The Unusual Rules of American Politics
By Rick G. Karr
It’s easy to conclude that Donald Drumpf is behaving irrationally — that, as one of my closest friends said this week, he’s doing everything he can to lose. It’s a widely-held belief found exclusively among people who oppose Drumpf’s bid for the Oval Office. It’s comforting. It means he’s running afoul of the usual rules of American politics and therefore unlikely to win.
It’s also dangerous and serves Drumpf’s interests. It assumes he’s playing by the usual rules of American politics. But he doesn’t care if he violates them. If you assume he’s irrational, that’s impossible to see. He’d rather you didn’t, though, since he’s laying the groundwork for an attempt to steal the Presidency. If Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote in November, as long as his popular vote total is within a few percentage points of hers in states whose Electoral votes would give him a majority, I believe he’ll simply declare himself President and provoke an unprecedented Constitutional crisis.
He doesn’t need Russian black-hats to exploit the vulnerability of U.S. voting infrastructure, some kind of “October Surprise” that hurts the former Secretary of State’s candidacy, or a sudden turn for the worse in domestic or international events. All he needs to do is harness the American public’s anger, play to its fear of civil disorder, and leverage weaknesses in the nation’s political order that have became increasingly evident since 2000. If that doesn’t allow him to steal the keys to the Oval Office, it could at least force Hillary Clinton to the negotiating table to make a deal “for the good of the nation”.
It’s possible that Drumpf and his top advisors are even being quite transparent about the plan. If you simply take them at their word and assume they’re behaving according to a rational plan — if an antidemocratic, antirepublican, anti-Democratic, and anti-Republican one — even when the campaign commits apparently baffling gaffes and picks seemingly counterproductive fights. That’s all the evidence needed to identify the means, motive, and opportunity of what would be one of the most audacious crimes in the history of the world.
Drumpf’s primary motive is that he wants to be President, of course, but the unprecedented act of stealing an election demands an extraordinary motive. Drumpf plays to the belief of many of his supporters that there’d be nothing unprecedented because it had already been stolen, since they believe that Barack Obama is Constitutionally ineligible for the office. Drumpf has been among the nation’s most vocal advocates of Birtherism, and his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has picked up that mantel since the candidate replaced him. And with their chants of “Lock her up,” they might also see stealing the election as a kind of civil forfeiture.
Politicians who play by the usual rules of American politics don’t have the means to steal elections. That’s why many of the rules exist. But Drumpf says he isn’t like other politicians, and almost everything he says and does proves that he isn’t playing by the usual rules of American politics. According to those rules, attacking the Khans was a gaffe he should have walked back. Instead, he doubled down. According to the rules, he should have toned down his rhetoric after winning the GOP nomination to increase his appeal to moderate voters in general election. Instead, he stood his ground, and in some cases even moved further to the right.
Those are rational moves if he’s decided those swing voters are out of his reach — in other words, that he’s already thrown in the towel. But that’s not consistent with anything we know about Drumpf’s personality. He despises the idea of losing and sneers at anyone he considers a loser. (Ask John McCain.) Throwing in the towel is also inconsistent with his negotiating tactics as they’re described in the 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which is credited to Drumpf and a coauthor who recently disowned it.
But actions like baiting the Khans and belittling the fire marshall who freed him from a stuck elevator as someone who probably votes for democrats actions are entirely rational if Drumpf sees no need to expand his base, only to stoke its anger. That base has already proved itself more than willing to deploy threats of violence (and according to some sources, actual violence) to gain political advantage.
So has a longtime member of Drumpf’s inner circle, Roger Stone, who served as chairman of the committee Drumpf organized during his first dalliance with running for president to explore seeking the nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 2000. That committee had disbanded by the time the recounts started that November. So Stone was free to go to work for the Bush campaign, which hired him to organize the “Brooks Brothers Riot” against the recount. While there’s no evidence that it influenced the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v Gore or Al Gore’s concession the day after the Court ruled, the event was widely and repeatedly televised. Stone had proved that it was possible to widely disseminate images that conjured the threat of further civil unrest intended to influence the political process and there had been no legal repercussions.
Real and threatened violence run afoul of the usual rules of American politics, but despots have known for centuries that they can be incredibly effective forms of leverage. And Donald Drumpf believes it’s imperative to use whatever leverage is available, at least according to the philosophy spelled out in The Art of the Deal:
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.”
Failing to deploy the leverage one has is a sign of fear that will be taken advantage of by opponents, according to the rules by which Drumpf says he does business. It’s axiomatic under his rules that business negotiations, unlike elections, are not zero-sum, winner-take-all games.
Had Al Gore followed Drumpf’s rules in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election instead of the usual rules of American politics, he’d have viewed conceding as admitting to being a loser — and a waste of leverage. Because there’s nothing in the Constitution that prevented him from decrying the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v Gore as partisan and therefore illegitimate, then loudly disputing the result in Florida until the Electoral College met — and beyond. The Supreme Court couldn’t compel him to do otherwise. His staff could have followed Stone’s example and organized protests of their own. Under those circumstances, it’s not clear that the Electors would have met without incident to make George W. Bush a minority President.
The chances of the result being close enough to dispute increase in proportion to the number of votes cast for the Libertarian and Green nominees. Their share of the vote is likely to increase if the Drumpf campaign’s push to include those two candidates in televised debates succeeds. That might give the third-part candidates enough additional visibility to make them attractive to more Republicans who are uncomfortable with Drumpf and Democrats wary of Clinton. That’s all likely to depress the popular vote for the former Secretary of State.
