Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
It’s unusual to start an article with a caveat, but then these are unusual times. I’m not an Oracle but I still see no way that Donald Trump wins on November 3rd (without cheating, that is). I’m not going to pledge to eat my hat if I’m wrong, or an insect as one pollster did four years ago. The worst can still happen but if the political laws of physics apply, it shouldn’t. Which means that, in an election governed by numbers- polls, COVID-19 death rate, GDP and the all-important 270- a new number will be important.
That number is 78. Those are the number of days which would separate November 3rd from January 20th- inauguration day. During this time, Donald Trump will be President despite losing the election. This transition is an arcane feature of US politics, the relic of a time when travelling to Washington DC from your home state would take weeks. It’s now one Trump could exploit. Most columns looking ahead to November rightly see the possibility of a constitutional crisis if Trump doesn’t concede the election. Some speculate this could pose an existential threat to the US system; twice before have elections been contested. As recently as 2000, Al Gore had respect enough for the institution of the Supreme Court to concede after their decision not to recount votes in Florida in December of that year. As far back as 1876, Samuel Tilden only conceded the election to Rutherford B Hayes two days before inauguration- but the compromise which did so stipulated no Presidential interference in the matters of the South, and led to more than 80 years of segregation. It’s hard to see Trump conceding like Gore, or Biden compromising like Hayes (why should he?)- especially if he wins by a clear margin in the Electoral College.
In such a scenario, Trump would have 78 days from which he could use the office of the President (rarely has the term bully pulpit been so appropriate) to cast doubt on the result. From discrediting mail-in votes to insinuating that foreign involvement in the Democrat campaign (oh, the irony) Trump could continue to dismantle trust in public institutions – but with the added threat that he would not step away come January 20th. His actions would likely be characterised by panic; knowing that his presidential immunity is over, that courts are after him and that the spotlight will soon be on somebody else, cannot be pleasant for a narcissist.
In such a scenario, the behaviour of senior Republicans could come to decide the future of American democracy. The early signs are promising, with rejections of Trump’s call to delay the election. Perhaps this is down to the candidate; Biden is perhaps the most palatable Democrat to senior Republicans- most of whom know him personally. Biden has never let politics interfere with friendships and as a Senator was known for reaching across the aisle. He convinced arch-conservative, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond to ban-assault rifles, and even delivered a eulogy at his funeral. Bernie Sanders disagrees with Biden on a lot, but endorsed him because of respect for his “integrity”.
This respect extends to many Republicans – South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham went as far as to say that if you don’t admire Joe Biden as a person then “you’ve got a problem”, calling him the “nicest person in politics” and “as good a man as God ever created” (Biden’s goodness was in evidence just this week, in extending his prayers to Trump after his brother’s death).
This Republican support is so crucial in adding legitimacy to the election result, especially if Trump might contest it. Of the swing states and newly competitive states, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Florida all have Republican governors. The three most key, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all have Democratic governors but Republican controlled legislatures. If Biden carries any of these states in November, a robust defense of their election procedure by their governor and legislatures could go a long way to assuaging Trump’s attacks.
But even if Trump graciously concedes on November 3rd, he could damage the incoming administration. Each transition, there are over 4000 new political appointees who need to be given information and briefings. There is no continuity force like the UK’s Civil Service and there are examples of information falling through cracks in the past; Jimmy Carter’s team did not tell Ronald Reagan’s about Israel’s impending missile strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, for instance. What threats are contained in files that, come January 20th, might just… vanish. There is a norm that the President-elect be consulted on some issues, but constitutionally Trump is still commander in chief- so could start a war with Iran or, most terrifyingly of all, launch a nuclear warhead.
So how does this end? Well, like I said- I’m not an Oracle.