August 6, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

‘Election night’ will end in 2021

Prepare now for months of lawlessness, corruption and violence.

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There’s nothing wrong with treating American politics like a sport as long as everyone involved in the competition is playing the same sport by the same rules. There’s nothing wrong as long as both sides agree the rules are legitimate, both commit to obeying them and both accept the consequences when they break them.

But there is a problem with treating American politics like a sport when one side is playing soccer and the other is playing football while neither can agree to the rules, because one side won’t commit to obeying them. There is something wrong when one side not only refuses to accept the consequences of rule-breaking but sets out to undermine the idea of rules altogether. In that case, treating politics like a sport, as the Washington press corps habitually does, isn’t helpful. It’s harmful. Even dangerous.

Blind institutional faith may get in the way of getting ready.

The biggest problem with the upcoming election, from the point of view of Americans who want to see the incumbent gone, is something that would not normally be a problem. Indeed, it has never been a problem in our lifetimes. It has been a civic good. What I’m talking about is blind institutional faith. Most of us, even the great cynics among us, still believe the system is fundamentally sound. We believe the rules are inviolate. Little appears to be standing in the way of a 2020 Democratic landslide.

Before explaining why blind institutional faith is a problem, let me add that it feels so good to have blind faith in our institutions. All of us want to believe the only thing threatening Joe Biden’s victory is voter apathy, and many of us want to believe that voter apathy is moot after the trauma that was the 2016 election. Blind institutional faith is moreover affirmed, and that good feeling compounded, by a Washington press corps that habitually treats American politics like a sport. If all the major polls show Biden ahead of the president by double digits in critical swing states, then surely this nightmare is about to end. Good will triumph over evil, and everything will be fine.

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Everything won’t be fine, though, and good might not triumph over evil if recent findings by Nils Gilman and Rosa Brooks are any indication. Together with about 70 expects—legal scholars, retired military officers, former US officials, strategists and attorneys—they oversaw a series of “war games” that “peered ahead to the Nov. 3 election, now less than 90 days away, and explored how the race between Trump and Joe Biden could turn into a post-election crisis,” wrote USA Today’s Joey Garrison. In the process, they demonstrated, I think, how blind institutional faith is problematic.

Called the Transition Integrity Project, the group gamed out, in June, a series of plausible and possible scenarios. Its findings are frightening. “In an election taking place amid a pandemic, a recession and rising political polarization, the group found a substantial risk of legal battles, a contested outcome, violent street clashes and even a constitutional impasse,” Garrison wrote. Here are the key points of group’s report:

The election won’t end on Election Day: “We face a period of contestation,” the report said. “The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on ‘election night’ as officials count mail-in ballots.” “An unscrupulous candidate”—meaning Trump—will cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy and “set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome.” Everyone must be “educated to adjust expectations” starting now.

The election will be contested well into January 2021: “We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides.” The president “will very likely use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy, including through the Department of Justice. There’s a chance the president will try convincing red-state officials “to take actions—including illegal actions—to defy the popular vote.” Of particular concern, the report said, is “how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results.”

The transition will be highly disrupted: Instead of handing off power, “Trump would prioritize personal gain and self-protection,” the report said. He “may use pardons to thwart future criminal prosecution, arrange business deals with foreign governments that benefit him financially, attempt to bribe and silence associates, declassify sensitive documents, and attempt to divert federal funds to his own businesses.”

The report offers recommendations. They boil down to getting ready. This is not a normal president. This won’t be a normal transition. We are entering a period of historic uncertainty in which none of us can take anything for granted, not even the rules—laws, norms, institutions—that many of us place our trust in. There’s still time to re-balance expecting the worst with hoping for the best. That’s fortunate, because most of us are still expecting the best to happen while praying the worst won’t.

John Stoehr


  1. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    Thank you for this post…David Rothkopf devoted a podcast to the findings of the Transition Integrity Project. In addition to your excellent summary, it’s worth noting that 1) every scenario ‘gamed out’ by the group resulted in violent street clashes, and 2) the House is doing nothing at all to prepare the country or to counter any anticipated outcomes. I’m at a loss…I think we have a very small opportunity to prevail in November, but Congressional Democratic leadership seems unable to actually lead. Every opportunity to force through election security has been squandered. Senator Blumenthal has taken to Twitter to warn about a new breed of Russian interference that is so dire, it’s a ‘break-the-glass’ moment, but he’s sworn to secrecy. Is he serious? It’s the end of the world, but a promise is a promise. It’s painful to support a party that values adherence to a classification rule over protection of its citizens.

    • Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

      I share your frustration but not your expectation of what the congressional Democrats are supposed to do. They don’t have unlimited political or institutional power, so I don’t believe that demanding they “do something” is as straightforward as it may seem.

      I’m far more concerned with what we do as citizens to maximize our political opportunities by winning elections. Winning more elections with the objective of increasing the state-level and congressional Democrats’ political power is essential. Then Blumenthal and others can reveal what’s necessary.

      • hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

        I truly appreciate your perspective, and I agree that Democrats must focus on every local and state election, every judicial candidate, every prosecutor. That said, Democratic leadership left far too much on the table. The time for leverage to push election security was with the first stimulus bill, but they instead pushed forward with 3 bills, deferring continually to the subsequent bill. Now people are falling off an economic cliff and 90 days out, there are still no provisions to protect the election. Oversight hearings have been ineffective at best, uncoordinated, and grandstanding at worst. The inability to effectively message the gravity of our political, geopolitical, economic, and healthcare situation has opened the door to a plethora of conspiracy theories flooding social media platforms. None of the foregoing required a majority in the Senate, but it did require coordination and a willingness to face the hard truths about our country. Grassroots groups and Never-Trumpers have filled some of the messaging gaps, but turnout is the great unknown. As the pandemic continues to spread, perhaps more people will be forced to deal with the peril of the moment. It’s a terrible way for the electorate to mobilize.

  2. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    It’s very simple – the GOP will stop at nothing to rig this election. Neither will Trump because he knows that he will go to jail and lose everything financially by losing this election.

    The GOP, enablers like Barr, and the trifecta of plutocrats, racist xenophobes, and theocratic goons see themselves as the last bastion for saving “America” aka the white supremacist, autocratic, and dominionist social and political regime of “real” Americans that John Stoehr so eloquently reminds us about. That’s why following established electoral and political rules are a nonstarter for them.

    As the old Roman saying goes “Inter arma enim silent lēgēs” loosely translated as “in times of war, the law falls silent”. They definitely see themselves at war with anyone and everyone who’s outside their anointed tribe. Rules therefore are for idiots, fools, and losers in their minds. They aim to win and so breaking every rule, institution, norm, or law is good and necessary.

    The issue is that we recognize what they’re planning and gird ourselves for the coming battle. As far as I’m concerned, we are in the political equivalent of Stalingrad in 1943. We’ll need to fight constantly in every social, political, and media arena if we expect to prevail. And yes, we should expect them to engage in physical street battles and terrorist activity because that’s what they do anyway.

    We have the moral and political advantage but frequently fail to embrace our power. We need to dedicate our hearts and minds to winning as many races as possible and not be cowed by whatever the media, courts, right-wing propagandists and thugs may do. Whenever Democrats show up, we ALWAYS win. Never forgot that and just do what we already know what needs to be done.

  3. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    Thanks John. Good thinking!

  4. Nic Rosato on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Blind faith in institutions is of an entirely different order than simple faith. Complacency and apathy are the viruses which can cripple and kill a democracy.

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