Take Trump Seriously and Literally

The clock may be running out on American Democracy

Photo courtesy of Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

There’s a common question that asks whether people should take President Donald Trump seriously or literally.

The original phrase is credited to Conservative writer Salena Zito, who used it in a September 2016 Atlantic piece to describe various questionable claims made by Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

In her piece, Zito lamented, “It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Trump’s spurious claims have grown more commonplace and increasingly troubling since he was a candidate in 2016. Meanwhile, Republican officials and Trump supporters have shown an uncanny ability to brush off his most outlandish claims as “inartful” or “just Trump being Trump.”

As Trump has ramped up his norms-busting language and behavior, and Conservative ideology has been superceded by Trump’s own self interest, many observe that Republican lawmakers and Trump supporters are seemingly inoculated to the outrage they might feel in a different era.

Meanwhile, those on the left vacillate between shock, alarm, resignation, and exhaustion.

Republicans’ acquiescence—and Democrats’ minority position—have allowed Trump to continually erode the federal government’s systems of laws, norms, and oversight to levels that would have been unthinkable in past administrations.

Now, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Trump has the political world abuzz with his repeated refusals to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election.

“We’re going to have to see what happens, you know, but I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots,” Trump said in a press briefing last week. “The ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation,” he added. “The ballots are out of control.”

Numerous studies have shown how rare election fraud really is. A report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice revealed the rate of voter fraud in three elections studied was calculated at between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition in an interview with NBC News on Friday, saying, “This is a typical Trump distraction, he’s trying to make everybody wonder whether or not the election will be legit.”

Many in the media are apoplectic at Trump’s remarks, claiming they indicate Trump’s true desire to drag the nation down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism.

Several senior Republicans were quick to dismiss critics’ concerns. Trump allies Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio all indicated that the election aftermath would be “orderly” and “peaceful”.

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Friday called the idea of Trump remaining in power should Biden prevail in the election “preposterous.”

But are Trump’s claims really a distraction? How preposterous is the idea of Trump refusing to accept the results of the election? Should we take him seriously or literally? And would Republicans really try to stop Trump from clinging to power should he lose?

Trump’s impeachment trial in January provides an insightful lesson on how Republicans might respond.

A parade of testimony in the House’s impeachment of Trump brought to light compelling evidence that he had solicited foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election to help his re-election bid, and then obstructed the House’s inquiry by ordering officials within his administration to ignore subpoenas for testimony and documents.

In the Senate’s impeachment trial, every Republican Senator except Mitt Romney voted to ignore the bounty of evidence and acquit Trump of the charges, refusing to hear testimony from first-hand witnesses and neglecting to even censor him.

Maine Senator Susan Collins summed up the event in what may have been the most naive or complicit statement in American political history.

“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Collins told CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”

In fact, Trump’s acquittal appeared to free him form any guardrails that may have constrained his behavior. Since his impeachment “victory,” Trump has weaponized the presidency, regularly flaunting his disregard for accountability, ignoring the government’s systems of checks and balances, assuming Congress’s power of the purse, punishing his enemies, and rewarding those loyal to him.

By acquitting him, Republicans have knowingly or unknowingly helped make Trump one of history’s most powerful presidents. Whatever constraints Trump may have felt during his first four years in office, his acquittal has removed them. Given a second term unchecked by an accommodating Senate, he will likely push boundaries beyond anyone’s comfort level.

Trump’s ascension raises profound questions about the strength of the government’s system of checks and balances and puts American democracy under more strain that it has faced since the Nixon era.

And Trump has rightfully concluded that a president who is willing to ignore those who seek to hold him accountable or shrug off demands that he conduct himself with some acceptable level of moral or ethical behavior has near-limitless power and might in fact be unstoppable.

There are now countless signs that Trump is actively trying to use his newfound power to disrupt the election, especially if he appears to be losing. And there is disturbing evidence that he is getting behind-the-scenes help from Republican officials, lawyers, and strategists, both within the administration and outside of it.

Aside from the usual Republican voter suppression tactics, including efforts to purge voter rolls, reduce the number of polling places and hours of operation, tighten rules on provisional votes, and maintain restrictive voter-­identification requirements, many Republicans are now joining Trump in openly attacking states’ vote-by-mail systems.

Republican operatives and the Trump campaign itself have filed countless lawsuits to combat what they believe will be a process that advantages Democrats. This comes at a time when voting in person poses legitimate health risks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A look at the partisan divide regarding voter preferences reveals the motive behind the attacks.

An Axios survey released last week found that 74 percent of those who said they “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s performance as president plan to vote by mail this year.

Meanwhile, 77 percent of those who “strongly” approve of Trump’s job performance said they’d vote in person, and another 54 percent of those who “somewhat” approve said they would vote in person.

But Republican efforts to disrupt the election go farther. The Trump campaign and Republican strategists are now targeting the Electoral College.

According to a recent report in the Atlantic, Republicans have held discussions with GOP-controlled state legislatures, who are empowered to appoint Electors should they choose. Their end game would be to ignore the will of the popular vote by appointing their own pro-Trump electors.

