Stress-Testing Democracy

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Former Vice President Al Gore and former President George W. Bush during the 2000 election cycle.

Trump is heading toward an epic loss

The second quarter gross domestic product in the United States was announced July 30: a disastrous, unheard of 32.9% annualized drop, dwarfing anything on record. It was a catastrophe both for America, and for Donald Trump’s bid for re-election as president: the economy, bizarrely remains his sole strong suit. So he did what he does best: he tweeted bombastic lies, attacking mail-in voting, claiming fraud in all caps, and hysterically suggesting postponement of the election — something only Congress can do, and that’s never happened before. Not during the Civil War. Not during World War II. Not ever.

It was just the latest in a cacophony of threats to disrupt the electoral process — threats that  a bipartisan group of top government, political and academic experts called the Transition Integrity Project warns could lead to violence and potentially a stolen election, and that a coalition of grassroots organizations, Protect the Results, is preparing to defend against.

Emily Phelps, of Indivisible.

“As we saw from Trump’s comments today and last week, he’s actively working to sow doubt about the results,” Emily Phelps, of Indivisible and Ryan Thomas, of Stand Up America (the organizations that founded Protect the Results) told Random Lengths via email. “Democrats and Republican officials quickly spoke out against his lies and refuted his false claims about delaying the election,” they said. “But we’ll continue to do the work needed to ensure our elected leaders continue speaking out against any attempt by Trump to contest the results or declare victory while votes are still being cast.”

Since its founding in June, more than 30 organizations have joined.

“The reason we’re partnering with such a large coalition of organizations — which include progressive groups like MoveOn and conservative groups like Republicans for the Rule of Law — is because we intend to be as prepared as possible for an all-hands on deck moment: from lawmakers to election officials to activists,” Phelps and Thomas explained.

Other partners include Communications Workers of America, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, Supermajority and United We Dream.

Ryan Thomas, of Stand Up America.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned in the Trump era, it’s that we have to be prepared for all possibilities,” said Shane Larson of the Communications Workers of America in a joint press release. “If Trump in his escalating efforts to turn this country’s democracy into a one-man show refuses to leave office, we are ready to mobilize our members and take to the streets to protect the integrity of our elections.”

But Phelps and Thomas point out that the work begins now.

“We’re building a broad coalition of grassroots organizations, good government groups, voting rights advocates, and labor unions to educate the public about Trump’s efforts to undermine the election,” they said. “Each of these groups has organizers and experts with different expertise to help us plan how to best mobilize the public if Trump contests the results or refuses to step down.”

Their focus is primarily, “on being a convener of grassroots organizations, but we’re also engaging with legal experts and scholars from across the country to be able to inform those plans.”

Nor is their coalition alone in raising alarms. The Transition Integrity Project was co-founded by Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law School and Nils Gilman of the Berggruen Institute. They conducted a war-game exercise with 67 former government officials, political professionals and academic students of government, including former heads of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees — the parties’ governing bodies. The exercise involved four different scenarios — ranging from a landslide Joe Biden win to a near 2016 repeat, with Trump winning the electoral college while losing the popular election by 5 million votes.

“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” Brooks told The Boston Globe, which first reported the story. “The law is essentially … it’s almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”

She summarized the dynamics more precisely in a Twitter thread:

1. Here’s how Trump & his team work:

• Announce something outrageous and illegal. Followers act on it. Critics scream & go to court. Court says “stop.”

•  Trump team announces some new variant, also outrageous and illegal. Same happens.

•  Trump Team does the same thing, over & over.

2. Each time, critics challenge his words/acts. Each time, his followers (in & out of gov’t) act on his directives. Each time, court challenges conclude at least some of what he’s doing is unlawful. But each time, he retreats on one outrage and advances on another…

As a cumulative result, Brooks explained:

3. Trump keeps “losing” and having to retreat. But meanwhile, he is winning, because each time, some damage is done: his directives cause real harm that cannot be undone by subsequent rollbacks.

