At the end of the first presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt asked a curious question of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: "One of you will not win this election. Are you willing to accept the outcome as the will of the voters?"
The question was clearly aimed at Trump, and its underlying premise is that Trump may pose a threat to the peaceful transfer of power that is one of the most important features of stable democratic regimes. On that night, Trump vowed to support Clinton if she wins. But before and since that debate, he has raised suspicions about the integrity of America's ballot, perhaps setting himself up for saying that his expected electoral loss was the result of a rigged election. My colleague Damon Linker has called this sort of talk Trump's "greatest offense against democracy," a not-uncommon position among the commentariat.
But let's remember that Trump, despite his edgy nationalist rhetoric, is an undisciplined oaf. He can barely stick to a scripted line, let alone some kind of faux-principled opposition to the legitimacy of the American government. One expects that he will try a triumphant return to reality TV when his presidential hopes are dashed.
The real danger is not if Trump loses and somehow undermines the integrity of America's democratic elections. The truly great danger is if he wins and America's elite undermine the integrity of our democracy by failing to support his presidency.
The entire Beltway apparatus of consultants, lobbyists, journalists, and government workers seems to proceed even now as if Trump's nomination is a troubling and inexplicable fluke of the system, and that his election is still unthinkable. Would America's political class accept a Trump victory? Would the more than two million people employed by the executive branch faithfully execute the orders of a President Trump?
The combination of Trump's erratic personality and the shallowness of his support within the political class presents a frightening crisis of legitimacy. Trump's election would, by itself, be received as a kind of insult to official Washington. Reflecting the shallow level of support he endures within the top ranks of his party, many senior Republicans have expressed their disinterest in serving a President Trump. They would deprive his administration of their expertise, advice, and the sense of legitimacy they would confer by assuming duties underneath his administration.
Without the full support of his party, Trump's attempts to even assemble a full Cabinet and make the thousands of political appointments that are a necessary part of taking possession of the executive branch would be dogged almost immediately by reports of rank amateurism, corruption, and malice. As the reports mounted, fewer and fewer Republicans of substance would find themselves willing to join what already looks like a failing administration.
Besides, Trump's fundamental vanity and gnat-like attention span make him a nightmarish micro-manager. The best one could hope for is perhaps to work on projects that are unlikely to interest Trump. Then again, a random tweet could draw the wrath of Donald's Oval Office down on you. And if media and popular resistance to a Trump presidency grows, officials would fear that consenting to serve might consign them to be villains in their nation's history.
Many commentators have turned to the rise of Hitler to warn us of Trump's potential for malice, or to Silvio Berlusconi to warn us of his frivolousness. But perhaps the best parallel is Mohammed Morsi, who led Egypt for just one year. Then government workers explicitly loyal to the armed forces simply sabotaged Morsi's presidency, largely by failing to deliver on basic services.
What if the American bureaucracy sabotaged Trump?
Much of what thrills Trump's supporters seems to be the way he threatens the cozy relationships and cross-party niceties that characterize D.C. But his election could also reveal these conventions really do constitute a "deep state" in themselves, one resistant to Trumpian reform. It's not hard to imagine a Trump presidency similarly mired by sudden-onset bureaucratic incompetence.
I'm not worried about Donald Trump challenging the democratic legitimacy of our government as a losing presidential candidate. I worry far more about what happens if he wins.