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Will Things Fall Apart Now or in November?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“[T]he Republican fraud drumbeat could lay the groundwork for Mr. Trump and his supporters to reject the election results should he lose.”

– Michael Wines, “Republicans to Pursue a Crackdown on Voting,” The New York Times, May 19, 2020.

Bill Maher has been asking this question for a long time now: “How will we get Trump out of office even if he loses the election?” We now inhabit a country permeated with the feeling that the “we” here is no longer the Constitution’s “We the People” but a fragmented “we” that cannot even unite to accept the results of an election.

Even more disastrous is what is viral in our country, beyond Covid-19: no proof, no evidence, no truth holds but all is reversed. Yeats envisioned the state in “The Second Coming”:”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Our president is engaged in turning government itself on its head, turn all its workings upside down, inside out and finally move it all in the direction of his own egomania.

How much of damage done can be repaired if he is ousted in November? His offenses and abuses thus far are many: delegitimizing governmental authority, from the office of the presidency itself, to the Justice Department, the FBI and the entire intelligence community, the Supreme Court, the Congress and our Constitutional checks and balances, and all the non-political appointees of our bureaucracy in which a continuous governmental stability is maintained.

Recuperation is not easy if you realize that President Trump has impugned the reliability of word and number, of common ways of distinguishing true from false. It will be a difficult matter to regain the public’s trust in facts, evidence, argument, validation, and credentialled authority, even science’s, when President Trump’s own trumping of it all by his own personal understanding is mirrored by so many Americans.

We can expect President Trump to attack like a wounded animal his loss in the 2020 election, a loss that this pandemic has made certain, although nothing else thus far has. His success in turning “We, the People” against any challenge to his sovereign rule points to a victory in turning an election loss into a victory. And although the pandemic virus will hopelessly damage his chances of a second term, mostly because of his inept and insane responses to it, he will rally his forces to defeat his own electoral defeat. It’s what we can expect because his track record shows us it’s what he does. It shows us the frightening truth that the truth of anything has little hold on too many of the “We” of this nation.

I canvassed a few of the “We” of this nation, the comfortably sheltered down in place, the unhappily forced to return to work for wages, the political junkies who think too deeply to twitter, and the self-identified Master-less men and women for a response to what it would take for all of us, or as much of the “WE, the People” in The Constitution, to thwart Trump’s effort to turn a defeat into a victory, a victory seen as unimpeachable.

What are our chances of doing this and what do we face? Can the results of the 2020 Presidential election go in peace, like a departing Donald J. Trump himself, at least for enough of the country to make that peace real?

If Biden wins a close election,Trump will claim fraud and turn it into a circus.  There could be violence.  Trump could refuse to leave office and be supported by the justice department and SCOTUS.

Biden will have to win with Obama 2008 margins to stunt a successful Trump backlash.  There will be a backlash regardless of the margin of victory, but the support of Fox will be key. Even Fox must accept a 100 electoral vote win and 5 to 10 million vote margins. Regardless, the Trump super faithful will protest, and it could get violent. If Trump wins a close election, only provable and obvious fraud will be effective.  Even Fox will have to support fraud.

There is also a measurable probability, though low, that Trump will try to delay the election due to COVID. Let’s not take that off the table.

The shooting a guy on 5th avenue scenario might be the true litmus test for Trump supporters changing their minds about this president, because up until now, I don’t see anything that will… And why will this mindset change after election night 2020? Suddenly the media isn’t corrupt, and the deep state hasn’t re-asserted its influence on American politics? No, the deep state is too powerful an entity in the eyes of a Trump supporter, and under this guise, Trump will always have a reason to contest the results and remain in power.

The Lefts inability to truly check Trump thus far doesn’t instill confidence in this idea that they would/could contest the election results come 2020. Even if there is clear evidence of corruption, we all see how much clear evidence matters… What reigns supreme is Trump’s Twitter, his rallying cries to his supporters. That’s all the “proof” they need. If the Democrats were to question the legitimacy of an American election (as if Trump wouldn’t do the same), it would be the next “Russia witch-hunt” and an offense that might set the stage for a third term run. This is a narrative only the Republicans – the majority – and Trump can own. Without the power of the Presidency, Senate, and/or House – and this deep-state narrative – the Democrats would seem to have, yet again, little recourse/agency, especially compared to the Republicans in power and Trump’s all-mighty Twitter feed.

