The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman has written a horrifying account of President Trump’s well-developed plans to sabotage the legitimacy of a presidential election that seems to be going against him. The U.S. electoral system, it turns out, has disturbing gray areas and no authoritative referees, making it surprisingly vulnerable to a ruthless violator of democratic norms. Trump appears to have the means and the intention to contest mail-in ballots, to claim massive electoral fraud, to muddy outcomes in battleground states and to refuse any form of concession. It is a strategy designed not to win an election but to invalidate its results and hold on to power through fraud.

This is the context in which Trump has repeatedly refused to affirm that he would accept a loss in the 2020 election. Often it is advisable to ignore Trump’s provocations, on the theory that some bait should be left untaken. Not this time. In this case, as Gellman shows, Trump is developing a mechanism to implement his destructive madness. We may be seeing the development of a presidential coup against American democracy.

In the coming weeks, the country is likely to depend on the health and authority of three institutions. There is the judiciary, which may be the only accepted arbiter of an election outcome. There is the news media, which will need to shed light on shady maneuvering. And there is the U.S. military, which may be required to politely but firmly escort Trump off the White House grounds.

Trump's tweets telling minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries follows a history of racism and nativism. Voters will decide if this is effective. (The Washington Post)

By threatening the integrity of the 2020 election, Trump calls attention to the stakes of that election. Can there be any doubt that the president would be unleashed by winning a second term? Or that the U.S. system of government would be entering unexplored territory?

We know Trump’s governing daydreams because he talks about them out loud. He wants to jail Hillary Clinton. And the Bidens. And John Kerry, Adam B. Schiff, James B. Comey and John Bolton. He targets unfavored journalists for his Twitter mob. He wants to change libel laws to make it easier to harass and silence his opponents. He has threatened the “licenses” of broadcast news organizations. He promises disproportionate punishment for government officials, business leaders and private citizens who criticize or defy him. And he believes that the power of the state should be at his personal disposal.

In his first term, Trump has been largely prevented from pursuing such dreams. The Mueller report is filled with instances where White House staff simply ignored his lawlessness. Even his first White House counsel and first attorney general occasionally opposed his malicious, vengeful whims. Trump was able to help some of his felonious friends (such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn), but he was generally prevented from persecuting his enemies beyond smears and taunts.

Yet several elements are now in place that would empower Trump’s vindictiveness in a second term:

  • Trump has relentlessly weeded out responsible counselors from his presence and conducted a four-year talent search for bootlickers. One of the winners is Trump’s second attorney general, William P. Barr — deceptive spinner of the Mueller report and generalissimo in the Battle of Lafayette Square. Under Barr, the Justice Department has become more politicized and responsive to Trump’s urges.
  • In implementing his lawless instincts, the reelected president would bask in the support of his preternaturally loyal political base. If tens of thousands of unnecessary covid-19 deaths haven’t shaken supporters’ belief in Trump’s leadership, they are certainly not going to balk at a little score settling. Many would find it exciting. And Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters would likely give the whole exercise the veneer of religiosity.
  • In a second term, Trump would have a compliant Republican Party. And by “compliant,” I mean the unsurpassed cowardice and sycophancy of a pathetic political generation.
  • Trump would also have air cover from a state-run television network — or, at least, the functional equivalent of one. Fox News is less an alternative news source than an alternate reality, in which Trump is always in the right. No other U.S. president has enjoyed such a biddable instrument of media influence.
  • And Trump would have a range of ready-made enemies — the “deep state,” antifa, migrants, Muslims — to justify the expansion of his power.

These enabling influences could turn a fool into a menace to the rule of law. The alarming methods we are seeing Trump adopt in pursuit of reelection are a preview of his governing style in a second term. Given that opportunity, the president would be uninhibited, unhinged and unbound.

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