In the past few years, various writers have posed what should be an unthinkable question: If President Donald Trump is defeated in this November’s election, what happens if he refuses to leave office? The United States has a 220-year tradition of peacefully transferring power from one president to another, through wars and recessions. Could someone like Trump, with all his authoritarian impulses, bring an end to the American experiment this fall?
“It is impossible to write off such concerns as far-fetched given how many seemingly far-fetched things have already occurred in the past four years,” The Washington Post’s Max Boot warned earlier this week. He imagined a scenario in which Trump disputes the outcome, as he almost did in 2016 and has threatened to do again. He suggests that Attorney General Bill Barr and other Republicans could mount legal challenges to state-level results, that mass protests would fill American streets, and that violence would break out between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces.
Boot’s dispatch is part of what can only be described as an emerging literary genre, akin to penny dreadfuls, for American democratic collapse. They’re an understandable reaction to Trump himself, who often favors authoritarian rulers and tactics and sows doubts about the legitimacy of American elections with almost casual efficiency. Questions about whether the president would accept the 2020 result are so prevalent that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, felt compelled to address them. In a recent interview, he asserted that the military would escort Trump from the White House if Biden won and his defeated rival refused to leave.
Trump may very well try to hold on to power through semilegal or illegitimate means if he loses the election, or if the outcome is in doubt. He is a singularly corrupt and self-absorbed individual, with little regard for American democracy as an ideal or the common good as a principle. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that these concerns are exaggerated at best. Stoking fears about an imminent dictatorship on the horizon also does little to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election against more basic threats to the democratic system.
These penny dreadfuls often follow the same basic structure. They ask the reader to envision, in vivid detail, the worst-possible scenario for the November elections. “After all, if Trump is encouraging violence and talking about military solutions to overwhelmingly peaceful protests, what will he and his supporters do if he looks likely to lose November’s election?” The New York Times’ Paul Krugman asked in June. “Imagine what Trump will be doing if it’s the day after the election and votes are still being counted in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona,” The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote in May. “Will he be shouting that the election is in the process of being stolen? Will he be encouraging violent protests against election officials?”
What often comes next is an imaginative journey through the Constitution’s mechanisms for presidential elections. The presidency has virtually no influence over the electoral process, so Trump has few options to unilaterally interfere on his own behalf. In key states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democratic governors and secretaries of state would certify the election results, making it hard for Trump-minded Republicans to undermine them. Amherst College law professor Lawrence Douglas, who wrote an entire book on the possibility that Trump won’t leave office, suggested to Vox last month that Republican legislatures in those states could still try to send competing “certified” “results” to Congress. Douglas also dismissed the idea that the Supreme Court could simply step in and resolve disputes, à la 2000, saying it was Al Gore’s willingness to concede after that ruling that actually ended the crisis. While Gore’s concession helped defuse national tensions, it was not actually necessary as a matter of law or practice.
Faced with this daunting prospect, the natural question is what can be done to stop it. Here, the writers fall short. “We had better start thinking now about how we would handle such an electoral crisis,” Boot wrote earlier this week in the final line of his column, conspicuously leaving the most important question it raised unanswered. The Post’s Brian Klass wrote in May that Americans “need to prepare for the possibility of Trump rejecting election results.” After making good points about the falsehood of Trump’s claims and the dangers of delegitimizing the electoral process, however, he offered no guidance beyond urging Republican officials to call out the president’s falsehoods about the election. This is a dubious plan at best: The Trump era is essentially one giant warning against relying on the consciences of Republican officials to save the republic.
In fairness, countermeasures are hard to imagine when the range of scenarios for November is so wide. The best-case side of the spectrum suggests that Biden will win by a healthy margin in the Electoral College and Trump is left grousing about mail-in voting. He spends the interregnum tweeting about the “rigged election,” while the rest of the country simply moves on. Darker possibilities include a narrow result or a delayed mail-in vote count that gives Trump more rhetorical—and perhaps legal—room to question the results. “The potential for chaos exposes the frailties of an electoral tradition that depends on the goodwill of the two candidates involved,” The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas wrote last month. “If one won’t cooperate, the system seizes up.”
Most of these pieces draw upon Trump’s own temperament to support their predictions, which is entirely fair. Perhaps the most common direct evidence for Trump’s possible refusal to leave office is his habit of joking about staying there longer than he’s allowed. But the thrust of Trump’s jokes is that he runs for more than two terms because he’s so popular, not that he refuses to leave power altogether. Perhaps the clearest warning from Trumpworld came from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former legal fixer, while testifying before Congress in February 2019. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” he told lawmakers.