Free elections followed by a peaceful transition of power is a foundation of our democracy. Even in the past when there was justification to contest election results (Vice President Gore in 2000 and Secretary Clinton in 2016 come to mind), the necessity of a peaceful transition won the day. This is how the Constitution says we must operate and so it is if we are to maintain “a more perfect union.”  Any attempt at subverting this order in 2020 would be illegal, anti-democratic, anti-American, and unconstitutional. An effort of this sort would almost certainly not be founded in grassroots domestic politics but by foreign Bad Actors, from which we must work tirelessly to defend our Union.

President Trump’s capacity to continue leading or acting as a figurehead for his most die-hard followers concerns me more than his trying to circumvent things like a popular vote loss, which already happened once, or even an electoral college loss and actually staying in power officially should he lose, which I feel is doubtful anyway. The ability of his marketing and PR machinations to co-opt the language of civil disobedience into the anti-lockdown protests is a prime example of what could happen. He leaves power officially (I refuse to believe the military wouldn’t force him out if he pulled any shenanigans after losing) but remains as the leader of enough of his followers that they refuse to take orders from others, like we’re seeing with Gov. Whitmer in Michigan. What he and Fox and Breitbart will cook up for them to do remains to be seen, but they’ll do it.

The only outlier here will be if mail-in ballots become they only way to hold a legitimate election. Trump’s already tweeting about this. I think he may dig in his heels and I’m not sure what would have to happen to resolve that — the Supreme Court, even more massive unrest, armed Trump militias holding down local security until he is declared emperor. These things seem more plausible to me in a contested mail-in ballot election, the results of which would inevitably be contested and forever more deemed illegitimate by his supporters.

With Biden as the presumptive nominee and many of us who are unlikely to support Trump still keeping a safe distance from the Democratic party as the stench of shit and rotting corruption still lingers on from their insistence that Hilary be the candidate in 2016, a close election result is all but guaranteed from where I sit today. The closer the results and the more mail-in ballot measures are adopted, the more slippery the slope becomes towards violence and widespread chaos in the wake of the election.

A mail-in ballot election is certain to keep any problem-free Trump loss from happening. The only certainty of such a happy post-election America will be if Trump concedes. “He [Nixon]left. I don’t leave.” Donald J. Trump words.

This president does not care what his actions do to the office of the presidency, or the legitimacy of elections, the rule of law, a 244-year-old democratic government, or the general Welfare of the country. And his destructiveness is appealing to a certain percentage of the population, whose numbers will either be overwhelmed by the 2020 election or prove to be so much greater than we now imagine. What’s clearer is the impossibility of silencing these supporters.

It is difficult to imagine, that Trump, the large corporate magnate, would make much of a fuss if the election outcome is patently obvious, even if it goes against him.

I doubt there will be anything extraordinary coming from either candidate’s camp re the legitimacy of the election provided no close vote state had introduced new absentee voting policies.

What is a serious upset?  These idiots protesting at the capital?  Sure. Mass shootings and racial and immigrant hateful acts? Yup. Nothing new there though.

In the end they are upset because they feel they are powerless because they largely are.  Even their greatest firepower is no match for real military might.  At the end of the day, they have nothing more, win or lose.  They rely on the social structure and safety net a greater rates than those with money and while blowing up the system seems like a great idea, in the end they still want the police or ambulances to come, they want to drive on pot hole free roads and send their kids to school. Trump is a carnival barker. 38% will never admit he is wrong because they would have to admit they fell for the act, but that is different than really taking up arms against the government.

In Trump’s world everything is contested. Trump and his supporters will not accept defeat – I don’t think that’s to be questioned – but how far will they go?

At what point does this cold civil war become hot?

The man is a coward. Will he pull back, as he did at the prospect of war with Iran?

Which trait is quantitatively larger: Trump’s refusal to lose or his fear of real confrontation?

Best case: Trump loses by a landslide to Biden, leaves office begrudgingly, and creates a media empire to rival Fox News; maybe a few Trump supporters kill some Democratic senators.

The post-pandemic depression may create conditions like those that gave rise to the political violence of the 1930s.

Hungary’s Trump, Viktor Orban, used the pandemic as an excuse to pass a law suspending elections and enabling him to rule indefinitely by decree.

In the recent Wisconsin debacle, and as far back as Bush v. Gore, the American right has shown its willingness to take this road.

