Disturbing images flashed across the TV screen. Heavily armed riot police behind bulletproof shields advancing on protestors, clearing them out of the way with tear gas. Two people on the ground interlocked in what looked like mortal combat, violently punching and kicking each other as those surrounding them traded blows. A caravan of raised pickup trucks moving through the streets, loaded with angry men shooting paintball guns into the crowds. A teenager running down the middle of the road carrying an assault rifle, turning and opening fire. A man’s shirtless body lying motionless on the pavement.

After covering the unrest in the United States, an Italian news anchor spent several minutes analyzing data from the American presidential election. Perhaps I was projecting my own feelings onto the journalist, but I sensed confusion and anxiety in her voice.

I couldn’t help but wonder: What is happening to my country? Sitting in my apartment in Rome (where I’ll be until late November), more than three thousand miles from the violence, I felt tremors from the political fault lines in my homeland more forcefully than ever before. 

***

At their respective conventions last month, both American political parties portrayed their opponents as craven, ideologically perverse, dangerous extremists. If given power for the next four years, they warned, their rivals will damage the fabric of our nation so thoroughly that America’s future will be unrecognizable. Each side called November’s vote “the most important election” in the modern history of our country and outlined a single means of salvation: winning. 

This result representing the end-all and be-all for both parties, however, undermines its very potential as a solution. America has become so bitterly divided that it may be impossible to emerge from 2020 with the pillars of our republic intact. If the only acceptable outcome for either side is victory, then the electoral mandate may lose its meaning this year. The peaceful transition of power relies on the losing party’s willingness to respect the people’s vote and give the winner a chance to lead.

It is entirely possible that November 3 will not produce a ‘Biden win’ or a ‘Trump win.’ While polling indicates a significant national lead for Joe Biden (more than Hillary Clinton’s at this point in 2016), Democrats should not take comfort in a false sense of security. 

First of all, recent polls suggest a tighter race in most battleground states. If these trends continue, we could see a popular vote–Electoral College split as in 2016. Secondly, Trump’s oft-repeated claims that polls miss millions of silent Trump voters should not be dismissed. Even Steve Schmidt, veteran political strategist and founder of the never-Trump PAC, the Lincoln Project, has said that he “suspect[s] at least a point or two of undercount for Trump voters.” This discrepancy would not change the popular vote winner as long as Biden holds a strong national lead, but a point or two could make a real difference in close battleground states. Lastly, the Trump administration’s concerted attempts to undercut the Postal Service may result in millions of votes missing from the final count. Since Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, this tactic could close the gap between Trump and Biden by another couple points. 

There’s also the disturbing prospect of vote counts on election night differing substantially from the final counts, which could throw the election into further chaos. Due to the sheer volume of mail-in ballots cast this year, the time it will take to tally them all will be greater than usual. So, Trump may find himself winning the electoral college in the early hours of November 4—the moment when presidents-elect traditionally give their victory speeches. It’s easy to imagine that in this scenario, Trump would dismiss the uncounted ballots as illegitimate and declare himself victor.

Even if the final results reported by the mainstream media are clear in their confirmation of a Biden victory, that may not quell doubts over the election’s legitimacy. Trump has stated categorically that he will contest the election if the results do not favor his reelection. He has questioned repeatedly the validity of mail-in ballots and even suggested delaying the election. He is using the (seemingly limitless) power he holds over his base to persuade his most loyal voters that he will not, and cannot, be legitimately defeated. His supporters already despise the mainstream media and many of them are more in tune with Breitbart and InfoWars than CNN, or even Fox News. It’s hard to picture Alex Marlow, Alex Jones or Trump himself willingly accepting defeat. 

On the flipside, if Trump does win the final electoral college count, the result will also be met with questions of legitimacy from Democratic voters. In this scenario, Trump will likely win with an extremely narrow margin of victory, as in 2016. In fact, it seems probable that any Trump victory will again entail a popular vote–Electoral College split. With this in mind, liberals across America might feel intense outrage and credit Trump’s partisan Postal Service maneuvers with swaying the election. Hillary Clinton has already advised Biden to “not concede under any circumstances”—a premonition of a fraught partisan battle for the presidency, should Trump claim victory.  

***

What legal means exist to resolve a hotly disputed election? Our antiquated federal election laws provide no simple answer to this question.

The inner workings of the Electoral College are complex and legally fuzzy. Governors are required to send certificates cast by the electors for the winners of their states to the electoral college vote tally on January 6, held in a joint session of Congress. However, election law does not clearly establish whether each state’s executive branch has the final say in deciding which candidates’ electors are shown on the certificate. The arcane Electoral Count Act of 1887 leaves open the possibility that state legislatures can intervene in extraordinary circumstances to void the governor’s certificate and choose different electors whose votes are included on a new certificate. 

