Donald Trump’s declaration that he might not accept the results of the 2020 election has fundamentally transformed the campaign, making plain what had previously only been suspected. No other president has ever made such a statement.
“I have to see,” said Trump in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News on 19 July, after Wallace asked him if he would accept the election outcome. “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.” Indeed, in 2016, Trump claimed that the election was being “rigged” against him.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said to Wallace. “I will keep you in suspense.”
Unlike last time, Trump is the president and has taken an oath to uphold the constitution. His refusal to accept the election results would be a clear violation of that oath and an impeachable offense. Indeed, simply by announcing he might reject the results by his own fiat, Trump has issued the most blatant desecration of the constitution’s values since the Confederate secession in 1860-61.
No one has proposed a more urgent and persuasive argument for the election of a Democratic-controlled Senate than Trump. America needs a Democratic-controlled Senate as a warning to Trump that if he attempts to overturn an election that goes against him he will face a second impeachment and a full and fair trial. If anything, Trump’s lawless contempt for the constitution is the strongest possible incentive to elect Democrats this fall. Remember what happened last time, in the absence of a Democratic-controlled Senate: Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for coercing the government of Ukraine to fabricate false information to damage Joe Biden, then, in the Senate, the case ran into Trump’s most powerful firewall, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell ensured that no witnesses were heard in the Senate and that Republican members were whipped into line to dismiss the evidence gathered by the House impeachment inquiry.
Trump has sought to subvert the 2020 election through every conceivable effort at voter suppression, including opposing mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, forcing voters to put their lives potentially at risk by waiting in lengthy lines. Even if his tactics to thwart the vote fail, his comments to Wallace indicate that Trump may cause a constitutional crisis to deny the people’s judgment. He may, as he has in the past, incite violence, calling on his armed supporters to threaten state officials to prevent accurate ballot tabulations.
But whatever scenarios, gambits and tricks that Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, have up their sleeves, they should understand that the newly elected 117th Congress, especially if the Democrats have House and Senate majorities, could intervene to expose whatever they might do, beginning on the day the new Congress members are sworn in on 3 January 2021. Without McConnell staging a farce to maintain Trump in power, the House can immediately impeach a defiant Trump’s repudiation of constitutional democracy and the Senate can conduct a trial with witnesses, starting with Barr, in fulfillment of the voters’ verdict. If Senate Republicans, even after their election losses, maintain their phalanx to frustrate a two-thirds majority, their disgraceful identification with the utterly discredited Trump would be complete. And if it comes to this, Trump and the Republicans will have delivered the nation to an authoritarian regime that dispenses with the constitution.
In the meantime, Democrats in state legislatures should propose resolutions calling on the presidential candidates to accept the results of the election. Let every Republican be presented with an opportunity to stand for or against Trump’s disregard for democracy. The practice of passing such statements, even legislatures instructing elected federal office holders to adhere to certain policies, goes back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to protest against the trampling of civil liberties imposed through the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
Trump’s statement that he may not accept the election result has only one precedent, the most glaring example of illegality and treason. According to the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, secession was compelled because of the election of Abraham Lincoln, “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
Lincoln answered the counter-revolution against democracy in a special message to the Congress on 4 July 1861. “It presents to the whole family of man,” he said, “the question of whether a constitutional republic or democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether the discontented individuals – too few in numbers to control the administration, according to organic law, in any case – can always, upon the pretenses made in this case or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up the government and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth.”
It is hardly a surprise that Trump defends Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag. With his scorn for democracy and disdain for the constitution, Trump is preparing for the last battle of his own “Lost Cause”.
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, A Self-Made Man, and Wrestling with His Angel, the first three volumes in his five-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. He is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for the Washington Post, Washington editor and writer for the New Yorker and senior editor of the New Republic
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