I have a dark view on such matters. I do not think Trump will relinquish his hold on power even if he loses the popular vote (again) and also loses the electoral college. It would be an outright disaster for him if voting become virtual and easier to access. I expect him to push hard against that (note his refreshing admission that if people voted by mail en masse a Republican wouldn’t ever be elected again) and aggressively move to solidify and expand the GOP gerrymandering effort. Regardless, if widespread voter fraud and disenfranchisement prove ineffective, he will “contest” a losing result by accusing the Democrats of fraud, referring vaguely to the architecture of some left conspiracy and ask the Supreme Court to invalidate the election outcome and award him the presidency. This doesn’t have to be a total indictment of the election, maybe only a key swing state or even a pivotal district inside a swing state. While this plays out, the rest of the GOP and state media will close ranks behind Trump, and he will do everything in his power to foment the rage and resentments of his base (LIBERATE MICHIGAN! but far more severe, inflammatory). All that happens if the election actually occurs; I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a state of emergency invoked such that the election is deferred, perhaps indefinitely.

How dire will the consequences be? Depends on push-back from the Left. My feeling is that the upper-echelons of Democratic leadership are comfortable with Trump winning this one (Biden is a straight up dog, nothing candidate if ever there was one), so long as they retain a hold on the House and possibly take the Senate, so they can neutralize Trump while also ensuring he remains the public face of present and future shit storms. I think they’ll roll over and play dead once the Supreme Court gifts another election to a losing Republican. If, however, they rally and opposition to the sham election mounts on the grassroots level and both sides feel as if the election was rigged and/or subsequently stolen, the stage will be set for a civil war. Nothing like the organized nineteenth-century conflict, of course, more proxy skirmishes with militias, riots, vigilantes, gangs, assassinations, etc. We are much closer to that right now than anyone really wants to admit.

The best thing for the nation, if I’m right in the above crystal-ball prediction, is that Trump wins convincingly. If he doesn’t, we’re going to end up tearing ourselves apart. And even if he does, an economic meltdown coupled with mass political turbulence, a public health crisis, and a torn social fabric, still might have us arriving at the same outcome on an opposite trajectory.

If Pence said, “We lost and Trump needs to go for the sake of our country”, rednecks would buy it.  More than your other sources, Joe, I know rednecks.  I grew up with them.  I think he’s the only guy Trump supporters trust other than Trump, although even that is a stretch.  Rednecks only pretend they want to take it that far; the reality is a lot tamer, in my opinion.  There ARE Timothy McVeighs, but not huge numbers of them.

Honestly though, and this is a bitch move on my part, I am trying to avoid Civil War fantasies, in part for my own sanity but also in part to avoid imagining something into being.

I see people (close friends) getting antic – crazy – with dark scenarios (they’re gonna shut down the highways, food supplies will dwindle, anarchy…. etc.).  And while they may be right and bad shit may go down, I don’t think that’s how we mentally survive this.

The way to survive prison ISN’T – 1) obsess about what it’ll be like when you’re out, or 2) imagine the worst possible scenarios and how they will play out.  You gotta stay sane at all costs.  As someone I know who spent months in solitary said, “make sure you don’t go nutter”, and having myself been subjected to YEARS of restrictive (and deserved) punishment by the American judicial system, I have some expertise – –

I see less and less optimism and gratitude and love and more fear and paranoia than ever.

What’s the fantasy about Biden somehow winning, and what is the path from here to there?  That’s totally unclear to me.

Optimism is the key to getting us out of this mess – – I say this to my friends who are clearly getting ‘nutter’ and they tell me I’m crazy…

If Trump does win, and some of the chicanery to suppress voting is a case Democrats can make, will Democrats contest the election results, and thus question the legitimacy of the election itself, and will or can they do it to the same extent and with the same success Republicans will if Trump loses?

Thucydides wrote in History of the Peloponnesian War,

“Thus, revolutions gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas, and the simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of distrustful antagonism widely prevailed, for no words were strong enough and no oaths sufficiently terrible to reconcile opponents; all who obtained the upper hand reasoned that security was not to be hoped for, and were readier to think out precautions against injury than to show a capacity of trusting others. Men of inferior intellect generally succeeded best. Afraid of their own deficiencies and of the shrewdness of their adversaries, fearful that they would get the worst of argument and that the subtle policy of their enemies would find some means of striking at them first, they proceeded boldly to action, whereas the others arrogantly assumed that they would detect their opponents’ plans and had no need to take by force what they could get by policy, and were more apt to be taken by surprise and destroyed.”

My thanks to Billy Gardner, Steve Kwasnik, K. G. Wilcox, Zachariah Buck, Tony Bernardo, Rory Finneran, Fuzzy Jones, John Duffy, Andrew Mark Sivak, P.T. Curtin.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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