The mainstream media and liberal pundits have written an entire library of stories and tweet threads speculating on what happens if Donald Trump loses the 2020 election but doesn’t give up power willingly, or if he declares himself president for life and dares the cowards and boot-lickers in Congress to do something about it.
He’ll either refuse to concede, whip up a popular insurrection, sabotage the electoral college, or simply barricade himself in the Oval Office and order a ring of steel set up to protect him.
And it’s not just the media. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen told Congress that he’s concerned Trump wouldn’t take part in a peaceful transition of power should he lose. And no less than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi revealed that she’s concerned that if Trump doesn’t lose by a big enough margin in 2020, he won’t give up power.
Naturally, Trump himself is the source of much of this fear. Trump spent the last few weeks before the election telling the world that if he lost, he wasn’t sure if he’d accept the result. Then he declared he lost the popular vote due to massive fraud, and set up a sham commission to investigate the non-existent fraud – which itself collapsed after nobody involved could pretend it wasn’t a sham.
Trump has also made a number of comments suggesting that he might refuse to abide by the 22nd Amendment’s limit of two terms, including yammering about “giving a shot” to being president for life. Most recently, he retweeted Jerry Falwell’s cry for Trump’s term to be “extended” two more years, with slavish Trump crony Lou Dobbs taking a step further and hysterically declaring that Trump be “awarded” eight years after his second term.
The peaceful transition of power between an outgoing and incoming president is not always smooth, and not all electoral loses have been sealed with a warm concession and plea for unity. But let’s be clear that what Trump and his sycophants are alluding to here would be blatantly unconstitutional, and spell the end of America’s status as a functioning democracy. It runs contrary to our laws, our traditions, and the very concepts that the country was founded to foster: the election of leaders as representatives of the people, not as royalty without electoral accountability.
And while it’s a scary topic to talk about, it’s also not a particularly productive one. Trump can’t stay in power if he loses, and he can’t have his term “extended.” There are no laws that allow him to do this, and many laws that explicitly prevent it. No concession is necessary, only certification by the electoral college.
Has Trump exploited the safeguards and barriers in our system? Undoubtedly. Has he forged a base of support so deluded that many would be perfectly find with Trump arresting the electoral college and making himself American God Emperor? Sure.
But our government was designed specifically to prevent limitless power and endless terms, and even with everything that’s happened since 2016, most Americans still abide by these limits. In particular, the people Trump would need to back this coup still abide by these limits. Should Trump attempt to invalidate the 2020 election, he’ll find himself isolated and abandoned by Republicans who aren’t quite willing to see America go down for good to prop up one particular person. The people will say no, and the military will say no. A few dead-enders will stay with him until the end, of course. But it will end badly for everyone involved.
The question of whether Trump will leverage outside forces to sway the vote in his favor is a different one from whether or not he’ll accept the outcome of that vote. There’s no doubt that Trump-leaning states will attempt to suppress Democratic turnout, and that there will be online chicanery from various bad actors trying to pollute the narrative. It’s already happening.
But the outcome of the election is going to be the same no matter what Trump will or won’t “accept.” To be sure, Trump can complain all he wants, send endless tweets about voter fraud, and call anything he desires “fake news.” There are also legal avenues he could pursue to keep power, such as trying to sue in federal to invalidate results, or lobby state legislatures to pass laws allowing them to bypass the election and directly appoint electoral college voters. He could even purposefully hinder the transition, refuse to ever concede, call on his supporters to riot, and even no-show the inauguration.
All of these would be terrible for the country and do terrible damage to the foundation of our democracy. But ultimately, without some sort of massive abdication by the courts or a military coup, if he loses, his opponent will be certified by the electoral college. Assuming that happens, the clock will start ticking down the last days of Trump’s time in office. And at noon on January 21st, 2021, that term will expire. His position as National Command Authority will cease, his nuclear codes will go dead, and he’ll have no authority over the military. It’s not necessary for an inauguration to take place, or even for the president to be sworn in to transition power. Richard Nixon’s resignation was accepted at 11:35 AM on Aug. 9th, 1974, with Gerald Ford sworn in at 12:05. Who was president for that half hour? It was Ford – even without an official swearing in. Nixon had no power, and any order he might give would be invalid.
We’ve already seen the limits of the loyalty that Trump commands in the military and courts, even with people he’s elevated to power. A possible Trump attempt to stay in office will fail without the support of these two branches of government – and Trump doesn’t have it to the point where they’ll shred their oaths to the Constitution to support him. It would also open Trump up to potential arrest the moment his term ends.
So why are we talking about any of this? Because Trump has already pushed the limits of what this country is willing to accept, for one. And because he’s an inveterate whiner and sore loser who contested a presidential election that he actually won.
But another reason is that fear is an effective motivator. It’s how Trump won the election, making people afraid of the things that he claimed he would change. Fear of Trump never leaving office is powerful. Even just hinting at it gives one a queasy feeling, like it’s so appalling it’s hard to even talk about. And it has a certain nihilistic appeal – there’s no point in opposing Trump because he’s just going to declare himself a dictator and purge everyone.
But ultimately, we should be directing our resources toward opposing the things Trump is doing – not the things he can’t do. He can do a lot, too much. But even Trump can’t single-handedly rewrite the Constitution.
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