After praising dictators, attacking veterans, demeaning women, discrediting our democracy, and surrendering to a raging pandemic, we can only hope that Trump has also undone himself.
We cannot know exactly what Trump will do in these final days, only that whatever it is, he will be thinking only of himself. If he declares victory on election night, regardless of the uncounted ballots, what then? What if he calls the entire election a fraud, a hoax, and demands that the counting stop? Or if armed Trump supporters heed his call to intimidate voters at the polls? What if he takes to Twitter with “LIBERATE AMERICA!” and his MAGA zealots respond?
You may roll your eyes, but such things are not unimaginable, or even unrealistic. Normal people don’t like to imagine terrible events, which is why autocrats consistently surprise them. (As when I wrote here back in April that it would seem logical to someone like Trump to try to sabotage the US Postal Service if he thought it could help his electoral chances. Unimaginable, until it happened.)
“Doesn’t Putin realize how bad this looks?” became the experts’ refrain after he crossed line after uncrossable line. As if he cared how things looked. Why should he? Dictators don’t ask “Why?” They only ask, “Why not?” They don’t stop unless someone stops them. No one stopped Putin.
For years, my colleagues and I in the Russian democracy movement warned that Putin was building a dictatorship. Even when it was crystal-clear that Russian democracy and civil society had been gutted, the free world fiercely resisted acknowledging that truth.
Putin laid bare the huge disconnect between autocrats and normal people — the autocrats’ ability to do things that simply don’t occur to people with a sense of decency and a respect for norms and traditions. Autocrats are aware of the consequences they might face for the damage they do, but they believe they can avoid those consequences by staying in power, forever if necessary. Trump might have been indicted several times over were he not protected by his office, and a sense of impunity tends to make one sloppy.
Trump no doubt believes that he has more to lose by leaving office than by fighting — lawlessly or not — to stay. The oligarchs and thugs he so admires surely agree. They won’t easily let go of such a lucrative investment — one of their own kind in the Oval Office.
But what if he wins? Even the dire scenarios I just outlined are predicated on avoiding the worst outcome of all. Let’s say Trump stays in office, either by a shocking electoral upset or by his hand-picked Supreme Court justices doing what he chose them to do.
Rolling your eyes again? Do you really think Trump cares about limiting abortion rights or Constitutional originalism or anything else he cannot fit into his pockets? Or that Mitch McConnell and the GOP rushed Amy Barrett’s appointment for any reason other than having her seated before the election? She and Brett Kavanaugh were political appointments to achieve political ends, which is always how autocrats view the judiciary.
A Trump victory would legitimize his politics and policies the way his election in 2016 normalized his rhetoric. Then, after four more years of Trumpism, the only question would likely be: Who is the next Trump in line? The autocrat’s heirs could be expected to carry on the assault on the remaining pillars of American democracy. When one side fights for power at all costs against those defending the rule of law, time is not on the side of the law.
Defeating Trump overwhelmingly at the polls is the most important step, but it’s only the first step. Americans who want to see the rule of law restored and strengthened must be ready to fight for it — in the courts and in the streets if necessary, peacefully but persistently –because there is little doubt that Trump and his supporters will not go quietly.
Trump has spent five years dehumanizing his opponents and painting them as America’s mortal enemies while conditioning his followers to see things as he does. They will not leave the field easily, but leave they must, or American democracy will not outlast them.