Trump’s fraudulent fight: A Q&A with the Amherst prof whose book nailed it

  • Lawrence Douglas, author of “Will He Go?” at his home in Sunderland. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2020 7:53:47 PM
Modified: 11/22/2020 7:53:30 PM

It’s almost as if President Donald Trump tweeted these false claims himself:

“In interest of FAIRNESS, ELECTION must be CALLED NOW! We must STOP the CORRUPT Democrats in PA, MI & WI from STEALING our VICTORY with THOUSANDS of FAKE VOTES!!!”

But these are not the words of the outgoing president, who has taken to Twitter since Election Day to spread unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and falsely claim that he won the election over its true victor, President-elect Joe Biden, as his campaign wages battles in court.

Instead, they were written long before the presidential election by Lawrence Douglas, professor and chair of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, in his book “Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020.” Released in May before the election, Douglas’ book presciently explores a refusal to concede by Trump.

The Gazette spoke Thursday with Douglas about his book and the current political situation for a Q&A. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You state pretty confidently throughout your book that President Donald Trump wouldn’t concede the election regardless of the circumstances of his loss — and that’s exactly what ended up happening. Why was this outcome such an inevitability?

A: Whatever else you might say about President Trump, he’s not a particularly cryptic person — he’s pretty clear in his messaging. And he’s been pretty consistent in his messaging saying that, “The only way that our electoral system can demonstrate its legitimacy is if I win. And if I lose, it’s going to be because the election was rigged or fraudulent.” And he’s been very consistent in that messaging.

In many ways, the connection he has with his base has been established on this myth that, “There are these forces of the Deep State and of the fake news and of the Democrats who are all aligned against us, against me and you, and they are going to try to rob us of our victory. And they’ve been trying to do that since I was elected,” [and] they tried to do that with, in his mind, “false” impeachment proceedings, and now they’re just trying to do it by installing Biden in power.

Q: This certainly isn’t the first time the president has baselessly claimed voter fraud and tried to cast doubt on the integrity of our electoral process. Why do you think that’s been such a common theme, and why is it seemingly so effective in rallying his base?

A: First of all, it is obviously effective if one is trying to make sure that one always ends up on top. It’s almost a version of “Heads I win, tails you lose. No matter what, I’m the winner. I’m either the winner because I triumphed, or I’m really the winner because you just cheated. And I can still hold my head high because I never actually really lost.”

On one level, it sounds like an incredibly childish gimmick. I mean, it’s something, like, 6-year-olds do. But on the other hand, it really is something that powerfully talks to his base because he’s always messaged himself as the ultimate outsider who poses this incredible threat to the powers that be. And the powers that be will do everything possible to stop him. And that resonates deeply with his base, who kind of share this feeling of grievance with the system.

So it’s all kind of this bond, based on shared grievance with the powers that be. Which, of course, is ironic coming from the most powerful person on the planet — the president himself.

Q: You write in the book how Trump could engineer what you call “electoral defiance.” Is this what you mean by that? And how prepared is our system to handle that?

A: One of the things I tried to point out in the book is that the system is not particularly well-designed to handle something like that. One of the general points I try to make, and others have made it as well, is that any kind of system of federal and constitutional law always relies on this kind of soft underbelly of norms that the key actors have to have some kind of buy-in to.

If the people who are responsible for enforcing the federal law and constitutional system haven’t actually bought in to the norms of that system, well then that system is doomed. And it’s certainly the case that Trump hasn’t bought into the norms, and it seems that there are many people within the Republican leadership who have been certainly willing to aid and abet his attack on those norms.

Q: The peaceful transition of power is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. What do you think Trump’s refusal to concede is doing to these norms that you’re talking about?

A. I don’t think he’s going to succeed right now in his refusal to concede. In the book I make this distinction between conceding defeat and submitting to defeat. Conceding being that you recognize the actual legitimacy of your opponent’s victory; and submitting just being, in a sense, a real-world recognition that further struggle is just not going to get you anywhere.