A number of key battleground states have split state governments; Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. Eminent legal scholar Lawrence Douglas, who has written in great detail about the potential constitutional crisis this November in Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown of 2020, imagines a discrepancy between election night vote counts and final counts leading to the following scenario: “Republican lawmakers in Lansing, Madison and Harrisburg take up the fight to declare Trump victorious in their state. Citing irregularities and unconscionable delays in the counting of the mail-in ballots, state Republicans award Trump their states’ electoral college votes…. [Meanwhile], the Democratic governors of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania…certify Biden as the winner and send the certificate cast by his electors on to Congress.” Given Republicans’ fealty to Trump, the possibility of Congress opening up two different certificates from crucial states is all too real.

The Republican control over state governments in other swing states provides even worse prospects for Biden. Arizona, Florida and Ohio all have Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors. In each of these states, there may be no disagreement about sending a certificate with Trump’s electors to Congress, even if Biden is ahead once mail-in ballots are counted.

Should the certificates arriving from crucial battleground states create confusion, responsibility for deciding the election will go to Congress. However, because our two houses of government are split, this transfer of authority might not diffuse the constitutional chaos. Douglas again envisions a nightmare situation: “The chambers vote on which certificates to accept, the outcome foreordained.… Stalemate. Both parties appeal to the US Supreme Court, but the court…proves unable to solve the crisis.” Absent a clear decision in Congress, Trump may take advantage of the legal mayhem to stay in office.

Democrats have pointed to the military as one possible guarantor of a peaceful transition. Joe Biden is convinced they “will escort [Donald Trump] from the White House with great dispatch,” should the president lose the election. But General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, has recently contradicted Biden’s assessment, assuring Congress that “in the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law, U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. Military.” Ultimately, congressional Republicans serve as the final floodwall between our democratic institutions and a Trumpian takeover.

***

The Republican Party has shown that it is almost entirely devoid of a guiding philosophy, or at least one that its members would publicly endorse. The only ideas that seem to unite the party are racial grievance, xenophobia, anti-abortion fury, corporate tax cuts, skepticism of science, and an embrace of conspiracy theories. The party’s unwillingness to publish a new platform in 2020, a naked surrender of credibility, puts on display the GOP’s departure from conventional political discourse.

The days of compassionate conservatism, with a focus on personal responsibility, free trade, strength on Russia, and support of legal immigration are long gone. Donald Trump regularly violates each one, with little more than crickets from his own party. In the words of Stuart Stevens, a former Republican strategist and advisor to the Lincoln Project, “it’s now not that the Party has drifted away from those [principles], which happens sometimes…the Party is actively against each of those.”

Stevens compares the Republican Party to a cartel. “I mean, no one asks OPEC what their higher moral purpose is. It sells oil. Why do narco cartels exist? They sell dope. Why does the Republican Party exist? To beat Democrats.” Stevens’s assessment is highly persuasive, given that Republican senators who called Trump an “orange-faced windbag,” a “delusional narcissist,” a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” and a “fake conservative” while contesting him for the 2016 nomination are now staunch defenders of his re-election.

Trump’s grip on the party has become so firm that Senator Rand Paul, who once claimed that a speck of dirt was more qualified to be president, gave an absurd speech at the RNC celebrating Trump’s ability to “get things done.” Why do Republicans like Paul and Senator Lindsey Graham, who openly despised Trump and can clearly see how inept he is, ardently support his re-election? Because if they didn’t, they would lose their power in their party. 

Any Republican who had openly and consistently criticized the president has shut their mouths, left the party for political homelessness, or defected to the Democrats. Further complicating the issue is the fact that some of the few moderate Republicans left in Congress like Senators Cory Gardner and Susan Collins—those who are among the most likely to vote against their president—are also some of the most vulnerable in the November elections. If these two Republicans are behind in the count but could benefit from embracing Trump, they might very well toe the party line. 

Deep anxieties within the GOP caucus may also encourage Republicans to hold onto power at all costs. The Democrats’ highly partisan and explicitly stated goals of eliminating the legislative filibuster and welcoming DC and Puerto Rico to statehood scare the daylights out of Republicans. If the Democrats win both the Senate and presidency and hold the House, they will have the power to create four new Senate seats with heavily liberal constituencies. 

Trump and his closest allies in Congress must be wracked by the additional fear that a Biden administration could send them to prison. The crimes committed by the Trump administration are multifold and so obvious that even his own Justice Department is convicting Trump’s associates of felonies.

If Republicans in Congress are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power, at the expense of any principles they may have once held, then what makes us think that they will willingly concede an election that their president is disputing?  

***

A fiercely contested election could spark chaos in America. Millions of people swelled the streets of American cities after Trump’s 2017 inauguration, many of whom were angry at what they perceived as an illegitimate ascendancy to power. These demonstrations occurred after Hillary Clinton explicitly conceded the election and President Obama had done his utmost to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Imagine a second Trump inauguration, in the midst of a devastating pandemic, financial ruin, and rising racial tensions—all crises intensified by the president’s actions—reeking of election interference and missing the blessing of leading Democrats. It’s safe to say America will not be quiet. 

