At a drinks party in Washington DC just after Donald Trump was elected, someone from the old regime told me: ‘This will end with tanks on the White House lawn.’ It was a popular opinion that night, although there was confusion over whether the tank barrels would point inwards or outwards. Would Trump do something so outrageous that he would have to be removed by the US military? Or would he declare himself president-for-life with help from the generals?
At the time, I put this down to shock at Trump’s unexpected victory, an early example of Trump Derangement Syndrome. But now, in the final stages of the 2020 campaign, you hear speculation like this from both sides of the political divide. Dictatorship, state of emergency, civil war? Is this the end of the republic?
Such talk would be ridiculous under any other president, but Trump has encouraged it. He has repeatedly said he won’t accept the result if he doesn’t win — because it’s a ‘rigged’ election. For every president before Trump, a peaceful transition of power was more important than winning. Will there be a peaceful transition this time? ‘We’ll have to see what happens.’ And if he does win four more years, then ‘based on the way we were treated, we are probably entitled to another four after that’. Trump likes to tease, he likes to joke, it’s good for the ratings. But as if to confirm that he might really do something to join the club of strongmen he so admires, and rule under a state of emergency, he’s also said: ‘I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.’
That’s true. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school says there’s a secret ‘parallel legal regime’ that comes into force when the president declares an emergency. Ever since the Eisenhower administration’s plans to ensure continuity of government in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, the executive branch has been piling up Presidential Emergency Action Documents, known as ‘Peads’. These are drafts of executive orders, proclamations and messages to Congress, kept in a safe, waiting for a crisis. Not one of them has ever been published.
Gary Hart, the Democratic former senator and presidential candidate, has been trying to find out exactly what’s in these documents. Despite half a century’s experience in national security, he had never heard of them. He asked friends from both parties. A former secretary of state and a former secretary of defense both said they didn’t know anything either. Others of similar rank refused to answer his questions. ‘And these are people I’ve known for years. So there is a mystery around the secrecy… They’re not secret from the Soviet Union; they’re secret from the American people.’
Along with the Brennan Center, Hart fears that the secret documents ‘provide a blueprint for dictatorship’ and would allow a president to suspend elements of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Trump would appear on our TV screens, looking grave behind the Resolute desk, and announce an end to habeas corpus, freedom of the press and the right of peaceful assembly.
Trump’s enemies would be rounded up and consigned to darkness (Graydon Carter had better watch out). I’m no lawyer, I tell Hart, but wouldn’t the Supreme Court overturn any presidential declaration that defied the Constitution? Maybe, he says, but if you’re depending on the Court to overrule a dictator in the White House, that could take weeks or months — time for a lot of mischief to be made.
Hart is a leading light in Keep Our Republic, a group named after Benjamin Franklin’s often quoted remark. Franklin was leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia when a woman called out, ‘Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ He is said to have replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Hart and Keep Our Republic worry that Trump could ‘manufacture’ a conflict — either at home or abroad — that would allow him to put the military on America’s streets. Militia groups would emerge to ‘support’ the forces of law and order.
With the election turning on, perhaps, only a few states, the outcome could be changed with ‘a handful of people’ walking up and down voting lines in minority precincts, challenging people for identification. ‘That is illegal, but they will be doing it.’
The President’s friend Roger Stone scoffs at this. ‘I cannot foresee any scenario in which any supporter of Donald Trump is at the polls trying to harass or intimidate voters. That’s just not going to happen… Remember, the American left always project onto you exactly what they intend to do. Always.’ He thought the President would ‘leave things to law enforcement’, not call on militias.
The last time Stone spoke to the President was in July, when Trump commuted his jail sentence for perjury, obstruction and intimidating a witness. But given how long he’s known Trump, it’s easy to imagine that Stone is giving voice to the thoughts that even Trump dare not utter aloud. He told Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, that, yes, Trump might have to declare martial law. And then he might start jailing enemies, including — Stone listed them — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple, journalists from the Daily Beast, along with ‘anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity’.
Stone tells me he wasn’t saying that Trump should seize power if he loses the election. Martial law should be declared only ‘if the result is in dispute and we have widespread violence… If the situation burns out of control, if there is chaos… The first responsibility of the President of the United States is to maintain order and to protect the safety of American citizens.’
He doesn’t want preventive detention, he says, simply arrests for the crime of stealing an election. Stone accuses the Democrats of using all the ‘traditional techniques’ of voter fraud: double voting, people voting who aren’t registered, voting in place of people who are dead or who have moved. Trump himself has repeatedly said the election will be stolen through the postal vote. He tweeted — as usual without evidence — that ‘millions’ of mail-in ballots had been printed in foreign countries. ‘THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!’
Many votes in this presidential election will come from mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. And so the count will go on for weeks after election night. This makes for a remote but interesting possibility in states run by Republicans. If Joe Biden’s margin of victory is small, postal votes are disputed, and time is short before the legal deadline of December 8 to select electors for the Electoral College, states could ignore the popular vote. The Constitution gives them that power. It says that states shall appoint their electors ‘in such Manner as the Legislature may direct’. A legislature could come up with its own slate of electors.
Rick Wilson, a former Republican political consultant based in Florida, accuses the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, of ‘working up a horrifying plan’ to do just that. DeSantis’s communications director, Fred Piccolo, told me this claim had ‘no validity’. But Wilson, who is one of those behind the NeverTrump Lincoln Project, maintains that there are several states where this might happen. ‘Do they have the chutzpah to do it? Do they have the balls to pull it off? Absolutely. That’s why I keep saying to the Democrats: “You have to win big; you have to crush them.” ’
Though he’s no Democrat, Michael Vlahos agrees with the sentiment that if Biden is going to win, he should win big. He teaches war and strategy at Johns Hopkins and maps out a road to perdition that starts with Republicans using their statehouses to override narrow majorities in the popular vote for Biden, giving the Electoral College to Trump.
Or it happens another way. Neither candidate gets the 270 Electoral College votes needed to become president because many results remain in dispute or because the total of 538 is split down the middle, 269-269. Then the election is thrown to the House of Representatives, but — as the Constitution says — with one vote for each state, and Republicans having a majority of states.
Either way, a seething mass of Democrats think they have been robbed and take to the streets. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators are both armed. Vlahos taught a course at Johns Hopkins about how other countries’ civil wars began and believes that one is more likely in America now than at any time in the past 150 years. People used to ‘snicker’ at his warnings, he says, because they could not imagine a civil war here. ‘They snicker a lot less now.’
There may, increasingly, be two Americas at odds with each other, but most Americans still believe in the rule of law. As Trump himself has said, this election could well end up in the Supreme Court. This is the place he might dispute the election result, not in the streets. He has lived in the courts all his business life, suing or being sued. He is comfortable there.
For Trump to seize power, tanks ringing the White House, you would have to imagine him defying the Court. (And then you would have to imagine the military defying the Court, too.) Like all bullies, Trump is weak. He does not have the strength of will for such a fight. It’s far more likely that he would retire to Trump TV, to complain of a rigged election and a stolen vote. The ratings would be insane. This is a kind of victory. And as Trump knows, winning is what matters, winning is everything.
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.