But the actual vote may not matter — it just has to be close enough for Drumpf to double down on his allegation of a rigged election. Drumpf premiered that tactic on April 11, three days after Roger Stone’s business partner, Paul Manafort, replaced Corey Lewandowski as his campaign manager. Shortly after that, Drumpf said he might not serve as president if he’s elected in November. His opponents have tended to interpret that to mean he doesn’t intend to take the oath of office if he wins — that he’s behaving irrationally, in other words. But if he’s planning to argue that he’s been robbed, it makes a lot more sense.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to argue that the GOP primaries were rigged since he ended up with enough delegates to win the nomination. But the idea returned in a new form as a message to Democratic supporters of Sanders, which was amplified by DNC email leak.
Within the past week, Drumpf expanded the claim to November’s general election. Commentators and political journalists overwhelmingly depicted the unprecedented claim as an effort to distract attention from the dispute with the Khan family. That’s how the usual rules of American politics work. But those rules also require the candidate to ignore the so-called gaffe rather than standing firm and fanning the flames of the dispute, which Drumpf and his surrogates also did on the same day.
And on the same day, Roger Stone went even further in laying out the campaign’s strategy to promote the idea that the election is rigged. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Drumpf needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” he said on a Breitbart podcast. “He needs to say, for example — today would be a perfect example — ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, the election will be illegitimate. We will have a Constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.'”
“And he promised a ‘bloodbath’ if the Democrats attempted to ‘steal’ the election,” as Ben Jacobs reported in The Guardian.
The DNC email leaks have provided the ideal opportunity for this tactic. If the Clinton wins a state with vulnerable technology by even a few percentage points, all Drumpf has to do is point, raise an eyebrow, and demand a recount, the law and the impossibility of doing so notwithstanding.
And if this violates the usual rules of American politics, so what? He’s seen how easily the Tea Party Republican majority In Congress has rolled back precedents that go back a century or more if there’s political advantage to be gained — including leaving the country wit an eight-member Supreme Court that’s divided evenly on partisan lines to adjudicate disputes.
The scenario gives him options, too. If the popular vote is more advantageous to him, he plays the populist and says the Electoral College is outdated and stymies the will of the people. If the electoral map is more advantageous, he picks the states with close votes and vulnerable technology and disputes the count. Neither he nor Stone need to say a thing for their supporters to take to the streets armed. Meanwhile, Drumpf can make an eminently reasonable offer to sit down at the negotiating table with Clinton — and the Libertarian and Green candidates — to discuss a power-sharing compromise “for the good of the nation.” And he can come to that table with a “reasonable” final offer offer that splits the difference and has Constitutional precedent: Kaine stands down and the Electoral College makes him Vice President. It doesn’t give him the keys to the Oval Office, but he’s not a loser and he’s a heartbeat away from the Presidency. He could wait for the House to impeach her, then preside over the Senate when it votes to convict and make him President.
The public would watch civil unrest with increasing unease. Polls show many of them aren’t that much more comfortable with Clinton. Disapproval ratings for all politicians are high. A pox-on-both-their-houses cynicism is already widespread and would only deepen. How long before moderate Americans would grow exhausted and fearful and say, “He can’t be that much worse than she is or what we’ve had in the past. He might even be good entertainment,” and agree to give him what he wants?
And even if he loses, he’ll have established the template for presidential elections going forward.
If Drumpf takes us to that brink, there are only questions with terrifying answers: How long would Clinton hold out before stepping aside for the good of the country, like Gore did? Would Obama intervene with federal force to put down civil unrest or consider making what many would consider to be politically motivated arrests? If Clinton dug in her heels and Inauguration Day arrived with two rival claims for the Presidency, who would military leaders recognize as Commander in Chief? Might some even decide neither is legitimate?
Globally, it would be an opening for Putin to send “aid convoys” to the Baltics. ISIS, Erdogan, and the Chinese might seize on the opportunity, too. Domestic bad actors might see an opening, too, emboldened if Drumpf’s supporters have taken up arms and taken to the streets.
When I laid out my argument for the close friend I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, he reminded me of one of his longtime favorite quotations: “It is criminal to steal a purse, daring to steal a fortune, a mark of greatness to steal a crown,” Friedrich Schiller wrote. “The blame diminishes as the guilt increases.” I keep telling him that I know my theory sounds paranoid and panicked. And there’s no way to prove or disprove it until November. By then, I sincerely hope I look foolish and this essay is labeled the dumbest thing I’ve ever written. But I’m deeply afraid about what may happen if I’m right. And I’m mourning for my country, because I never though I’d feel it necessary to write an essay like this.
Ternate, August 2016 (h/t Alfred Russel Wallace)
Rick Karr has been teaching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 2004. He’s a former correspondent for The PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio News.
This week, we talk all about Drumpf’s (failure and/or unwillingness to) tack to the center, his Veep pick, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s retraction of her comments on Drumpf.
Then we talk with Rick Karr, NPR and PBS alum who’s taught at the Columbia School of Journalism for the last 12 years, all about the dominant media narratives around this campaign season. (Spoiler: Hillary is unlikable! Drumpf is good TV!) We try to get to the bottom of where these narratives come from and why they persist.