America’s On A Knife’s Edge

There are Four Ways the Election Can Go — and Three of Them End With Democracy Dying

If you’re anything like me, you’re weirdly bipolar these days. You veer between watching too much news — and turning it off, overwhelmed. You swing between despair and hope, dread and mania, panic, and perseverance. You oscillate wildly, and there seems to be little to no middle ground.

You’re not wrong. America’s on a knife-edge. So is civilization as we know it, but I digress.

What I mean by “America’s on a knife-edge” what this weird combination of feelings is trying to tell you is that in the upcoming days and months will be decisive, and yet anything can happen. That’s not a good thing, by the way.

Anything shouldn’t be able to happen in functioning society, a democracy, a civilized nation. An aspiring authoritarian shouldn’t order shock troops to beat and gas people in the streets. A President shouldn’t be able to spread the pandemic he pretended didn’t exist, then caught, then struggled with, to his fanatical base. And what could happen next shouldn’t have any chance of happening whatsoever.

There are four scenarios I can see unfolding in the upcoming election. 

What “anything can happen” means is precisely what it says. It’s futile to try and assign probabilities to these scenarios. It is now in a period of genuine uncertainty, meaning that risk itself is beyond quantifiability. Sure, we can guess — but that’s about all we can do. We can’t say something like, “there’s a 90% chance Trump loses,” the situation America’s in now is abnormal, so it makes a mockery of the very idea of normality, which statistics are based on.

So. The scenarios.

The first is this. Trump loses the popular vote and the electoral college. The margin is overwhelming. 

By the way, the best scenario of all — and yet even this one is still not that good, still profoundly abnormal. If all that comes to pass, what will he do? He’ll probably contest the results anyway. He’ll call democracy into question — just like he’s been doing, harder and harder for the last few months even if Trump loses — especially if he loses.

Not because he has any real chance of winning, but for psychological, cultural, and political reasons. To save face and exact revenge, and mollify his ego. To prove what a big man he is. Also, keep his movement alive as long as he can, even if it means politically martyring himself. All that will throw American democracy into turmoil, regardless — what happens if a President refuses to concede? In short, something like a Constitutional crisis ensues.

Probably, even in this scenario, the GOP will back Trump. 

Sure, they’ll look like fools, but when has that stopped them before? Their behavior pattern is clear — to place power above any norms or rules or codes of conduct or decency. So if Trump refuses to concede, expect some large part of his party and base to back. To what, though? To the brink.

And so even in the best scenario, there are likely to be challenging months of turmoil ahead. It’s not unthinkable to foresee Trump’s fanatical base growing more violent and extreme the closer they come to finally losing their grip on power, not to mention being egged on by him. So even in this scenario, the chances of political violence and unrest are still high.

The second scenario goes like this. Trump loses the popular vote and the electoral college. But the margin is slender. 

And now the strategy that the GOP has so carefully, assiduously put in place over the last years and decades, finally pays off. Legal challenges, one after the other, which have been prepared, erupt at a granular level: city, town, state by state. Ballot after ballot, vote after the vote is contested. Recounts are demanded; the legitimacy of the election, in short, is thrown into severe and serious question. The results are left to the courts to decide. And because the GOP has focused heavily on stacking and tilting courts hard to the right, that favor is repaid. The courts determine Trump’s election, all the way up to the Supreme Court, which makes the final decision.

But even the road there is long and arduous. 

Chaos reigns for months while ballots are counted and recounted. Legal case after case is fought, in a kind of war of attrition, which takes time. Meanwhile, America has no real President. No leadership. Amid at least four concurrent crises, a pandemic, a major recession, a disintegrating society, and an imploding middle class.

Those months are best summed up in one word: chaos. 

Trump supporters hold rallies in the streets, where they mock and taunt their opponents. Violence and unrest become everyday events. Nobody quite knows who is in charge of what, and so the rule of law begins to break down in even more brutal ways. Militia and paramilitaries and whatnot make even more extreme and violent plans to eradicate the opposition — like kidnapping Governors — and carry them out, or at least try to. American life goes right to the edge of a hardcore failed state. 

What happens then? Then the back of American democracy is finally broken. 

It was one thing when the Supreme Court handed the Presidency to George W Bush. 

It’s quite another to hand it, Donald Trump, for a second term. Trump has a pattern of authoritarian fascist behavior, from camps to raids to purges to bans to his paramilitary disappearing people. 

The Supreme Court will have effectively legitimized and licensed that.

Americans will begin to understand that they don’t live in a democracy. 

And while it’s noble to idealize ideas of resistance and so forth, the truth is that once the back of democracy is broken, people tend to become demoralized, dispirited, and defeated. Even in this scenario, which is the second-best one, Trump lost both popular and electoral college votes. Still, the election decided for him by courts. American democracy is at severe risk.

The third scenario is where things begin to get really grim. In this one, Trump loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college. 

He doesn’t need the courts. He doesn’t need to contest the results. He wins outright. How might this come to pass? You should already know: by convincing electors to go against the norm of voting for the preference of the people they represent. To say that “there’s voter fraud, you can’t trust these votes!! You should give your electoral college vote to us; instead, if you want to save democracy!!

