August 21, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
We need a worst-case scenario plan
Do you trust Donald Trump to accept defeat? I didn’t think so.
Joe Biden’s best mode is righteous indignation. That was true as a US senator, as a vice president and now as the Democratic nominee for president. “I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst,” he said in last night’s acceptance speech. “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
Darkness and light are indeed the choices ahead of us. Donald Trump is bringing the country to the brink of ruin with his treacherous response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over 177,000 Americans, infected 5.7 million others, and unemployed scores of millions. If he wins, expect more devastation—more corruption, joblessness, sickness and death. I haven’t even mentioned the bright attrition of our liberties. As one former administration official put it, if Trump wins, expect “shock and awe.”
The problem with darkness versus light is that Americans are preconditioned by Hollywood and rose-tinted interpretations of US history to believe that the light will win in the end.
The problem with this binary—the opposition of darkness and light—is that most Americans are preconditioned by Hollywood and rose-tinted interpretations of US history to believe that light will win in the end. Indeed, the Democratic National Convention, in order to gin up enthusiasm for the nominee and dispel voter apathy and cynicism, especially among youth, inadvertently reinforced that conditioning.
While citizens must believe in their abilities to defeat tyranny, they must not maintain the fairy-tale illusion that everything’s going to work out fine in the end. We can’t allow ourselves to trust that the system is fair and that all we need to do is ensure that enough people get out and vote. We need to imagine the worst-case scenario, and come up with a practical plan. We need to get out in front of the president, accuse him now of trying to steal the election. This is not panic or paranoia in the slightest. If you must, think of it this way: do you trust Trump to accept defeat? I didn’t think so.
Before Joe Biden gave the best speech of his life Thursday night, the president phoned into Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. He said he was going to send “sheriffs” and “law enforcement” out to the polls to make sure only Americans vote. Millions and millions of mail-in ballots are going out to people, he said in effect, and no one’s ever heard of such a thing! The implication here is there’s a massive underhanded conspiracy afoot. He was laying the rhetorical groundwork for calling Joe Biden’s victory fraudulent.
The best ending to this story is Donald Trump refusing to accept defeat, but walking away nonetheless, nursing his wounds by telling himself lies. The worst ending is Trump manufacturing a national emergency for which he must invoke national emergency powers. “China attacked our elections!” Trump could say, triggering the US Justice Department to investigate “voter fraud.” While an investigation is pending, the election would be thrown to either the Supreme Court or the House, where factors could culminate in Biden’s defeat. Timothy Wirth and Tom Rogers gamed out one scenario. Rosa Brooks’ group gamed out others. Each scenario except a landslide win for Biden resulted in street violence, which could reinforce Trump’s emergency powers.
About those emergency powers. They are potentially limitless. Elizabeth Goitein is the co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s national security program. She told CBS News recently that “presidential emergency action documents” (PEADs) were developed during the Cold War in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. They are secret, Goitein said. Not even the Congress knows what they are. “From public sources, we know that at least in the past these documents have purported to do things that are not permitted by the Constitution—things like martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus and the roundup and detention of people not suspected of any crime.” It’s not hard to imagine Trump’s secret police force deployed as it was in Portland recently.
PEADs were secret because past presidents didn’t want to frighten people. Trump, however, has talked publicly of possessing “secret powers” that are “total.” “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” he said in March. A month later, he said: “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be—it’s total.” Wirth and Rogers said US Attorney General Bill Barr is believed to be developing a legal opinion arguing that “the president can exercise emergency powers in certain national security situations, while stating that the courts, being extremely reluctant to intervene in the sphere of a national security emergency, would allow the president to proceed unchecked.”
If you trust your assessment of Trump’s trustworthiness, you know the worst-case scenario is not beyond imagining. It might not be likely, but it’s plausible, and as such, we need a plan. Just in case. Congressional Democrats need one. The Biden campaign needs one. Defenders of democracy need one. More importantly, however, we need to talk about the worst-case scenario, openly and honestly, without paranoia but without expecting an ideal outcome. Do you trust Trump to accept defeat? Then get ready.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.