Why Trump’s refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power is dangerous
No, Donald Trump will not be able to stay in office if he loses to Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election.
It is extraordinary that such a sentence even needs to be written, but after the collective freakout in response to Mr Trump’s remarks this week, we should be clear about this.
The US President does not control the election result. He does not get to decide whether or not he leaves the White House. It is, quite simply, not up to him.
If Mr Biden wins, he will be inaugurated next January, and Mr Trump will go back to being a private citizen, albeit one with very loud opinions and millions of fans eager to hear them.
Still, the President’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power was as dangerous as it sounded, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit.
“Win, lose or draw, will you commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the election?” a reporter asked Mr Trump at Wednesday’s White House media briefing.
There is only one acceptable answer to this question in a democracy, and Mr Trump did not give it.
“Well we’re going to have to see what happens,” he responded.
“You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.”
“But people are rioting. Do you commit to making sure there is a peaceful transition of power?” the reporter pressed.
“Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation,” said Mr Trump.
“The ballots are out of control. You know it, and you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats.”
Lest anyone think he was joking, Mr Trump doubled down the next day, calling mail-in ballots “a whole big scam”.
“We want to make sure the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” he told reporters before boarding Marine One.
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So what are we dealing with here? Is Mr Trump concocting some dastardly plot to cling to power at any cost, even if the voters reject him?
Think it through. Even if he were to try, any such effort would not be realistic.
The context here is that Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed the Democrats are plotting to “steal” the election through large scale mail voter fraud.
To make this accusation sound plausible, he has pointed to any recent voting irregularity he can find.
There was a local council election in Paterson, New Jersey, where a city councilman was charged with fraud; a Democratic primary in New York’s 12th congressional district, where no fraud took place, but a surge in mail ballots led to a six-week delay in declaring the winner; a county elections office in Pennsylvania where nine mail-in ballots were discarded, seven of them marked in his favour.
Mr Trump has also lashed out at states that plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters, suggesting it will lead to fraudulent votes from dead people and pets.
I mean, honestly. A local council election. Nine discarded ballots. This stuff is supposed to be evidence for a rigged presidential election, in a country where 138 million people voted four years ago.
Does voter fraud ever happen? Yes, of course. But all the available evidence indicates it is extremely rare.
Across the entire United States, there have been just 143 criminal convictions related to the “fraudulent use of absentee ballots” in the last two decades. And none of those examples were on anything remotely like the scale you would need to rig a national election.
Forget the same ballpark, they’re not even on the same continent.
“We have not seen, historically, any kind of co-ordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” FBI Director Christopher Wray stressed during his testimony to Congress yesterday.
I’ve laboured this point because, if Mr Trump tries to contest the election result, it will be through the courts. And the basis for any legal challenge he launches will be his allegation of widespread mail voting fraud.
The President has already foreshadowed this legal action. It is one of the reasons why he wants to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court immediately. He thinks the court could end up deciding who wins.
“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court. And I think it’s very important that we have nine Justices,” Mr Trump said earlier this week.
“I think it’s better if you go before the election because I think this scam that the Democrats are pulling – it’s a scam – this scam will be before the United States Supreme Court. And I think having a four-four situation is not a good situation, if you get that.”
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Good luck to whichever Trump campaign lawyer has to go before the Supreme Court in November or December and argue that mail ballots should be thrown out en masse.
No court – regardless of the balance between conservative and progressive Justices – is going to invalidate an election result based on Mr Trump’s hunch that the Democrats have been playing dirty.
There would need to be incontrovertible proof of fraud, to an extent far beyond anything American democracy has seen before.
That fringe right-wing page on your Facebook feed might tell you such evidence exists, but here in the real world, it absolutely does not.
So, say Mr Trump challenges the result in court and gets slapped down. What’s he going to do next? Lock himself in the Oval Office and refuse to come out? Order the military whose senior officers he has been publicly denigrating to intervene on his behalf?
Come on. Be serious.
Let me offer an alternative reading of Mr Trump’s remarks this week, one that suggests he will leave office willingly.
We’re observing the rhetoric of a President who fears he is going to lose, and needs an excuse to help him save face.
Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear, during his many decades in the public eye, that he divides the world into “winners” and “losers”. According to this Darwinian interpretation of human life, nothing is worse than being a loser.
Mr Trump cannot accept the idea that he himself might be a loser. It just doesn’t compute. So, with the polls suggesting (accurately or otherwise) that he is heading for defeat, he has started to pre-emptively rationalise the result.
According to the narrative he’s already constructed, he is not a loser, but the victim of a sinister conspiracy. His ego, and the public image he has spent a lifetime relentlessly crafting, remain intact.
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If you have some spare time this weekend, and no hobbies to distract you, spend an hour watching one of the President’s rallies.
It doesn’t matter which one. Pick any. Just listen to the whole thing for once, not the edited highlights you see on the nightly news bulletins.
You’ll hear Mr Trump run through a long list of perceived grievances, featuring everyone from the “fake news” to Democratic politicians, his own former staff, the generals, polling companies, the FBI, and whichever villainous news anchor has rankled him the most in the last 24 hours.
Anyone he feels has wronged him will get a mention. Sometimes it will sound like Mr Trump is talking to his shrink, rather than a cheering crowd.
The point I’m making is that playing the victim is not hard for Mr Trump. It clearly comes quite naturally to him, because he does it every day.
Portraying himself as the victim of mass voter fraud despite a conspicuous lack of evidence fits that pattern of behaviour perfectly, and it prevents him from having to confront the reality that maybe, just maybe, Americans don’t think he has done a particularly good job.
The problem here, and the reason his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power is still so dangerous even if it’s an empty threat, is that Mr Trump is not only convincing himself of his victimhood. Millions of Americans trust his word above all else.
So, when the President says fraud is the only way he could possibly lose the election, they believe him.
“The Democrats are trying to rig this election, because it’s the only way they’re going to win,” Mr Trump said on September 12.
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he said on August 17.
“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” he said on August 24.
Again and again in recent months, Mr Trump has drilled in this message. Conservative media is saturated with it. And his son, Donald Jr, has amplified it.
“The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father,” he said in a Trump campaign video this week.
“Their plan is to add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.”
If the President wins re-election, none of this nonsense about millions of fake ballots will matter. It will presumably be forgotten, just like Mr Trump’s baseless claim, disproven long ago, that he only lost the popular vote in 2016 because of fraud.
But what if he is defeated? Worse, what if it’s a close race, and the mail-in vote is the factor that ultimately pushes Mr Biden in front? How will Mr Trump’s supporters react if they genuinely believe he has been robbed?
That, not some far-fetched coup, is the real worry.
We have already seen violence on the streets of America this year. After the election, the country’s civil unrest could get even uglier.
Pre-emptively delegitimising the result, as Mr Trump is doing, is dangerous. It’s his job to keep Americans calm; to protect the integrity of their political system. Instead he is doing the exact opposite.