A very funny play called The Man Who Came to Dinner had a two-year run on Broadway in 1939-40, enjoyed international success, and became an acclaimed movie. The plot concerned an overbearing media personality who’s invited to a family dinner, never leaves, and completely disrupts the household. Sound familiar? Even prophetic? But in this year’s run, it isn’t the least bit funny. In the original script, one family suffers. In the new production, the world’s oldest democracy stands on the brink of extinction.
Democracy has never been an easy achievement, and it is never guaranteed. You have to work at it, exercise it, and often fight for it. It’s set up to involve a series of regular contests called elections. The winner, when certified, assumes office for a specified term. The loser, if in office, leaves it. That is a bedrock foundation for any democracy. Sometimes the results are disputed, as in our presidential elections of 1824, 1876, and 2000. In each of those cases, the actual winner of the popular vote was the ultimate loser of the election, a happenstance we owe to the Founding Fathers, who created what now seems a very strange institution, the Electoral College, to ensure that democracy didn’t get carried away with itself. In each of them, however, a winner was eventually declared, and the loser, however reluctantly, accepted the verdict.
None of these cases, however, involved an incumbent who would be obliged to vacate office if defeated. And no incumbent, prior to the present one, has ever announced his intention to remain in office whether elected or defeated. But Donald Trump, the showman who corruptly inveigled his way into the presidency four years ago, has gone has predecessors in tyranny one better. He does not claim that he will win the election a little over a month from now, nor does he concede that he may lose it. He suggests, rather (Trump rarely says anything directly) that no winner or loser can be certified in the prescribed way, because the election will have been rigged.
There is a certain consistency in Trump’s position, but it has only become apparent now. He not only claims that an election he might lose would be rigged, but that the actual election he won four years ago was rigged as well.
Rigged if you win, rigged if you lose? How can that be? Oh, Trump did claim that he’d won the 2016 election, by virtue of his Electoral College majority. But he also claimed to have won the popular vote, which by official tabulation had gone to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million. In fact, he claimed to have won that vote by Clinton’s own margin, the difference being votes improperly cast or suppressed in Blue States with the presumed connivance of Democratic state officials.
When challenged to prove his claim, Trump set up an executive commission, nominated by himself, to find the missing votes of his majority. It sat for several months, found nothing, issued no report, and was quietly disbanded.
That didn’t mean there hadn’t been funny business in the election. Trump knew whereof he spoke. The difference was that the chicanery was on his own side, with Republican secretaries in the battleground states purging the rolls of likely Clinton voters and reducing the number of polling stations in minority districts to give him razor-thin majorities. Then there was the matter of Russian interference, openly solicited by Trump and working entirely to his benefit.
The Russians are back this year, and so are Republican state operatives. In Trump’s world, every election is rigged because all sides cheat as much as they can—just as they do in his business deals. The suckers vote, or think they do. The gamesters decide who wins.
You wouldn’t be hearing a peep about that this year though, but for one inconvenient fact: Trump, his best efforts notwithstanding, is poised to lose. Therefore he must discredit the election in advance, with every resource and stratagem in his power.
If Trump can’t plausibly claim to win at the ballot box, then he must find another way in, and stall the process until he does. He’s already made clear how he intends to do that. In 2000, victory in the state of Florida was delayed by a recount of votes that ran up against a deadline for certification. Although the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the recount must proceed, its jurisdiction was usurped by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in so doing awarded the election to George W. Bush. This year, the large volume of mail ballots that will be cast in deference to the pandemic will offer far more opportunity for legal challenge and delay, making the U.S. Supreme Court—where an even larger partisan majority than in 2000 will be sitting—even more likely to be the final arbiter. And Trump has already called the toss: he says, quite openly, that the Supreme Court, not the electorate, will once again decide the presidency.
Of course, whether the Supreme Court does or doesn’t interfere in the election again is not simply at Trump’s command. The ultimate point of the suggestion is the notion that citizens themselves can no longer be trusted to elect their leaders because the process as such has been corrupted—“rigged”—to such an extent that no true count can result. Trump cannot leave office because he can have no valid successor. And, because of that, he must not only remain for a second term but indefinitely, because future elections will be equally corrupt. Logically, then, he must be President for Life.
This is not merely a suppositional deduction. Trump has repeatedly voiced his admiration for fellow autocrats—Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Erdogan in Turkey—who have consolidated their reigns beyond any power of recall, and mused often about extending his authority indefinitely. He makes such comments ‘wittily,’ but if you joke enough about something it’s fair to conclude that you’re as dead serious as you dare to admit. Trump is on record as saying that the Constitution gives the president the right to do anything he wants, and he thus regards the rule of law, like the payment of taxes, as something inapplicable to him. In short, he is a king in his own mind: and kings don’t leave their thrones.
In actuality, Donald Trump is no one. He ran for president four years ago by means that disqualified him from office. He has violated the oath he should never have been permitted to take in every way thinkable. He is not running for election, because someone who, as Barton Gellman puts it in the current Atlantic, would not now and will not ever concede defeat, cannot possibly claim such a thing as victory.
It would be comical if it were not so tragic, and tragic if it were not so comical. So call it what it is: absurd.