We wanted to know: What’s the worst thing that could happen to our country during the presidential election? President Trump has broken countless norms and ignored countless laws during his time in office, and while my colleagues and I at the Transition Integrity Project didn’t want to lie awake at night contemplating the ways the American experiment could fail, we realized that identifying the most serious risks to our democracy might be the best way to avert a November disaster. So we built a series of war games, sought out some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around, and asked them to imagine what they’d do in a range of election and transition scenarios.
A landslide for Joe Biden resulted in a relatively orderly transfer of power. Every other scenario we looked at involved street-level violence and political crisis.
On the morning of Election Day, false stories appear online claiming that Biden has been hospitalized with a life-threatening heart attack and the election has been delayed. Every mainstream news organization reports that the rumors are unfounded, but many Biden supporters, confused by the bogus claims, stay home.
Still, by late that night, most major networks have called the election for Biden: The former vice president has won key states and has a slender lead in the national popular vote, and polling experts predict that his lead will grow substantially as Western states count an unusually high number of mail-in ballots. The electoral college looks secure for Biden, too.
But Trump refuses to concede, alleging on Twitter that “MILLIONS of illegal ALIENS and DEAD PEOPLE” have voted in large numbers and that the uncounted ballots are all “FAKE VOTES!!!” Social media fills with posts from Trump supporters alleging that the election has been “stolen” in a “Deep State coup,” and Trump-friendly pundits on Fox News and OAN echo the message.
Soon, Attorney General William P. Barr opens an investigation into unsubstantiated allegations of massive vote-by-mail fraud and ties between Democratic officials and antifa. In Michigan and Wisconsin, where Biden has won the official vote and Democratic governors have certified slates of pro-Biden electors, the Trump campaign persuades Republican-controlled legislatures to send rival pro-Trump slates to Congress for the electoral college vote.
The next week is chaotic: A list of Michigan and Wisconsin electors for Biden circulates on right-wing social media, including photos, home addresses and false claims that scores of them are in the pay of billionaire George Soros or have been linked to child sex-trafficking rings.
Massive pro-Biden street protests begin, demanding that Trump concede. The president tweets that “REAL PATRIOTS MUST SHOW THESE ANTIFA TERRORISTS THAT CITIZENS WHO LOVE THE 2ND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER LET THEM STEAL THIS ELECTION!!!” Around the nation, violent clashes erupt. Several people are injured and killed in multiple incidents, though reports conflict about their identities and who started the violence.
Meanwhile, Trump declares that “UNLESS THIS CARNAGE ENDS NOW,” he will invoke the Insurrection Act and send “Our INCREDIBLY POWERFUL MILITARY and their OMINOUS WEAPONS” into the streets to “Teach these ANTI-AMERICAN TERRORISTS A LESSON.” At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff convene a hurried meeting to discuss the crisis.
And it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
That dystopia is based on how events played out in one of the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises. We explored the four scenarios experts consider most likely: a narrow Biden win; a big Biden win, with a decisive lead in both the electoral college and the popular vote; a Trump win with an electoral college lead but a large popular-vote loss, as in 2016; and finally, a period of extended uncertainty as we saw in the 2000 election.
With the exception of the “big Biden win” scenario, each of our exercises reached the brink of catastrophe, with massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse. In two scenarios (“Trump win” and “extended uncertainty”) there was still no agreement on the winner by Inauguration Day, and no consensus on which candidate should be assumed to have the ability to issue binding commands to the military or receive the nuclear codes. In the “narrow Biden win” scenario, Trump refused to leave office and was ultimately escorted out by the Secret Service — but only after pardoning himself and his family and burning incriminating documents.
For obvious reasons, we couldn’t ask Trump or Biden — or their campaign aides — to play themselves in these exercises, so we did the next best thing: We recruited participants with similar backgrounds. On the GOP side, our “players” included former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, conservative commentator Bill Kristol and former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. On the Democratic side, participants included John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a top White House adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Donna Brazile, the campaign chair for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run; and Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan. Other participants included political strategists, journalists, polling experts, tech and social media experts, and former career officials from the intelligence community, the Justice Department, the military and the Department of Homeland Security.
In each scenario, Team Trump — the players assigned to simulate the Trump campaign and its elected and appointed allies — was ruthless and unconstrained right out of the gate, and Team Biden struggled to get out of reaction mode. In one exercise, for instance, Team Trump’s repeated allegations of fraudulent mail-in ballots led National Guard troop to destroy thousands of ballots in Democratic-leaning ZIP codes, to applause on social media from Trump supporters. Over and over, Team Biden urged calm, national unity and a fair vote count, while Team Trump issued barely disguised calls for violence and intimidation against ballot-counting officials and Biden electors.
