Comment: Whatever election’s outcome, many might not accept it

Experts are correct to be concerned about how the fallout of this election could trigger political violence.

By Daniel W. Drezner / The Washington Post

My colleagues and I have noticed a lot of chatter about how well American citizens will handle the November election results. There is disagreement on which section of the country is the source of the biggest problem, but there is consensus that the problem is real.

Shadi Hamid, who has successfully replaced Mickey Kaus as the liberal that liberals love to hate, argued in The Atlantic that the problem is not President Trump or his supporters: “I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making, and I don’t believe America is a failed state.” Rather, “I find myself truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.”

Hamid finds some superficial support from a new poll by the Campaign Legal Center and Protect Democracy. Yascha Mounk summarizes the findings in his latest Atlantic essay: “Many Biden supporters also said they would doubt the validity of the election if they didn’t like the outcome. Just 1 in 5 Biden supporters said that a win by Trump would be because he received more votes than Biden; nearly 2 in 3 said it would be due to ‘voter suppression and foreign interference.’”

Others have suggested that Trump and his followers are the bigger problem. Rosa Brooks and Nils Gilman ran simulations for the Transition Integrity Project and concluded that in a majority of their scenarios, “November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape.” FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley noted on Monday that, “for months now, President Trump has carefully planted the seed that he might not leave the office of the presidency willingly if he loses. … Experts tell me that the president actually has a lot of power at his discretion to contest the election, and some of the scenarios that could bring us to the edge of a crisis are actually very plausible.”

Exhibit A on the #MAGA side (beyond Trump himself) would be Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of health and human services for public affairs. Apparently unsatisfied with attempting to censor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, Caputo took to social media over the weekend to pour gasoline all over his predicament. After admitting in a Facebook video that his mental health was failing, as the New York Times’ Sharon LaFraniere reported, Caputo declared: “When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin. The drills that you’ve seen are nothing. … If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

Exhibit B would be Charlotte Alter’s story in Time on the rise of conspiratorial thinking in America’s heartland. She asked one Trump supporter what she would do if Joe Biden won in November, and she responded: “I would honestly try to leave the country. And if that wasn’t an option, I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on and it would be over.”

Little wonder that Rachel Kleinfeld argued in this newspaper over the weekend that the United States was in danger of a spiral toward greater political violence:

In the past 16 weeks, more than 50 drivers have plowed into peaceful protesters all around the country. Armed militants shut down Michigan’s legislature. Unidentified law enforcement officers heaved demonstrators into unmarked vans. Security forces in Washington used low-flying helicopters to harass citizens decrying police brutality. Protesters and police alike have brutalized journalists. Ideologues from left and right have been accused of killing political opponents. Should Americans be worried about widespread violence?

Yes. Political violence in democracies often seems spontaneous: an angry mob launching a pogrom, a lone shooter assassinating a president. But in fact, the crisis has usually been building for years, and the risk factors are well known. The United States is now walking the last steps on that path.

Partisans who would never commit violence themselves are transforming from bystanders to apologists, making excuses for the “excesses” of their side while pointing fingers across the aisle.

So yeah, this all seems very disturbing. Experts are correct to be concerned about how the fallout of this election could trigger political violence.

That said, some of these concerns are more overstated than others. My fears of organized Trump-inspired violence on the right remain unchanged from four years ago. My take is simple: It seems unlikely that a country that could not properly organize itself to handle a pandemic could similarly organize itself for extralegal violence.

As for Democrats, as Mounk acknowledges, there is some asymmetry in the concerns. Because Biden is currently viewed as the clear favorite, a loss by him would be a greater shock. If the polls were to narrow, I suspect that the polling result would shift as well. Indeed, the one thing that Trump and Biden supporters have in common is that they are convinced that the polls are underestimating Trump’s support.

The possibility of a drawn-out election week is possible, but as many election observers have noted, Florida is likely to have results on election night. If Trump wins it easily, that’s a bad sign for Biden; if Biden wins it, then Trump is toast. Trump winning the electoral college if Biden wins the popular vote handily is also a low-probability outcome.

My biggest concern is a legitimately close result, one in which either the electoral college is tied, one candidate has a margin of victory of less than five electors, or one state acts as the pivotal swing between the two contenders. A repeat of the 2000 election with Trump as president would be the unmitigated disaster that everyone fears.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

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