His strongman threats are scary. But don’t forget that he’s weak.
Living under a president who daily defiles his office and glories in transgressing the norms holding democracy together is numbing and enervating. It’s not emotionally or physiologically possible to maintain appropriate levels of shock and fury indefinitely; eventually exhaustion and cynical despair kick in.
But every once in a while Donald Trump outpaces the baseline of corruption, disloyalty and sadism we’ve been forced to get used to. Outrage builds and the weary political world stirs. Sometimes even a few Republican officeholders feel the need to distance themselves from things the president says or does.
Child separation caused this kind of clarifying horror. There was a moment of it when Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color should go back to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” And now, thanks to Trump’s latest attack on democracy, we’re seeing it again.
At a Wednesday evening news conference, Trump was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” said the president. He then complained about “the ballots,” apparently meaning mail-in ballots, which he’s been trying to discredit: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
His words — the demand to discard ballots, the dismissal of a possible transfer — were a naked declaration of autocratic intent. Looking at the BBC’s website, where a blaring headline said, “Trump Won’t Commit to Peaceful Transfer of Power,” you could see America being covered like a failing state.
Trump’s words were all the scarier for coming on the same day as Barton Gellman’s blockbuster Atlantic article about how Trump could subvert the election. The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party told Gellman, on the record, that he’d spoken to the campaign about bypassing a messy vote count and having the Republican-controlled legislature appoint its own slate of electors. A legal adviser to the Trump campaign said, “There will be a count on election night, that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent — pick your word.”
As terrifying as all this is, it’s important to remember that Trump and his campaign are trying to undermine the election because right now they appear to be losing it.
Trump is down in most swing state polls, tied in Georgia and barely ahead in Texas. His most sycophantic enabler, Lindsey Graham, is neck-and-neck in South Carolina. The president is counting on his new Supreme Court nominee to save his presidency, and she may, if the vote count gets to the Supreme Court. But a rushed confirmation is unlikely to help Trump electorally, because in polls a majority of Americans say the winner of the election should make the appointment.
Trump may be behaving like a strongman, but he is weaker than he’d like us all to believe. Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote. It’s crucial that Trump’s opponents emphasize this, because unlike rage, excessive fear can be demobilizing. There’s a reason TV villains like to say, “Resistance is futile.”
“We cannot allow Trump’s constant threats to undermine voters’ confidence that their ballots will be counted or discredit the outcome in advance,” Michael Podhorzer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. recently wrote in a memo to allies. Podhorzer said that the organization’s polling suggests that “this close to the election, we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”
This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alarmed. I’m alarmed every minute of every day. Trump is an aspiring fascist who would burn democracy to the ground to salve his diseased ego. His willingness to break the rules that bind others gives him power out of proportion to his dismal approval ratings. He blithely incites violence by his supporters, some of whom have already tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.
Yet part of the reason he won in 2016 is that so few of his opponents thought it possible. That is no longer a problem. Since then, when voters have had the chance to render a verdict on Trump and his allies, they’ve often rejected them overwhelmingly. Under Trump, Democrats have made inroads into Texas, Arizona, even Oklahoma. They won a Senate seat in Alabama. (Granted, the Republican was accused of being a child molester.) Much attention is paid to Trump’s fanatical supporters, but far more people hate him than love him.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, many people had the same fears they have now. Analyzing its survey results, Pew found that “voters approached the 2018 midterm elections with some trepidation about the voting process and many had concerns that U.S. election systems may be hacked.” After 2016 it was hard to believe polls showing Democrats with a lead of more than eight points. But the polls were right.
Certainly, things are different now than they were even two years ago. A pandemic is disrupting normal campaigning and changing the way a lot of people vote. Trump has much more at stake. Investigations in New York mean that if he’s not re-elected, he could be arrested.
It’s also true that by floating the idea of refusing to concede, Trump begins to normalize the notion. The nationwide uproar over family separation has worn off, even though family separations continue. A House resolution condemned Trump’s initial racist attack on Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now he says similar things at his rallies and it barely makes news.
One of the most oft-used metaphors for the Trump years has been that of the slowly boiling frog. (The frog, in this case, being democracy.) By threatening what is essentially a coup, Trump may have turned the heat up too quickly, forcing some elected Republicans to implicitly rebuke him by restating their fealty to a constitutional transfer of power.
But if history is any guide, those Republicans will adjust to the temperature. The next time Trump says something equally outrageous, expect them to make excuses for him, or play some insulting game of whataboutism by likening Biden’s determination to count ballots past Nov. 3 to Trump’s refusal to recognize the possibility of defeat.
Still, Trump can be defeated, along with the rotten and squalid party that is enabling him. Doing so will require being cleareyed about the danger Trump poses, but also hopeful about the fact that we could soon be rid of him.
Trump would like to turn America into a dictatorship, but he hasn’t yet. For over four years he has waged a sort of psychological warfare on the populace, colonizing our consciousness so thoroughly that it can be hard to imagine him gone. That’s part of the reason he says he won’t leave if he’s beaten in November, or even after 2024. It’s to make us forget that it’s not up to him.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen published an important essay called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Gessen laid out six such rules, each incredibly prescient. The one I most often hear repeated is the first, “Believe the autocrat,” which said, “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.”
Right now, though, I find myself thinking about the last of Gessen’s rules: “Remember the future.” There is a world after Trump. A plurality of Americans, if not an outright majority, want that world to start in January. And whatever he says, if enough of us stand up to him, it can.