What Will Trump Do If Loses His 2020 Re-Election Bid?

After Trump's authoritarian response to the George Floyd protests, the question of how he will react to losing re-election is increasingly important.
President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

President Donald Trump divides people he encounters into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. In his mind, he is, of course, the quintessential ‘winner’ in business, politics, and romance. ‘Losers’ are all those who oppose or even repeatedly criticize him. In addition to this somewhat less than charming outlook, Trump typically alleges those ‘losers’ who defy his will are engaged in conspiracies aimed at thwarting his goals and undermining his status as a ‘winner’. Because of this perspective, the idea of Trump’s losing an election becomes by definition inconceivable – as he defines the world.

We should also consider the current status of the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership. With the exception of the House of Representatives, the GOP controls almost all the levers of power in Washington. The nominally independent federal judiciary, the Supreme Court especially, has been undergoing a transformation. Thanks to the Republican-controlled Senate’s ability to confirm presidential nominees to the federal bench, judges appointed during earlier administrations are being replaced by Trump’s ideologically driven choices, even appointees labeled ‘not qualified’ by the American Bar Association. The Justice Department under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr has become in effect an instrument of Trump’s span of control.

At one point in his administration, Trump was confronted by dissenting opinions from leaders of the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies: the FBI, CIA, and the Director of National Intelligence. When these leaders told him things he didn’t want to hear, he attacked their motives and credibility and slowly replaced them with GOP loyalists whatever their qualifications. The same applies to various regulatory bodies.

Despite these accomplishments, GOP itself may be confronting a long-term decline in voter support. It’s easy to overstate the problem, but Republican voters tend to be older and whiter than the general population. So, from a demographic perspective, the Party will have its challenges in retaining its hold on power in Washington, assuming the normal continuation of fair and competitive elections. Leaders of the GOP who have counseled a sustained effort to broaden its electoral base by attracting the support of younger and more ethnically diverse voters are commonly dismissed as ‘RINOS’ (Republicans in Name Only) and marginalized.

This brings us to the coming presidential election. It is true Trump has the advantages of incumbency in seeking a second term. By all accounts, his fund-raising has been spectacularly successful. No worries there. And as in the 2016 campaign, covert intervention in support of Trump’s re-election by the Russian security services should be expected. Of course, Trump confronts exceptionally serious problems. The two most obvious are the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent economic crash, with unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and civil unrest not seen since 1968. Against this background, what should we expect to happen in the 2020 presidential race?
The best way of organizing this discussion is by dividing it into two parts: 1) the campaign and 2) its troubling aftermath.

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What will Trump do?

Let’s assume, not unreasonably, that Trump and the GOP organization he commands stage a campaign approximately the same as their 2016 effort. This will involve the adroit use of the social media, lavish spending on mass media ‘buys’, sustained allegations that Biden and the Democrats are engaged in a conspiracy with the Chinese, the Obama administration and other yet to be named foreign elements to undermine American sovereignty. These assertions will be reinforced by Fox News commentators, Sinclair Broadcasting outlets, Alex Jones’ InfoWars, Rush Limbaugh, and other “conservative” bloggers and talk radio figures active throughout the country.

The possible result of all these efforts will be Trump’s re-election, even if, as in 2016, he fails to win a majority of the popular vote. But what if he loses or appears to lose? This will hardly be the end of the story. It will only be part of a prolonged struggle. The case of Nicolas Maduro may be instructive.

In Venezuela, the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, was re-elected to a second term in 2018 despite Venezuela’s calamitous economic and social situation. How did he manage this feat? Some background: Maduro succeeded to the presidency in 2013 following the death of his predecessor, the wildly popular but gloriously incompetent Hugo Chavez. Venezuela’s decline accelerated under Maduro. What was one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries became impoverished: economic development in reverse. Despite efforts by the National Assembly to recall him and massive street protests urging his resignation Maduro was able to retain his post. How did he and his collaborators manage it?