So at some point, I believe that Biden will be duly inaugurated on Jan. 20. But the point that you’re making is a very important one, which is these attacks on the electoral system, these baseless conspiracy theories that he continues to spin out about the way this election was systematically corrupted ... it’s an incredibly toxic lie to issue from the White House. I don’t see how a constitutional democracy can really survive if people don’t have any faith in the electoral system and the trustworthiness of its outcomes.

Q: I want to ask you one more question about the president’s false claims of vote fraud. Trump’s campaign has gone to court in battleground states in attempts to stop the certification of votes, citing that. You said that you believe Joe Biden will be duly inaugurated on Jan. 20. What’s the president’s endgame here? What happens next?

A: I do think it is the case that all of these suits will fail. They seem to be pretty meritless suits. And in that regard, we can be fortunate about this election. One of the ironies ... here is that the election actually ran very smoothly. There were all of these concerns about the election beforehand, but it actually ran very smoothly.

We just saw Chris Krebs terminated by the president — he was the head of cybersecurity within the Department of Homeland Security, and he did an incredibly good job of making sure that the electoral system wasn’t hacked into. He made those public statements saying that this was an exceptionally secure election, and instead of getting the gratitude of the president, of course, he gets sacked.

The endgame, it’s less legal than it really is political. Because I guess what Trump wants to do is ... continue to muddy the waters. And certainly by bringing lawsuits, even if they all fail, it’s a way of just protracting the whole process [and] gives him an excuse to continue to refuse to concede.

He can simply say, “Look, while the legal process is playing itself out, there’s no reason why I should be recognizing Biden’s victory at all.” And then, even if suits are meritless, just the fact that you bring a lawsuit, it muddies the waters, at least among his supporters. It lets him propagate the myth that there was something untoward going on in this election. And I think when he ultimately leaves office, I think we can confidently say that he will never concede defeat. He will never recognize the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, even when he ultimately leaves the White House.

Q: In the book, you outline three possible scenarios about how the election might go — I think you call them “catastrophes.” In one of them, you predict that absentee votes would shift key battleground states from Republican to Democrat over time and that Trump would argue that Democrats are trying to steal the election, which is what happened.

A: Yes (laughs).

Q: What do you think you got right about this prediction so far, and what do you think remains to be seen?

A: Without patting myself on the back too much, I guess it is true that I said he would try to leverage whatever lead he had on Election Day itself [for] a premature claim of being reelected. And then he would try to systematically attack the mail-in ballots that would swing the election toward Biden and that he would ultimately never concede. I’m certainly relieved that this hasn’t come about, but again I don’t see the election as kind of turning into this 1876 nightmare where you get these conflicting electoral certificates landing in Congress’ lap.

Going back to the earlier question — when you talk about what is his “endgame” for him — I think also by leaving office without ever conceding, and by continuing to muddy the waters, this is his way of maintaining his special connection to his base. And if Trump is able to maintain that connection with his base, he basically continues to be the most important person in the Republican Party.

Even once he leaves office, he can be the kingmaker, if not the king himself, within the Republican Party. He can tantalizingly hold out the possibility of running in 2024, and if he does that, he almost kind of freezes the field. And again, he remains the person people have to go through, rather than around.

Q: Is there anything that can be done going forward to restore trust in our electoral system?

A: Obviously, I think getting rid of the Electoral College would be a wonderful thing. Only because I think the system that we have is tailor-made to someone with the autocratic tendencies of a Trump. It’s very hard to argue away 5.5 million votes, which is the margin by which he’s now losing the popular vote ... It’s much easier to attack an election that’s turning on these narrow margins.

It’s great to have these social media platforms curating their content so that the president can’t just engage in these blatant lies about the electoral system. We do need to continue to invest over the next years in the electoral system, in the infrastructure. There’s no doubt that we need to remain completely vigilant, because there’s bad actors, both domestic and foreign, who would just love to sow chaos in our elections.

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