It did not occur to us that men and women with respectable résumés might be just as willing to subvert the democratic system as Trump himself, as if U.S. officials alone were immune from the temptations of power. The consequence of this self-delusion is that we have now almost run out of chances to stop them.
Trump and his supporters have told us exactly how they plan to hold onto power regardless of the election outcome. The president began declaring the election “rigged” even before early voting began, and he has yet to say that he will respect a result that does not favor him. Republicans in hotly contested states are already planning to bring lawsuits alleging fraud, miscounts, tainted ballots and other irregularities.
The national intelligence director, John Ratcliffe, has set the predicate for charges of foreign interference by overhyping alleged Iranian manipulation before the election. When Ratcliffe finds evidence of Iranian and other foreign interference, as he surely will, Attorney General William P. Barr will call for an investigation. Anyone in the intelligence community who disputes Ratcliffe’s claims will either be silenced or fired. Trump officials are already leaking that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper might be removed after the election. The claims of Republican state legislatures and the results of the “investigation” into foreign meddling will then come before the Supreme Court, which, with a solid 6-to-3 conservative majority, will put its stamp of legitimacy on the stolen election.
We have been told that Trump is too lazy, ignorant and incompetent to pull off this kind of coup. But what of the people who both serve him and benefit from him? We look at people such as Barr and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as engaged in a balancing act, trying to preserve some moral and legal scruples while doing the president’s bidding. That is how we viewed those who came before them, including those former generals who served in the administration: John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis.
This is naive. People enter government out of a blend of conviction and ambition. Few joined the Trump administration out of conviction. To justify their decision, they told themselves, and us, that it was because Trump was dangerous and incompetent that good people had to go in. They would “serve” the nation by protecting us from the man who gave them their job and at whose pleasure they served. We wanted to believe them. We slept better at night knowing that “adults” were in the room. They provided a facade of normalcy and competence, implicitly assuring us with their mere presence that it was safe to go about life as if our democracy was not, in fact, in peril. But it was, of course, and the “adults” did nothing to alert us, much less save us. It took a mid-level official to reveal Trump and his gang’s malfeasance in Ukraine in real time. Had it just been up to the “adults,” and the hundreds of other political appointees, we would never have known.
Now the “adults” have passed from the scene, and our fate is in the hands of Barr and the others — the survivors, for now, in Trump’s “Hunger Games” of loyalty. Some may still want to believe that these individuals are wrestling with their consciences. But it is too late for that, and these people know it. Barr, Ratcliffe, Meadows and others are in too deep. They have probably crossed too many lines by now, and they know what happens if Trump leaves office. In January, they would wake up in Joe Biden’s America, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority (or Majority) Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and soon thousands of appointees at the Justice Department, the State Department, the CIA and FBI who served under Barack Obama and Bill Clinton holding the commanding heights of power. No one knows better than Barr how one administration’s alleged sins become the next administration’s criminal investigations.
Do we imagine that when Republican legislatures and the “intelligence community” cry foul after the election, and when Trump’s millions of followers scream for justice, that Barr and the others, out of their devotion to democracy, will not do what needs to be done to keep themselves in power?
That leaves the justices of the Supreme Court. We are supposed to believe that a conservative court, particularly Trump’s appointees, will adjudicate the coming election challenges without partisan taint. This is truly the triumph of hope over experience. From Bush v. Gore in 2000 to the recent cases involving ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, justices have cast their decisions along partisan lines with machine-like dependability.
Are we to count on Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, whom the Democrats savaged, to side with them against the man who put him on the court? Kavanaugh’s in a Monday ruling, in which he suggested that counting late-arriving absentee ballots in Wisconsin might “flip the results” of the election, could have been written by Trump himself — as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, there are no “results” to “flip” until all valid ballots are counted.
As for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, yes, it is theoretically possible that she would break from her Republican colleagues and vote to unseat the man and the party that just put her on the court, that she would put in power the Democrats who did all they could to stop her from achieving her lifelong ambition. But if you can believe that, then you deserve your fate in the new America that awaits us.
Let’s be clear about what that America will look like. An administration that steals an election by abusing power must continue abusing that power to keep it. And Trump will have no shortage of excuses to wield power. A stolen election will bring tens of millions into the streets, possibly for weeks and months. The nation will have descended into an extra-constitutional civil conflict, with each side using the tools available to try to prevail.
For Trump, those tools are those of the executive, which the founders entrusted with immense power, from the administration of justice to the defense of the nation by the armed forces. The administration’s opponents, lacking institutional power, will be able to count only on its millions in the streets, and on the democratic consciences of individual judges and justices and federal employees, armed and unarmed, across the country. But consider what they will be asking. They will be counting on federal employees to do the “right thing” by turning against the man whom even the Supreme Court has declared their legitimate president.
Meanwhile, Trump and his minions will purge the federal government of all those deemed disloyal. Barr will open and expand investigations into anyone suspected of conspiring against the president, in 2016, in 2020 and for as long as Trump remains in power. Owners of mainstream media outlets will become targets of investigations by government agencies. Smears against Democratic lawmakers will mount. Trump’s supporters at massive rallies will shout “Lock them up!” And who will come to the rescue of the persecuted? Who in a position of power will have an incentive to reverse the events that kept them in power?
Congressional Republicans will be fighting for their own survival, while Tucker Carlson, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Donald Trump Jr. and others compete to be Trump’s successor in the affections of the masses. Maybe Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the master of glorious but meaningless gestures, will give some more moving speeches.
This may sound like the Sinclair Lewis novel “It Can’t Happen Here.” Perhaps it won’t happen. Maybe Trump and his gang don’t have the skill or steely courage required to pull it off. Perhaps they will just fade away. If so, we will be fortunate, but undeserving. We kept counting on others to save us — our institutions, our political leaders, our courts — but help never arrived. And as we waited for someone, anyone, to do the right thing, we moved closer to the end.
Now all we have left is the people. The voters, for all their failings, may prove more trustworthy than their supposed guardians. They may deliver us by delivering an irrefutable landslide to Biden. Or, failing that, by going out into the streets in an American version of “people power” to foil the plot against their democracy. A republic, if we can save it.