Ignoring previous Justice Department policy to avoid investigations that could influence the outcome of an election, Attorney General William P. Barr issued a memo authorizing U.S. attorneys to investigate “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities.” Although many noted that the memo came with significant caveats, it almost immediately prompted Richard Pilger, head of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch, to step aside from that role in protest.
Some Republicans have defended these steps in off-the-record interviews, suggesting that they are intended to calm the president rather than to change the election results. In the words of one senior official, quoted in The Post:
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change. … He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
Even if this is true, the Republican strategy has obvious dangers. As political theorist Jacob Levy has argued, Republicans “push[ing] things a little closer to the brink” can lead to uncertainty and rapid escalation and breakdown. International relations scholars have thought for a long time about how brinkmanship might lead states into accidental nuclear war. Their ideas are relevant to democratic brinkmanship, too.
Nuclear brinkmanship could lead to nuclear war
During the Cold War, scholars of nuclear deterrence thought a lot about brinkmanship — patterns of threat and counterthreat that might lead to nuclear Armageddon. There were moments when that nearly happened, such as the Cuban missile crisis.
Very clearly, no country wanted a war that might destroy human civilization. But dancing along the brink of catastrophe can have big benefits. This led scholars such as Thomas Schelling to argue that countries would always be tempted by “brinkmanship,” risky threats or risky actions that might lead to devastating nuclear war, but might also lead the other state to back down.
Schelling wrote about the “threat that leaves something to chance.” Your opponent would not believe you if you threatened to do something that hurt you as much as it hurt them. But she might believe you if you left some aspect of the threat you were making to chance, so that it might or might not happen for reasons that were outside your control. This meant that threats with which you exposed yourself to risk could make your opponent back down when she otherwise wouldn’t, perhaps with big payoffs.
In more recent work, other scholars argued that apparent brinkmanship may be the product of internal politics. Scott Sagan, for example, argues that organizational failures that lead to nuclear escalation are more likely in states lacking strong civilian control over the military, which can be inwardly focused on domestic politics or its own parochial concerns. Sagan’s work also generally highlights the risk of nuclear accidents.
In today’s unfolding drama, the military is not the relevant actor — indeed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, took the unusual step of publicly stating in October that the military has “no role” in the election. But Sagan’s point is that organizations have blind spots that stem from their specific missions, and these blind spots can lead to extreme, if unintended, consequences. Politicians, who are focused on winning and keeping office, might also tend to be myopic about the broader consequences of certain strategies for getting there.
Democratic brinkmanship may have costs, too
This provides us with a simple way of understanding the causes and consequences of the current Republican strategy. (Of course, like all simple models, it leaves a lot of important stuff out.)
Plausibly, as in Sagan’s example, the Republicans who are supporting Trump are primarily focused on internal party questions rather than external risks. They may want to keep Trump placated because he could damage their future electoral prospects. They may want to get their supporters angry and active so that they will mobilize and vote in the Georgia runoffs for Senate. However, it is exactly this kind of shortsightedness that can lead to unexpected consequences and rapid escalation. Even if (as some Republicans quietly suggest) the claims of fraud are a kind of political theater, they are a kind of political theater that leaves something to chance.
If ordinary Republican voters take these allegations seriously, they might box politicians in. They might also come to believe that elections are rigged, undermining long-term democratic stability. Finally, the combination of these strategies and arguments by senior Republican elected officials that the United States is not a democracy might convince Democrats that they can’t trust Republicans’ willingness to adhere to democratic rules, potentially leading to further destabilization.
Some Republican elites — people who don’t think the voter fraud claims are real — may sincerely believe that there’s no downside to humoring Trump, while missing the “chance” element. Others may well understand that this strategy comes with risk and accept it for the potential upside.
Nobody ever wants nuclear war. Nobody wants to destroy American democracy. It’s still unlikely we’ll see the political equivalent of a mushroom cloud this month, but the long-term consequences could be significant.