventually leaves the public stage may, in the end, be a more consequential issue than the damage he does while in office. Richard Nixon is the comparison most use when discussing Trump’s possible impeachment but it’s worth remembering that Nixon, for all his faults, did the right thing at the last moment and left office voluntarily when his position became untenable. Does Trump strike you as a man who will put the nation’s interests ahead of his own, should he find himself cornered?
This is a question posed in late 2017 by Professor Julie Novkov, chairwoman of the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany. Novkov’s paper ‘How Do We Solve a Problem Like The Donald’ (which I strongly urge you to read) examines Trump’s loose adherence to the rule of law, the limited means of removing him from office (outside of an election) and – based on his clear demonstrated character – Trump’s likely behavior when it falls time to go.
Trump’s supporters (Novkov argues), cult-like in their fidelity and resistant to facts and reason, depart from historical comparisons and offer this President an unprecedented license to cause mayhem. ‘A core principle of democracy is the idea that every political figure…may do things or refrain from doing things that will cause their supporters to turn against them’ – this is not the case with Trump’s admirers. They’re there at every rally, laughing and applauding as the President grows more and more incoherent. Perhaps, as Trump said, he really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
There are three means of removing a President from power – elections, impeachment or the 25th amendment (invoked – theoretically – when the President is not of sound mind). Given the loyalty of congressional Republicans, the last two of these seem impossible to imagine under current circumstances. When these options have occasionally been mooted, the undercurrent of implied violence has been quick to raise its head – Roger Stone (again) said that politicians considering voting for impeachment ‘would be endangering their own life’.
Elections are best. Nearly all American presidents have been removed from power by the two-term limit or free and fair elections. But an essential part of this continuum is the peaceful transition of power when the time comes. We’ve never faced a situation before where an incumbent President claims that the result of an election doesn’t apply to him, or says that the election was rigged and then refuses to go.
That could change with Trump. Given the wealth of evidence, it’s not unreasonable to consider what will happen if Trump disputes an election loss, particularly a narrow one, or reaches the end of a second term and simply refuses to go. With polls showing over 50% of Republicans supportive of the idea of suspending elections if Trump claims it necessary, it’s far from certain that if Trump arbitrarily decided to stay, his party would turn on him.
Every aspect of this conjecture is laser focused on Trump the individual. Although in recent years we have seen vivid demonstrations of the broader weakening of American democracy, Donald Trump is a political black hole. All of American governance is now viewed in relation to the President. His name is in every headline. He sucks the oxygen from every other story. Trump has conflated his own life story with that of the nation, as every strongman instinctively does. He thinks that bad things happening to him are bad things happening to America. Inside this logical prism, Trump can claim to be duty-bound to protect himself, as his fate is that of the country.
Ironically, many are now arguing that the myriad of investigations into Trump give him an extra incentive to retain office, given his likely arrest once he ceases to be president.
So think for a moment about how this all ends. When, either through proceedings against him or via an election loss, it is finally time for Trump to go, and then he refuses to leave. He says the election was rigged, and something like ‘this is a coup, against you, the American people’. Then what happens?
Under different circumstances we know the answer. There’s plenty of historical examples of third world dictators losing an election and refusing to leave office for spurious reasons. One of three things almost always happens.
The leader seizes control of the army and becomes dictator – democracy collapses. The leader fails to take control of the army and is violently deposed or killed. Or there is a civil war.
None of these are pretty. America has to face the reality that unless he suffers a crushing defeat (and perhaps even in that instance) this is a likely scenario next year under Trump. The system is broken. He’s not going to go. And he will do anything in order to stay.