President Trump is not merely refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event that he does lose the election. He’s threatening to actively thwart the transfer of power entirely — that is, he’s threatening active measures that could end up nullifying the election’s outcome, should he lose it.

Indeed, Trump and his allies are currently putting those active measures into operation as we speak. These things are actually happening.

Now that Trump has flatly declared that “we’re gonna have to see what happens” after being asked on Wednesday if he’d commit to a peaceful transition, much of the debate about this is unfolding around a narrow understanding of his meaning.

Trump refused to “endorse perhaps the most fundamental tenet of American democracy,” noted the New York Times. Trump might not “respect” the transfer of rule, lamented Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

In this interpretation, Trump is merely refusing to commit to his civic duty of giving his personal blessing to an electoral loss. At its outer limit, this is seen as alarming because it might stoke violence among supporters. As CNN put it, it constitutes a “refusal to guarantee a violence-free transition."

But what really matters here is that Trump is making an actual declaration of intent — not just to refuse to respect the outcome, but rather to try to cancel and override it, if he is able to get away with it.

What Trump is really saying

After Trump claimed that “we’re gonna have to see what happens” in terms of the transfer of power, he repeated his frequent lie that mail-balloting will be riddled with fraud.

“Get rid of the ballots,” Trump said, adding that if this happens, “there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”

That’s an open declaration that to whatever extent Trump can disable mail balloting, he’s more likely to win. Which is bad enough. But you cannot understand the full import of these words without their larger context.

Inescapably, what’s happening here is that Trump is actively working to invalidate as many legitimate votes as he can, likely at an unprecedented scale, precisely because he almost certainly cannot win if everyone who intends to vote is permitted to do so freely.

This is not merely a refusal to commit to doing his civic duty to facilitate a transfer of power, should he lose in the vote count. It’s an open declaration to supporters that he intends to thwart the transfer of power by any means necessary, even if he is on track to losing in the vote count.

We know how he hopes to do this. By declaring that an election with extensive mail balloting cannot deliver a legitimate outcome, Trump lays the justification for an effort to invalidate as many of those votes as possible.

Republican lawyers are currently in court trying to chip away at numerous new efforts to loosen the rules to make mail balloting work amid the high demand for it amid pandemic conditions, to invalidate the option where possible.

But what Trump is doing goes considerably further than that. He and his propagandists are declaring that millions of mail ballots will inevitably be fraudulent and will inevitably constitute an effort to steal the election from Trump. That means anything goes in response — invalidating as many of them as possible through any means is perfectly legitimate.

When Attorney General William P. Barr validates Trump’s falsehoods about vote-by-mail, that by itself constitutes the corrupt use of his government stature to help Trump undermine his supporters’ faith in our political system.

It also signals that Barr will likely announce some kind of investigation of a mail-balloting fraud scheme to provide official cover for Trump to declare himself the winner on or just after Election Day, while simultaneously trying to get millions of ballots invalidated. Trump has now told us that this would be perfectly within his rights. So is openly declaring that he expects his nominee to the Supreme Court to help him do this.

Republican lawyers are reportedly exploring the possibility of getting GOP-controlled legislators in swing states to appoint electors for Trump regardless of vote outcomes. It’s reasonable to view this option’s chances of happening with skepticism.

But what’s important here is that Trump has now told us that he will try things like this if he thinks he can get away with them. After all, if the election is being stolen from him, anything goes.

Trump’s view of power

Writing at the Bulwark, Jonathan Last digs into Trump’s past to explain his view of power. In the 1980s, Trump lamented that Soviet reformers were letting the place go to ruin because they were no longer exercising “a firm hand.” The hideously oppressive conditions endured by millions under previous rule didn’t matter. All that mattered was that former rulers “put down” disorder “with strength,” which was inherently good.

Trump’s worldview, Last noted, is that “power exists to be used” and that any opposition can and must be crushed because it constitutes a “disgruntled minority seeking to thwart the true will of the people.”

But it’s even worse than that. Trump represents a minority, and the legitimate political opposition can and must be thwarted by whatever means are at his disposal even if it represents a majority, as it very well might in this election.

For Trump, the voters who oppose him are not to be conceded legitimate representation. That’s what he meant when he slagged off Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as coming from another country to tell “us” how to run “our” country, despite being a democratically elected lawmaker chosen by U.S. citizens to represent them.

There are certainly limits to what Trump would do to defeat the opposition. And it’s highly plausible that his efforts to invalidate millions of votes won’t get far enough to save him. But Trump has told us in his own words that he intends to push those limits much further than we yet know.

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