If, on the other hand, Biden stands above the Capitol steps on January 20, can we expect the hundreds of internet militias across the country not to make a presence? It’s no stretch of the imagination to envision that the angry young men who have patrolled the streets for months looking for fights with protesters, will also arrive, armed and on a mission.

With thousands of frustrated citizens almost guaranteed to descend on Washington whichever way the votes are counted, we could see an escalation of tensions unlike anything we are accustomed to. Police are already sounding the alarm bells, warning that violence at demonstrations has become increasingly difficult for them to manage, in part because their very presence at the scene stokes division. If things devolve, we may witness even more civil unrest, with protests and counter-protests sprouting up across the country.

Political theory can help us understand why the upcoming election presents such a difficult challenge for our country. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the most influential writers on democracy, recognized that democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Citizens’ ability to cast votes for a representative government does not assure protected individual rights in a pluralist society. Democracy is merely the best system of government to help accomplish that goal, but without an underlying societal structure which enables it, the outcome is not guaranteed. 

Democracies have failed and reverted to authoritarianism because societal forces weakened the democratic institutions’ ability to prevent a consolidation of power. If ideological differences between different factions are so intense that people are unwilling to see the other side in power, democracies can falter. That our current situation in the United States already seems to satisfy such conditions is deeply unsettling.

***

History tells us that large-scale shifts in citizens’ daily lives and economic fortunes—moments in which the public is gripped by fear and insecurity—can lead to increased anger, resentment, and violence. When Venezuela’s oil-based economy began to collapse in the mid-2010’s, citizens took to the streets in protest. Since then, Venezuela has been mired in financial misery, a constitutional crisis, and regular clashes between protesters and government forces. In the years after the onset of the Great Depression, Italians, Germans, and Spaniards rallied behind fascist strongmen, who channeled their hardship into a nationalist fervor.

Fear plays a devastating role in provoking anger and distrust. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has studied extensively how emotions influence our social behavior, writes “when problems are complex and their causes poorly understood, as economic problems tend to be, fear often leads us to pin blame on individuals or groups and then to conduct witch-hunts, rather than pausing to figure things out.” 

Fear is rampant in America today, as we face a public health crisis, financial hardship, and racial tensions, all at once. With the coronavirus still raging and unemployment numbers at a distressingly high level, this fear is not likely to dissipate soon. In fact, it will probably grow more intense as the future produces less answers and more questions, and summer recedes into a cold, dark winter. Though the numbers from our current recession are nowhere close to those of Venezuela’s economic collapse, and Donald Trump’s grip on America is nothing like Hitler’s consolidation of power, the parallels are concerning. 

Largely peaceful protests across our land have at times turned violent as agitators bent calls for much-needed racial reconciliation for their own purposes. The arson, looting, and rioting which have accompanied some of the demonstrations are giving already violent counter-protesters excuses to perform vigilante law enforcement. These self-styled militias show up heavily armed with assault rifles, looking for a fight, and on more than one occasion have shot to kill. The disturbing scenes from Kenosha may just be a preview of what is yet to come. 

The rise of left-wing extremism, fueled by vitriol on the right, is aggravating a precarious situation. Radicalism is now threatening the unity of the Democratic Party. Mistrust in government at large has empowered a populist movement on the fringes of the left, one intent on torching out the political class in Washington. Anti-establishment rhetoric from progressive politicians, some of whom are revered by millions of people, encourages many young Americans to embrace indignation, resentment, and self-righteousness. The viral video showing a group of protesters yelling furiously at a woman who refused to raise her fist in solidarity while eating her dinner and the news of a right-wing counter-protester’s death in Portland serve as poignant reminders that destructive anger is not limited to a single set of beliefs.

The Democrats’ inability to separate, in the minds of many voters, responsible demands for racial justice from the agitators’ insidious nihilism could produce devastating consequences. The psychological associations between protests and disorder are too deeply ingrained in some people to sort out the driving purpose from a distracting sideshow. Despite Biden’s emphatic condemnation of violence at protests, a significant number of people still believe that the Democrats are encouraging violent behavior. Trump may gain enough of these voters and Biden may lose enough of the far-left voters who think he is catering to white suburbanites to tighten the election. 

The most concerning aspect of this dynamic is that if Trump believes that violence on the streets favors his re-election prospects, he will overtly and covertly encourage it. He will tweet out messages stoking division and fear, while increasing the number of federal troops at protests, hoping to capitalize on an uptick in criminal activity. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are becoming more and more dangerous. His dispatching of unmarked federal agents to round up peaceful protestors in Portland recalls the actions of the most appalling regimes in history. Additionally, his cult-like Republican National Convention featured propaganda and the blatant abuse of public funds for partisan gain. There is nothing in what Trump says or does which suggests he would allow long-held, sacred American institutions to restrict his behavior.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. And in recent memory, the unexpected is usually worse than we previously imagined. If you thought the spring and summer were bad, fall and winter could get a lot worse. 

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