WASHINGTON — Because it’s 2020, anyone anxious about this year’s presidential election has a new problem to worry about: the possibility that a defeated Donald Trump won’t be willing to leave the West Wing.
Almost since his inauguration in 2017, the U.S. president’s detractors have speculated that Trump might simply refuse to emerge from behind the Resolute Desk should he lose the support of American voters, who head to the polls in November after a head-spinning 45 months.
On Sunday, Trump himself joined their ranks.
“I have to see. Look, I have to see,” he said when ”Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked point-blank if he would accept the election results. ”I’m not going to just say yes, I’m not going to say no.”
The spectacle of a commander-in-chief refusing to publicly promise to abide by the will of the American people “fundamentally threatens the peaceful transfer of power,” said Joe Goldman, president of the public-policy-oriented Democracy Fund, a non-partisan centre-left foundation in Washington, D.C., created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
“For it to take place at a time when we are rushing to implement pretty substantial changes to how our election system is going to work, and the president’s out there undermining faith in that process, these things come together in a way that’s pretty alarming.”
As U.S. states, many confronting dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths, prepare to stage a federal election in the midst of a pandemic, Trump has repeatedly claimed that mail-in ballots are a vector for electoral fraud, without citing any evidence.
Because a strong ballot-box turnout is seen as favouring liberals, conservatives have been known to make it harder to vote — including in Canada, where the previous Conservative government’s 2014 Fair Elections Act, which banished voter identification cards as acceptable ID and banned vouching for another voter, was largely undone in 2016.
Experts say Trump’s campaign against mail-in ballots appears aimed not only at limiting turnout, but also at establishing a plausible narrative with which to proclaim the results are fraudulent, which he did again Tuesday on Twitter by claiming they would lead to a “rigged election.”
Fold in a deeply divided and motivated U.S. electorate, seized with the significance of the 2020 vote, and chaos could ensue, Goldman said.
“Both sides believe this election represents an existential threat to the country, that if the other side wins, it threatens the republic at its core.”
Democracy Group’s latest focus-group research, conducted late in 2019 and released last month, found overwhelming support for America’s democratic values. But it also found deep dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in the U.S. — nearly half the survey’s 5,900 respondents expressed dissatisfaction, eight percentage points more than the same survey found in 2018.
The research also found that one in 10 participants, Democrat and Republican alike, said there would be “a lot” or “a great deal” of justification for violence if their party loses in November.
“We are living through the worst health crisis in recent memory, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and some of the worst social conflict since the ’60s and ’70s,” Goldman said.
“Put all of that in combination with a very close election in which neither side trusts the other or the institutions, informational environments in which misinformation spreads very, very quickly, and at least some political leaders who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth — that, to me, represents kindling.”
The actual chance of Trump refusing to vacate the White House likely only becomes a danger if the election produces a close result and legitimate doubt can be cast on the result, said Peverill Squire, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri.
To remain in office, he would need support from his Republican backers in Congress — support that polls suggest is now steadily bleeding away as the president’s response to the pandemic continues to drive down his support, both outside his party and within, causing some measure of panic in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“If the result seems clear, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college, I doubt many people will rally to the president’s cause, no matter how much he might complain,” Squire said.
“President Trump may be shocked to find how few friends he has if he loses.”
That said, U.S. history provides little guidance for what happens when a president refuses to leave office. Contested elections in 1800, 1824, 1876 and 2000 were all resolved when “the losing candidate conceded without calling his supporters to the streets,” he said.
Lara Brown, a politics professor at George Washington University in D.C., said if a disagreement were to persist into January, when a joint session of Congress gathers to formally count electoral college votes, a central character could well emerge: Vice-President Mike Pence.
As president of the Senate, it falls to the vice-president to oversee the count and decide on the validity of the votes.
“It could well come down to Pence,” Brown said. “And it’s hard to imagine any sort of more traditional politician like Pence would adhere to something that he would understand would break the American system.”
Former vice-president Al Gore had the chance to do just that in 2001, after a protracted court battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, when he presided over the count that sent his rival George W. Bush to the White House. But he knew it would be pointless and destructive to do so, Brown said.
“It would be seen as essentially upsetting the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, and it would also show him to be wildly ambitious and willing to kind of burn the field in order to try to claim it,” she said.
“President Trump has not shown that level of statesmanship in any of his actions as president.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press