If Trump wins
It's not the second term that worries me most. It's the collapse of democratic legitimacy.
I'm pretty confident that Democratic challenger Joe Biden will defeat President Trump next Tuesday. Trump barely managed to win four years ago, and this time multiple factors point toward a much stronger showing for the Democratic ticket.
But like so many who lived through the 2016 election, I now expect the unexpected. For Republicans, this manifests itself as unwavering faith that their side will prevail no matter what the polls predict. For Democrats, it produces the opposite — a PTSD-inspired fatalism that an incredibly stable race showing Biden ahead by 6-10 points for months on end will still conclude with a shocking come-from-behind victory for their ideological bête noire.
That outcome isn't likely. But it could happen: Trump could win, despite all the signs pointing in the other direction. The race could tighten by a couple of points over the weekend. The polls could be off by another 2-3 points, due to a systematic error in turnout assumptions, putting Biden in reality just 4-5 points ahead of Trump instead of 9. And then Trump could manage to barely prevail in just the right number of states to come out on top once again in the Electoral College while losing the national popular vote by several million ballots (due to even more lopsided results in deep blue states than we saw in 2016).
I'm entirely convinced that Trump winning a second term would be bad for the country. He's been an atrocious president — incompetent, impulsive, cruel, flamboyantly mendacious and corrupt. His debasement of our public life has been so massive that the damage may be incalculable. And all of this was true before COVID-19 proved what Trump critics had long presumed to be the case — that he is singularly unsuited to lead the country through a genuine crisis. With the pandemic and resulting economic shock still unfolding and other crises (from climate change to various potential foreign policy flash points) looming, the prospect of giving Trump four more years at the helm seems downright dangerous.
But that, in itself, is not the scenario that really gives me nightmares. As bad as four more years of Trump would be, it most likely wouldn't pose an existential threat to the country. We have already survived four years of the Trump administration, after all. Another term would be awful, but we'd make it through. More damage would be done, but come 2024 we'd finally be rid of him, with the possibility of something better on the horizon.
What really worries me isn't Trump himself. It's the interaction of another Trump victory with the potential reaction of the left.
It would be one thing if Trump were poised to win close to an outright majority, like Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party in Hungary — or a solid plurality, like Boris Johnson's Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. In that case, Democrats would have to accept that their views were outnumbered in the country at large. They'd have to learn to adjust to having lost the battle for democratic public opinion.
But the chance of Trump winning the popular vote outright is vanishingly small. If Trump prevails, he'll do it the same way he did four years ago, in the Electoral College, with a popular-vote loss quite possibly larger than last time. And this will mean not that Democrats have lost public opinion. It will mean that they won public opinion but that America's electoral institutions are failing to register and respond to it.
That is a recipe for a precipitous collapse in the perceived legitimacy of those institutions. If we hadn't just lived through several months of urban unrest, with widespread protests frequently crossing over into rioting and looting, and rates of violent crime surging in cities across the country, I might be convinced that the result would be little more than intensified online flame wars while the overwhelming majority of Americans tune out and ignore the political circus. It would be the kind of virtual civil war Ross Douthat describes in the most cogent chapter of his recent book on our decadent society — a scenario in which committed partisans indulge in vicarious digital violence while the rest of the country withdraws further into indolence and apathy, leaving the real world perfectly peaceful.
But the past five months have showed us a different and much darker path — one where another Trump upset is followed by public demonstrations much larger, angrier, and more violent than the ones that briefly flourished in the early days of 2017. Imagine the George Floyd protests from late May and early June at their most volatile but amplified and augmented by the scalding realization that at this moment the country's electoral system is deaf to plurality or majority public opinion.
Stores would be smashed and looted, cities would burn. We'd see deadly clashes between armed protesters and police, each round provoking the next, with pumped-up and emboldened heavily-armed militia members heading straight into the worst of it, spoiling for a fight. Think of the conflagration in Kenosha, Wisconsin, from last August multiplied across dozens of municipalities around the country, while Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and many other large cities dissolve into anarchy, reproducing Portland's and Seattle's nightly melees, but on a much vaster scale.
Trump, meanwhile, would be egging it all on, first from his Twitter account — "I told you the left was dangerous! They want to destroy the country!" — and then by sending in the national guard and other paramilitary groups to try and impose "law and order" with bullets and batons. A president whose greatest political talent is "triggering the libs" will have finally provoked a genuine conflagration.
Also feeding the fires would be Republicans at large, dancing a jig in the end zone and endlessly repeating pieties about the Electoral College: "It's the Constitution! It's the rules!" And so it is. Though it's also the case that there is no chance at all that Republicans would passively accept it if Democrats repeatedly won the presidency while losing the popular vote by millions. Especially if the Democrat governed in a way that ensured his or her disapproval rating remained solidly perched above 50 percent for years on end.
That's because democratic self-government — whether or not it's called a "republic" or a "democracy" — rests on the consent of the governed, and consent itself is granted only when the people perceive the system and its rules to be fair and legitimate. When that perception crumbles — when a plurality or majority of the people see their views systematically thwarted — they withdraw their consent. Once that happens, their efforts to gain power move outside the system and its rules — and into the street.
This doesn't mean that I would participate in such extra-legal acts myself. But it does mean that I would understand why many people would conclude that undertaking them was necessary — and understand that we had turned a corner into a new and very dangerous chapter of our history.
Which is one very big reason I hope to see a Biden victory on Nov. 3.
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