In every exercise, both teams sought to mobilize their supporters to take to the streets. Team Biden repeatedly called for peaceful protests, while Team Trump encouraged provocateurs to incite violence, then used the resulting chaos to justify sending federalized Guard units or active-duty military personnel into American cities to “restore order,” leading to still more violence. (The exercises underscored the tremendous power enjoyed by an incumbent president: Biden can call a news conference, but Trump can call in the 82nd Airborne.)
Similarly, Team Trump repeatedly attempted to exploit ambiguities and gaps in the legal framework. (There are more than you might think.) Team Trump repeatedly sought, for instance, to persuade state GOP allies to send rival slates of electors to Congress when the popular vote didn’t go its way. With competing slates heading to Washington for the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress that formally counts the electoral votes, Trump supporters argued that Vice President Pence, in his capacity as president of the Senate, had the power to decide which electors to recognize. In contrast, Democrats argued that the House of Representatives had the constitutional authority to choose which electors should be accepted in the event of a deadlock — or, alternatively, the ability to prevent the joint session from taking place at all. (We didn’t resolve this kind of standoff in our exercises; it’s not clear how such a stalemate would be settled in real life.)
In the “Trump win” scenario, desperate Democrats — stunned by yet another election won by the candidate with fewer votes after credible claims of foreign interference and voter suppression — also sought to send rival slates of electors to Congress. They even floated the idea of encouraging secessionist movements in California and the Pacific Northwest unless GOP congressional leaders agreed to a series of reforms, including the division of California into five smaller states to ensure better Senate representation of its vast population, and statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico.
While both parties appealed to the courts as well as to public opinion, the legal experts in our exercises pointed out that the judicial system might well avoid rendering decisions on the central issues, since courts might see them as fundamentally political, rather than judicial, in nature. Other players noted that there was, in any case, no guarantee that the losing side would accept a ruling from a highly politicized Supreme Court.
But there’s some good news: This kind of exercise doesn’t predict the future. In fact, war-gaming seeks to forecast all the things that could go wrong — precisely to prevent them from happening in real life. And if the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises highlighted various bleak possibilities, they also suggested some ways we might, as a nation, avoid democratic collapse.
First and foremost, congressional and state leaders, including legislators, governors, state secretaries of state and state attorneys general from both parties, can commit to protecting the integrity of the electoral process against partisan meddling. State officials can ensure that voters have detailed, accurate and timely information about where, when and how to vote, and make sure they understand that nobody can cancel or postpone the election. State officials can also eliminate administrative hurdles that may prevent voters from meeting mail-in ballot deadlines through no fault of their own, and recruit enough poll workers to ensure that all voters can vote and all ballots can be counted. Finally, they can take steps to protect the election officials who manage vote counting from harassment and intimidation attempts, and establish — in advance and on a bipartisan basis — standards for adjudicating any competing claims about how to allocate a state’s electoral votes.
Meanwhile, military and law enforcement leaders can prepare for the possibility that politicians will seek to manipulate or misuse their coercive powers. Partisans, including Trump, may try to deploy law enforcement, National Guard troops and, potentially, active-duty military personnel to “restore order” in a manner that primarily benefits one party, or involve troops and law enforcement in efforts to interrupt the ballot-counting process. The federal response to this summer’s protests in D.C.’s Lafayette Square and Portland, Ore., suggests that this is not purely speculative. To avoid becoming unwitting pawns in a partisan battle, military and law enforcement leaders can issue clear advance statements about what they will and won’t do. They can train troops and police officers on de-escalation techniques and on the vital need to remain nonpartisan and respectful of civil liberties.
The media also has an important role. Responsible outlets can help educate the public about the possibility — indeed, the likelihood — that there won’t be a clear winner on election night because an accurate count may take weeks, given the large number of mail-in ballots expected in this unprecedented mid-pandemic election. Journalists can also help people understand that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare, and, in particular, that there’s nothing nefarious about voting by mail. Social media platforms can commit to protecting the democratic process, by rapidly removing or correcting false statements spread by foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns and by ensuring that their platforms aren’t used to incite or plan violence.
Finally, ordinary citizens can help, too — perhaps most of all. As the jurist Learned Hand said in 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it . . . while it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.” This is as true now as it was then: When people unite to demand democracy and the rule of law, even repressive regimes can be stopped in their tracks. Mass mobilization is no guarantee that our democracy will survive — but if things go as badly as our exercises suggest they might, a sustained, nonviolent protest movement may be America’s best and final hope.
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