It’s worth noting, however, that there are ample signs that Trump is envisioning a life beyond the White House. The New York Times reported last month that Trump’s dire political straits—and his inability to change course—have had a profound impact on his thinking. At a White House event in June, he mused about getting an R.V. after leaving office. “I may have to buy one of those things, drive around town,” he told the audience. “Maybe I’ll drive back to New York with our First Lady in a trailer.” He also acknowledged in a Fox News interview that he could lose in November when asked about Biden’s comments on using the military to remove him from the White House. “If I don’t win, I don’t win,” Trump said. “I mean, you know, go on and do other things. I think it would be a very sad thing for our country.”
There are other indications of relative normalcy. Under federal law, each administration is required to plan for the smooth transition of power to a potential successor ahead of a presidential election, regardless of the likelihood that they’ll win. There are well-known signs of this process—when candidates start receiving classified intelligence briefings, for example—but most of the work is quietly undertaken by civil servants and political appointees throughout the sprawling executive branch. The Trump administration began that formal process in May, and there are no reports or indications thus far that it’s gone awry. Biden’s formal acceptance of the Democratic nomination next month will likely accelerate it even further.
I need not recount Trump’s authoritarian tactics and maneuvers while in office. But it’s also worth noting that he habitually refuses to follow through on the threats he makes. He infamously boasted on the campaign trail in 2016 that he would jail Hillary Clinton if he won, only to publicly back down shortly after his surprise victory. He came close to trying to fire former special counsel Robert Mueller but never managed to follow through. Trump’s presidency is essentially a catalog of empty threats: to adjourn Congress for not confirming his nominees, to shut down Twitter for fact-checking him, to collapse Turkey’s economy for attacking the Kurds, to release ISIS fighters into France and Germany, to withdraw the United States from NATO, and more. The Post’s JM Rieger counted at least 32 examples of presidential threats that went nowhere as of June last year. (Remember when he was going to sue Saturday Night Live?)
This isn’t the first time that Americans have felt this anxiety. In the 2000s, some liberals occasionally floated the possibility that George W. Bush would somehow cancel or suspend the 2008 presidential election. Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, wrote “a news brief from the future” for The Nation in July 2006, in which Bush postpones the next presidential election to protect Americans from terrorism. Hillary Clinton, the expected 2008 nominee, is described as consulting pollsters about her response; then–Attorney General Alberto Gonzales makes a disingenuous argument that the Constitution doesn’t mean every four years when it says “every four years.” In the weeks before the 2008 election, various rumors circulated online that Bush would declare martial law to prevent Barack Obama’s victory. He did not.
After Obama’s inauguration, it was Republicans’ turn at the wheel. A host of conservative media figures floated the possibility that Obama would somehow defy the Constitution’s two-term limit and stay in office past the 2016 election. In 2015, Republican officials amplified fringe concerns that Jade Helm 15, a military training exercise in the American West and Southwest, was a prelude to martial law. Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would deploy the Texas State Guard to monitor federal troops within the state, while lawmakers like Texas Senator Ted Cruz claimed the concerns were based upon a valid fear of federal authority. Persistent right-wing tropes about an Obama-led “deep state” that’s trying to undermine Trump’s presidency can be seen as an ex post facto version of those anxieties.
In a way, the U.S. hasn’t had a president who was universally regarded as legitimate since Bush v. Gore. What sets Trump apart isn’t just the level of his own illegitimacy—he rose to power after receiving fewer votes than Clinton in an election marred by Russian interference and FBI meddling—but his willingness to publicly accuse others of it. He repeatedly warned ahead of the 2016 election that it was “rigged” against him, raising questions about whether he would accept the result. At the same time, Trump staffers later recounted that his campaign had spoken with Clinton’s team about handling concession calls, suggesting that the plan wasn’t to wage a scorched-earth war on American democracy if he actually lost. Many observers expected he would instead pivot to building a media network of some kind to harness his supporters’ enthusiasm.
Maybe Trump actually follows through on his authoritarian instincts this time and plunges this nation into its worst political crisis since the Civil War. Assuming the election goes relatively smoothly, however, the balance of probability suggests that he’ll complain and tweet and inflame his way through a three-month transition. Those who hope to stave off democratic collapse should devote their efforts to ensuring the election does run smoothly—with votes counted quickly and accurately, with ready access to voting provided to every American who can lawfully cast a ballot, and with planning and preparation to overcome whatever hurdles the coronavirus pandemic throws our way. Americans can’t stop Trump from doing something terrible, but they can make it a lot harder for him to succeed.