4. That is what he is doing now and will do through the election. Example: legally, can he delay the election? Of course not. Will this stop him and his allies from trying it? Of course not. Will, whatever he does cause just enough confusion to prevent some voting? Yup.

5. Trump formula: repeat x 1,000, on every single issue.

Expect it. Prepare for it.

And she warned:

6. Don’t be lulled into complacency by the people saying, “But he can’t do X, it would be clearly illegal!”

They are right but also miss the point. Trump does not need to prevail in court to achieve his goals — he just needs to keep chipping away, causing chaos & fear.

7. Slowing things down on the margins, changing a few people’s behavior on the margins, causing confusion on the margins, hurting a few people on the margins. Over time, it adds up.

8. Presidential elections are often decided by the slenderest margins in swing states. That’s why we can’t just dismiss Trump’s outrageous statements. Need to build a counter-strategy premised on recognizing how and why Trump’s approach often succeeds, despite illegality, etc.

If the strategy Brooks describes is unprecedented, the foundation it’s built on is not: tried-and-true practices like purging voters from election roles, reducing the number of polling places and challenging ballots to get them thrown out. This is all backed up by a drum-beat of baseless claims about widespread voter fraud — fraud that no Republican administration — not Trump, not George Bush, not any state governor, attorney general, or secretary of state — has ever been able to find any trace of.

In fact, that fruitless search has caused significant damage, including the U.S. attorneys scandal, which resulted in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2007. The refusal to pursue flimsy voter fraud charges was the most common thread in the politicized firings at the core of that scandal.

Significantly, prior to Trump, the main focus was on in-person voting, and demands for strict voter-ID laws. But an exhaustive 2012 investigation that turned up 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 showed that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.”

Just 10 cases were found. Mail-related cases were more common, with 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud — another minute number, compared to the number of ballots cast, since the vast majority were individual cases.

There are rare exceptions, such as a recent case in a Patterson, New Jersey City Council election. But the full story weakens Trump’s assertions, rather than strengthening them.

“We’ve known for a long time that on a small scale absentee ballot fraud is something that can happen,” election law expert Rick Hasen said on MSNBC on Aug. 1. “These tend to be small-scale events and they tend to be found out because there are all kinds of procedures in place to make sure that people are not cheating. This was discovered when someone tried to submit a few hundred ballots through the mail,” he said. “To try to do something like this on a large scale, involving the presidential election, would be practically impossible.”

What’s more, headlines about the Patterson election said that 20% of ballots had been thrown out.

But “Those weren’t ballots that mostly were thrown out because of fraud,” Hasen pointed out. “Those were ballots that were thrown out because people didn’t follow directions.”

Mail-in ballots have complicated procedures to prevent fraud, which end up disqualifying large numbers of legitimate voters who simply make innocent mistakes — yet another form that de facto voter suppression can take.

Such voter-suppression strategies have been crucial to Republicans winning elections in the past and Trump is not only pushing to intensify them but adding new complications as well — such as crippling the U.S. Postal Service at a time when the need for safe mail-in voting has skyrocketed due to COVID-19. He first refused to allow money for a bailout as part of the COVID-19 stimulus package, and then installed a campaign donor, Louis DeJoy, as postmaster general, who is now cutting services, causing service delays that threaten to prevent millions of mail-in votes from being counted.

While the experts Brooks and Gilman convened know a great deal about politics today, a new book by LSU political scientist Nathan Kalmoe sheds light on significant historical parallels and the deeper, darker dangers that exist. With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War provides a detailed examination of American politics at the time of its closest approach to collapse, and in doing so, reveals things that cannot otherwise be known, simply by studying less stressful conditions.

“My work in this area is motivated partly by the worry that modern Americans — including political leaders and scholars — think violent political conflict is in the past and couldn’t happen again in some form today, and they don’t recognize the partisan dynamics of that conflict in the past. I worry we are unprepared for where we may be headed because of that blindspot,” Kalmoe told Random Lengths.

