by Callum Watts
Four years ago I looked at the US election and predicted that Donald Trump would likely win. The day after the election I described the kind of president he was likely to be. That he would ignore all norms, stack the federal judiciary and bureaucracy with lackeys who would obey him, and likely use private militias to intimidate political opponents. Many of these predictions have born true. A key part of my argument was trying to explain the sort of man Trump is, and therefore what his behaviours are likely to be, and what effect that was likely to have on the institutions he is in charge of. One of my main points was to stop imagining that shared norms in and of themselves can provide restraint to Trump’s power when he quite explicitly does not believe in them.
As we had towards November 3rd some new questions have appeared on the lips of many commentators, will Trump step down if he loses? And is the US on the verge of a coup? I don’t feel able to make any predictions this time around, but I do think there are some observations which are worth bearing in mind. On the issue of a coup we see some great journalists like Krystal Ball and Glenn Greenwald trying to resist the case that Trump is some kind of budding dictator or fascist. They worry that this kind of alarmism is exactly what drives cynicism in politics and voters into Trump’s embrace (I know, a horrible thought). And to some extent I agree; it doesn’t look like Trump operates according to anything like a coherent political programme or philosophy which can explain his behaviour and political machinations. However, I think these pundits are missing a key point. The key issue is not whether Trump is cut from the same cloth as other nationalist authoritarians and where he fits in this political taxonomy, it is understanding what Trump is likely to do, what he is able to do, and what he wants to do.
In my previous essay I described him as “a power-hungry narcissist, with no respect for tradition, law, or even his own word. His chief motivations are raising his own image over that of any other, and the sheer joy of exercising outsized power.” I think this is basically accurate, only now Trump’s confidence in his own power to control American institutions will have skyrocketed. He came into the White House a political novice, with at least some reason to believe that the vaunted institutions of the US political system might encumber his desire to do whatever he wants. But he has spent the last four years testing the limits of American institutional safeguards, and he knows that they are weak, and offer no real challenge to him. I think these things still hold true and thus make it unlikely that he would concede defeat if he loses the election by a single digit number. The caveat being that he might be so bored of being President at this point he’ll be glad of an excuse to pack it in.
If he decides not to go, whatever ideology makes him stay, Trump has an alarmingly strong grip on the institutions of the American government. Whilst the house of representatives is controlled by the democrats, it has had little influence on Trump’s power, and he controls every other branch of government, including the supreme court. Which, for all of its supposed judicial independence, is a party-political legislative body. It is also wishful thinking to believe that the US military will counter Trump’s power. The most senior military officials have already clearly stated that they will remain neutral around any possible disputed electoral outcome, there are worrying signs that the most senior levels of the US army are complicit or indifferent to Trump’s desire to take power. Even if the current heads of the branches of the armed services are not quietly acquiescent to Trump’s desire for power, Trump is able to appoint these roles at will with confirmation from the Senate, which is entirely servile to Trump.
Outside of the military we are seeing that private militias are increasingly active, and that police are at best disinclined to do very much about their violent activities. I think one of the key things to note here, is that this does not stop at contempt at the particular protestors of Black Lives Matter. The precedent being set is that it is acceptable for the US police to allow and even use violence against protesters who resist the current administration’s politics, regardless of what banner they march under. And police aside, it is an absolutely astonishing fact that there are armed and trained militias who are obedient to Trump. There is absolutely no equivalent on the left.
If Trump loses the election in November (and he may not), and refuses to acknowledge his defeat, we will see a three-pronged assault on US democracy, one focussed on propaganda, one focussed on consolidating power through force, and one focussed on institutional control as already described above. Viz propaganda, we will see declarations that the ballot was illegitimate. Trump may not come straight out and say he’s won, rather he’ll sow confusion and disorder and position himself as a key figure in maintaining some kind of harmony. The message will be “this is a fraud and we need to get to the bottom of this”. An investigation or committee will be set up to find any possible incident of fraud (of which there is bound to be some), and the outcomes will be supposed to show that the whole election was a fraud. This message will be pushed by the mainstream right-wing media. This single message will galvanise his unshakeable base to take action to protect Trump.
The opposition will struggle to mount a coherent response and will be split into a variety of different groups. Centrists who will want to run an investigation into the election and await the outcome; the MSNBC set who have a belief that US institutions are sacred and will somehow ‘not let this happen’ through rhetoric and appeals to reason alone; some never Trump republicans who will be focussed on reasoning with whatever remains of a reasonable GOP; intersectionally driven activists who will focus on the white supremacy and patriarchy element of Trump’s message, and a set of the Sanders inspired left who are likely to be describing the situation as an authoritarian takeover. The lack of an overriding shared interest or ideology to resist Trump’s true believers will mean that, even though they are an isolated minority, they will dominate the public sphere and leave their opponents feeling divided.
In terms of force, Tump’s private militias will already have a presence at polling booths and at counter rallies and demonstrations. We have seen state houses flooded with heavily armed men, and we have seen their violence deployed on the streets against peaceful protesters. As confusion and worry begins to spread caused by the unclear outcome, we may see a power vacuum emerge. Those bold enough to assert themselves as authorities and the forces of order will be treated as such. The inevitable left-wing protests which will rock the capital and other major cities will be put down more or less violently by militia groups with either tacit or active support of the police forces. Most people will feel supportive of these counter protests, but they will stay at home through fear of getting involved but also because of the widespread anxiety around political organising caused by covid-19. Unfortunately it is the very people who are the least concerned for their health (far right activists) who will be on the streets, they are also the people with the most guns, the most willingness to use them, and who will take direct commands from the President to do his bidding. There is no similar organisation on the left and no clear figurehead or organisation capable of providing resistance to the Trump militias, and given that they do not exist now, I think that attempting to create one before election day is likely to play straight into the right’s hands as providing an excuse for more violence. Even if such an organisation did come into existence, the fact that it would lack both experienced ‘soldiers’ and leadership make this a really unattractive proposition.
This is only a possible scenario, and it is made less likely if Trump loses by a significant margin. But the point I think it is important to understand is that Trump has accumulated unique levels of power, and that whatever his ideology (and I think it is pretty credible to say he doesn’t have one) the key thing to focus on is what he can do, and what he wants to do. In summary it is possible that Trump will contest the election result, his contestation will be supported by a willing propaganda machine that will galvanise a relatively coherent group of true believers to push back on opposition civil society action. Furthermore US institutions seem incapable of putting up much of a fight against Trump, and the fact that the highest court in the land is effectively a GOP dominated supra-legislature makes any successful contestation of the election result by Trump likely to succeed, and any attack on the President’s claim to have won likely to be defeated. The exact details of what the contestation is and how that decision will be made I can’t comment on, having no expertise in American constitutional law, but suffice it to say that I’d be astonished if we didn’t find some ruling in favour of Trump. A far less partisan supreme court handed the election to George W Bush in 2000, so we should have absolutely no reason to hope that it rules against Trump in this case. Furthermore, the panic around covid is likely to further increase the anxiety and sense of emergency and disempowerment amongst the left. If this does happen concerted civil action will be required to stop this, from unions, coalitions of activist groups all being willing to put themselves on the line and cause mass disruption to American society.