The brief answer involves a mix of institutional manipulation and physical intimidation. Contemptuous of constitutional norms and government institutions, Maduro’s (Chavez’s) appointees serving on Venezuela’s National Election Commission and Supreme Tribunal overrode the Assembly’s demands and permitted Maduro to rule by decree from 2015 onward. When the National Assembly still resisted, Maduro held a referendum which resulted in the formation of a constituent assembly to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution to enhance Maduro’s power.

Thanks to substantial and continuing emoluments, the country’s military leadership continued to support Maduro through all the turmoil. In addition, “mega” gangs from the slums of Caracas and other cities, subsidized by the government, have acted to prevent dissent from getting out of hand. The same applies to the police which has arrested and imprisoned political dissidents in substantial numbers.

When Maduro’s regime is unavoidably confronted by its monumental failures, e.g. food shortages, the collapse of Venezuela’s health care system, its spokespeople almost always blame a foreign power, the United States, of seeking to subvert the government’s efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.

Many of Maduro’s practices will seem familiar. They have some relevance for the upcoming presidential balloting in the United States.

In their book, How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest several ways in which democracies slowly undergo a transition to authoritarian rule: capturing the referees, changing the rules of the game in an authoritarian direction, bullying the opposition, regarding political opponents as ‘enemies’, and by removing the ‘guard rails’ or established norms of democratic political life.

No doubt Venezuela under Maduro has satisfied these rules of authoritarian conduct. But what about the United States under Trump and the GOP?

First, as we sought to make clear at the beginning of this commentary, Trump and the Republicans have both psychological and practical political incentives for retaining power in 2020. They have already gone a long way in “capturing the referees” in installing GOP judges throughout the federal court system and nominally independent justice department. The Republican majority on the Supreme Court has already changed the rules of the game to facilitate the Party’s retention of power.

Most notably the Court decided in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission (2009) to treat business corporations as individuals protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provision, and so permitted them to make contributions to candidates campaigning for public office. And in the Shelby County vs. Holder (2013), the Court overturned provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to make it easier for southern states and localities, with histories of racial discrimination, to change their voting rules without pre- clearing them with the justice department’s civil rights division. These rulings are simply the tip of the iceberg in a string of decisions moving the law in a rightward direction.

Trump has referred repeatedly to journalists from mainstream media who’ve had the temerity to criticize him as purveyors of ‘fake news’ and, worse, as enemies of the American people whose challenges to his decisions are the equivalent of treason. At his mass rallies, he has almost invited members of the crowd in attendance to rough up reporters he identifies as his enemies. In fact, Trump’s normal political rhetoric is full of violence from the chants of “lock her up” to threats of nuclear war against North Korea early in his administration.

Trump has responded to peaceful protestors calling for racial justice outside of the White House by sending military police to tear-gas them. This was all for a photo op. Trump has proven he will resort to authoritarian measures to get his way.

Where does this leave us?

In the event Trump and the GOP appear to lose the 2020 general elections, they will be reluctant to turn power to a new Democratic president ( likely Joe Biden), especially if the balloting results in his party’s loss of a majority in the Senate. They will launch a series of state-level and federal court challenges to the apparent outcome. Fox News journalists will uncover a “scandal” involving the US Postal Service tampering with ballots, especially ones sent by Trump voters. Trump will appear on television claiming the election process was rigged against him and that millions of illegal immigrants, thanks to the Democrats, had cast ballots against him. Votes cast for the opposing candidate should be invalidated. The Republican majority on the Supreme Court very well might support Trump’s claims (as did in favor of George Bush in 2000).

If this approach to challenging the election doesn’t work there could be an outbreak of political violence. Elements in the alt-Right, armed militia groups, and various white nationalist organizations could take up arms to make sure Trump remains in the White House. In that way the United States will have achieved the Maduro solution. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that but after his recent authoritarian turn, it’s certainly not out of the realm of reality. Democratic lawmakers need to prepare for whatever outcome.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // 2020 / Authoritarianism / Donald Trump / Elections / Republican Party