It’s clever. You almost have to admire it: like any right authoritarian approach, it twists reality inside out. The only way to protect democracy from alleged “voter fraud” is…to vote for the authoritarians. Never mind that there is no voter fraud — when has reality ever mattered in American politics?

Pundits are underestimating this scenario’s potential to set American democracy on fire. If even a handful of electors are agreeable — or gullible or corrupt — enough to get on board, that’s game over.

There are rules and norms they’re supposed to follow, true. And there might even be legal challenges if electors don’t vote the way the popular vote in their state has gone. But those will come after the fact.

When a new head of state has already been installed, what chance do they have to succeed? Significantly when the highest courts have already been tilted?

This is incredibly clever also because it attempts to cut democracy away at its very feet. The electoral college is the Achilles heel of American democracy, its greatest weakness. Targeting it is how to get maximum leverage for minimum effort.

What happens if all this succeeds? Even more unrest and violence. 

It’s not much of a stretch to say that many Americans would feel cheated because they would be fooled. There would likely be riots in city after city. And guess what that would invite? Crackdowns from Trump’s shock troops, who’d be called in to do what they did in Portland (where one of my cousins lives) and Chicago and elsewhere: to beat, gas, and disappear protesters.

America would have crossed the brink into real authoritarianism. 

And things would only get worse from there. If the shock troops are beating and disappearing people on day one, what do you think they’ll be doing on day 365 of a four-year term? How much likelihood do you give another election? In this scenario, American democracy ceases to function, its legs chopped off. And this isn’t even the worst one yet.

That brings me to the worst one. Trump wins the popular vote and the electoral college. 

You might think that’s unlikely — but I don’t necessarily mean outright. And I don’t mean that Trump “wins.” I mean that the election is manipulated enough so that he doesn’t lose.

I mean, after all the counts and recounts and so forth are done, Trump emerges victorious. Imagine that the allegations of voter fraud are successful — successful enough to have enough ballots thrown out, especially in crucial areas, to give Trump an outright victory. Biden’s margin is chipped away at, by the day, until suddenly, Trump is the winner.

What happens then?

This is the Belarusian scenario. 

Did you see what happened there? A head of state “won” an election that people considered corrupt. So mass protests erupted. They lasted weeks.

But it was too late.

The protests go on, but their spirit, it seems, has been broken. They are petering out slowly. Masked men abduct and beat moms and grandmas in public. Sound familiar? It should. Americans should take a lesson from what happened in Belarus.

Mass protests after an authoritarian seizes power are usually too late. 

They can express anger and fury and rage and disappointment — even from the vast majority. But the authoritarian controls the levers of power. He controls the institutions of the state, from law enforcement to internal security to courts and justice. And so no matter if even a massive amount of people are out on the streets protesting — it’s all too easy for an authoritarian to send shock troops out to intimate and brutalize them. Authoritarians aren’t scared of such a thing; by the way, they relish it: it proves how powerful they are.

In this scenario, Americans finally begin to understand what authoritarianism is. 

It is precisely what is referred to euphemistically as “minority rule.” It means that most people — usually by a long way — don’t want any of this to happen, don’t want to live this way, and don’t consent. But their voices no longer matter because they were silent too long. They are brutalized and repressed and silenced and subjugated. Protest carries no meaning, and speaking up is a thing that comes with severe consequences.

Authoritarianism doesn’t mean what many Americans seem to think it does: society’s democratic choice to consent to dictatorship. It means that the majority of people don’t approve, but that no longer matters. It means that the majority want democracy but don’t get to have one any longer.

That’s the grimmest scenario. And yet it has every chance of coming true, too. 

These are abnormal times, and neither statistics nor polls tell us very much. It could be that — just like last time — all those nice, polite soccer moms and suburban dads who said they’d never vote for Trump go right ahead and, in the heat and secrecy of the polling booth…do. It could be that they don’t, but it doesn’t matter because there weren’t enough of them. It could be that they reject Trump en masse. But all those alleged strategies to subvert the election, from legal challenges to arm-twisting electors — count more and pay off bigger.

Anything can happen now. That means: I’d give each of the four scenarios above roughly equal odds. That’s not a good thing. It’s a terrible one because three out of those four scenarios end with American democracy dying, whether slow or fast or suddenly. That means that overall, thinking it through, we arrive at this. There’s roughly a 75% chance that American democracy goes into cardiac arrest, dies on the table, or before it reaches the hospital. Or just a 25% chance that it survives what a lasting and severe heart attack is.

Let me put that another way. Democracy is not a place where anything should be able to happen. It should be a place where we know what we can’t. 

But we don’t. And that is precisely why the authoritarians are winning: they thrive on the chaos uncertainty brings.

This is your last chance. These are the last warnings available to us. You could be living in a failed state like Russia meets Iran, with fascists and “handmaids” as the arbiters of justice and freedom, faster than you know, in the blink of an eye. That is not hyperbole — it is a grim and terrible fact.

After reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I feel that I understand the authoritarian government and how ugly it can and will be.

Trump might be on the ropes, but that doesn’t mean what you think it does. 

The chances for American democracy are not good. That means: it’s up to all of us to change them. So on November 3, 2020, please go and vote.