“We are accustomed to choosing electors by popular vote, but nothing in the Constitution says it has to be that way,” Barton Gellman wrote in the Atlantic last week. “Article II provides that each state shall appoint electors ‘in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.’ Since the late 19th century, every state has ceded the decision to its voters. Even so, the Supreme Court affirmed in Bush v. Gore that a state “can take back the power to appoint electors. How and when a state might do so has not been tested for well over a century.”

Gellman asserts that Trump and his campaign team are preparing to test this. He says that sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, and the Trump campaign itself, are discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.

“To a modern democratic sensibility, discarding the popular vote for partisan gain looks uncomfortably like a coup, whatever license may be found for it in law,” says Gellman.

Attorney General William Barr, who in normal times would be an independent check on Trump, is acting more like Trump’s campaign advisor and personal attorney. Barr’s critics say the country’s top law enforcement official has laid the groundwork for a challenge to the election result, and that he appears to be on a mission to ensure Trump’s reelection.

“His abuses have only escalated as we have gotten closer and closer to the election, and as the president has felt more and more politically vulnerable,” said Donald K. Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has called for Barr’s impeachment.

“I can’t put it more plainly than this: the attorney general is a threat to American citizens having free and fair access to the vote, and is a threat to American having their votes counted.”

Barr recently caused alarm during a speech at Hillsdale College by claiming virtual absolute power within his agency.

“What exactly am I interfering with?” Barr asked. “Under the law, all prosecutorial power is invested in the attorney general.”

Barr has publicly echoed Trump’s baseless claims about the potential for fraud in the upcoming election, particularly with regard to mail-in ballots.

The lack of evidential support has done nothing to curtail President Trump’s efforts to sow doubt about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. He maintained Friday night a rally in Newport News, Va. that he supports a smooth transition of power after the November election but intimated that he may not quickly accept the results of the election.

“I want a smooth, beautiful transition,” Trump said. “But they don’t add the other part. But it’s got to be an honest vote.”

“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he added. We’re not gonna lose this except if they cheat. That’s the only way we’re gonna lose is if there’s mischief … and it’ll have to be on a big scale.”

Since Republicans are much more likely to vote in person this year, it’s quite possible that Trump will lead in the election returns as November 3 comes to a close. But in the ensuing days, as tens of millions of mail-in ballots are tabulated, Biden will likely gain on Trump and may very well take the lead.

This is when Trump and Republicans are expected to harvest the bounty of their fraud claims, the seeds of which were planted in the months leading up to the election.

“I could be leading, and then they’ll just keep getting ballots and ballots and ballots and ballots,” Trump told the crowd in Virginia Friday night. “They’re talking about five, six, seven states that have this problem. So if we’re waiting for one state, does that mean the whole nation, the whole world is going to wait for one state?”

According to election rules, votes from all states must be counted, a process that is monitored by representatives of both parties to ensure fairness and accuracy. That process is likely to take days or even weeks longer this election cycle due to the expected deluge of mail-in votes, and the fact that tabulating mail-in ballots requires more time.

“President Trump and his allies have now made it clear how they intend to hold on to power if Trump loses the election, as seems likely,” said Robert Kagan in a Washington Post piece on Friday. “Republicans will challenge the vote tabulation in several key states, charging fraud, miscounts, foreign influence and every other conceivable form of electoral malfeasance. The charges will be designed to create a contested election, taking the choice out of voters’ hands.”

At that point, Trump’s baseless claims of fraud could mire the outcome of the election in chaos and tie it up in the courts all the way into January, ultimately pushing the decision to the Supreme Court, where Trump could by then enjoy a 6–3 Conservative majority.

Trump’s rush to see Conservative judge Amy Coney Barret confirmed as a replacement for recently deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to bolster the case, and his own words lend credence to the argument.

The “scam that the Democrats are pulling,” Trump said Wednesday, “will be before the United States Supreme Court. I think having a 4–4 situation is not a good situation.” Why? Because if the decision is “more political than it should be, I think it’s very important to have a ninth judge.”

Former Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who represented Florida’s 26th Congressional District from 2015 until 2019, suggested that those who do not take Trump’s threats seriously are making a mistake.

“I always take people who are in power seriously,” Curbelo said. “He certainly has the power to create a very chaotic situation in regards to the election results, and everyone should take him seriously.”

President Trump’s son Eric told a crowd of his father’s supporters on Friday that President Trump would concede the election “if he got blown out of the water” by Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“I think my father’s just saying listen, if he got blown out of the water, of course, he’d concede,” Eric Trump said. “If he thought there was massive fraud, then he’d go and try and address that.”

Blowing Trump out of the water may be America’s best hope — but it is no sure thing either way. Voters would be wise to take Trump both seriously and literally, and be prepared for a period of protest and activism in the days and weeks following the election.

Tom is a cheesemaker, writer, and drummer. He writes about business, music, politics, and life. Tom and his wife Kristi also blog at InsideCheese.com.

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