“The biggest risk factor for conflict then and now involves the fusion of social identities including partisanship.” The threat is “greatest when race, religion and other identities align with party,” he explained. On top of that, “Elections concentrate political stakes into a single moment. Those times tend to produce the most conflict and the greatest risk for violence,” he said. “The Civil War began when Southern Democrats refused to accept the election of a Republican as president. The parallel concern for violence today is that one party refuses to accept the election result. Republicans are already baselessly alleging fraud to undermine legitimate election administration.”

But another factor is crucial as well, Kalmoe noted.

“One of the main takeaways in my book — and in public opinion research generally — is that leaders matter, including those elected, those in the community and even those in peer groups,” he said. “People tend to follow those they trust. Leaders have the power to mobilize people in directions that are healthy for democracy and in ways that are hostile to it.”

Thus, it was a good sign when journalists pressed Republican senators after Trump suggested postponing the election, and they almost uniformly rejected it, with only one or two waffling a bit.

“What’s striking about this one, of course, is that it got a lot of bipartisan pushback,” Gilman said on Democracy Now! “But what’s striking is how many of his tweets don’t get bipartisan, or at least Republican, pushback. So, when he says that, you know, mail-in ballots are going to be fraudulent, there’s no pushback against that from the Republicans.”

The real problem will be what happens over time — as Brooks described above. That’s what Protect the Results and others of like mind need to defend against. Indivisible and other groups in the coalition have considerable experience in mobilizing fast and pressuring politicians when they’re dragging their heels. There was virtually no such organizing 20 years ago, in the wake of the stolen 2000 election.

“We cannot predict what Trump might do after the election, but we can prepare the infrastructure to respond to his attempts to undermine the results,” Phelps and Thomas wrote. “Folks should join us at ProtectTheResults.com, and we’ll keep them up-to-date on what’s going on before, during and after the election.”

As dangerous as this threat may be, it shouldn’t distract from normal kinds of political objectives. “We, at Indivisible San Pedro, will be ready to respond should other steps be called upon to end the Trump administration,” said Peter Warren, who’s worked with the group since its founding in early 2017.

In the meantime, “We are focused on running several phone banks a week for Katie Porter in Orange County,” Warren said. “And, we are connecting people to texting, phone banking, writing to voters in the Payback States to oust the GOP senators and vote against Trump in swing states.” (“The Payback States,” Warren explained, “are those where GOP senators who voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment are seeking reelection.”)

“We are writing and calling our members of Congress to vote for the Heroes Act and other relief measures to help Americans, the post office, small businesses, school districts, hospitals, cities and states short of cash, to assist frontline healthcare workers or those ill and beset by COVID-19, as well as to oppose Trump legislation. That is our work now,” he added.

As for the future, “No one who is paying attention expects a good-faith response from Trump or his administration to the election results. What happens after the balloting ends is speculative. We have 2000 as one ugly model. Regardless, our efforts now are focused on winning and ensuring the flaws exposed in the recent primary voting in LA County are fixed.”

The threat Trump poses to our democracy is chillingly real. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s built upon a myriad of earlier threats to and flaws in our democracy — such as the ones Warren points to, and ones Kalmoe exposes in his book.

There is some good news, he explains. The threat of all-out war is significantly less, now. “The geography of partisanship today is reassuring. It is much harder to imagine regional secession movements that would fuel violent conflict,” Kalmoe pointed out. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in most of the South, but there are no such shutouts today.

“Stark urban/rural divides are more of a concern today,” he noted. “But they do not correspond with state administrative capacities, which were key to multiplying the Civil War death toll.

“The most reassuring aspect of both eras is that one party is broadly committed to actively advancing democracy, which has not always been the case.“

The same day Trump tweeted out his attack on the election, former President Barack Obama vividly underscored what Kalmoe was talking about. Eulogizing civil rights legend John Lewis, Obama said that Bull Connor and George Wallace may be gone, but…:

… we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.

In short, Republicans are playing a very old game, with some new wrinkles here and there, just as there have always been. Although Bull Connor and George Wallace were both Southern Democrats, Republicans have owned that game since Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” first rolled out. This year, with a majority of whites now endorsing Black Lives Matter, it may finally be possible to shut that game down — but no one should expect it to be easy.

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