[Publisher’s Note] The Real Danger, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

The Real Danger

Democracy by distance?
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on October 5, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Although Donald Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus and, as I write, has been hospitalized with what his chief of staff calls “very concerning” symptoms, a great many political observers are still worried that he will seize power and overthrow the Constitution if he fails to win re-election honestly on November 3. This potential nightmare—advanced by Trump with winks and “jokes”—has been horrifying people for a good while now. But in early September, with the appearance in The Washington Post of an article by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, a stream of suspicions became a flood. Brooks imagines a number of scenarios that could produce chaos on Election Day as well as some days after—from violent clashes in the streets to legal and constitutional battles in the House of Representatives and before courts of law—that could allow Trump to mobilize his militant supporters, his allies on the Fox News network, and his attorneys to intimidate Democrats, judges, and even the Army. Under the guise of maintaining order, or to combat alleged cheating in states where the election is still undecided, a president who in Brooks’s words “has broken countless norms and ignored countless laws during his time in office” could resort to something very nearly resembling a fascist putsch.

Bearing in mind Joe Biden’s weakness as an opposition candidate, I believe that a legitimate victory by Trump is a more plausible outcome than a coup d’etat. The Democratic Party’s bigwigs squashed the candidacy of the best choice to defeat Trump, Senator Bernie Sanders, and they’ll have a hard time motivating voters, particularly young voters, to cast their ballot for an aging, middle-of-the-road career politician who sometimes gets confused in thought and speech. Nevertheless, it is easy to distrust Republican machinations when you consider the disputed results of the 2000 election, which pitted Al Gore against George W. Bush, and which Bush, like Trump in 2016, won with a minority of the popular vote. It isn’t necessary to be a rabid Trump partisan to play dirty politics, as Bush’s friends did in Florida on the day of the election. The standard Republican Party is more than sufficiently disposed to cheat if preserving its Senate majority is at stake.

At the same time, there’s something that makes me skeptical about the panicky analysis of the situation by my anti-Trump colleagues. The common thread running through all the hypotheses regarding a possible putsch is the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant surge in voting by mail. Each of the fifty states has its own electoral rules, and many states employ different methods of counting mailed-in ballots; in fourteen states, the vote count cannot begin before the day of the election and consequently may go on for weeks. Trump might well take advantage of such a delay by declaring victory on the night of November 3, since his supporters are less afraid of catching the virus than Biden’s supporters are and will therefore vote in person in greater numbers. Being pro-Trump more or less entails rejecting masks in favor of “freedom” and social gatherings, whereas being anti-Trump means accepting science, which recommends mask-wearing, “lockdowns,” and remote interactions.

If we set aside Trump’s most absurd statements (“MILLIONS OF [FRAUDULENT] MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS”), he’s nevertheless completely right when he says that going to the polls in person is a surer method of expressing one’s choice than going to the mailbox. Obviously, there will be instances of undelivered ballots, especially since the U.S. Postal Service has already been weakened by the hostile and tight-fisted policies of Trump’s postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, and the Republican Party. The thousands of ballots that will be disallowed because of innocent errors will disproportionately affect Democratic voters: in Nevada, with its large population of Latino Democrats, a third of the voters polled said that they would vote by mail. If they do so and neglect to sign the return envelope, their ballot will be rejected. Seeing that the Trump–Biden race is very close in that state, there’s good reason for concern.

So where’s the safeguard that can protect us against an assault on democracy by a bunch of crooks? The logical response to the threat of a Trumpian attack would be to call on Democratic voters to cast their ballots in person; to accompany old and poor people to the polls; to show those disinclined to vote the importance of doing so; and thus to defy the forces of darkness. As for the virus, nothing could be simpler than organizing the distribution of free masks and hand sanitizer outside polling places; this could be seen as a patriotic duty and would discourage scoundrels from acting against an awakened populace. For voters, it would mean taking a small risk to uphold a great ideal.

I receive several e-mails a day from the Biden–Harris campaign, and as far as I know, none of them talks about an urgent necessity to parry the danger to democracy by performing the act of voting at the polls alongside other citizens. Nor has there been, to my knowledge, any discussion of this on the editorial pages of the big liberal newspapers. Is it possible that the Democratic elites and party bosses are more afraid of COVID-19 than the virus that is Donald Trump? If they really believe in the fatal outcome so many envision, why aren’t they encouraging voters to show up at the polls? Democracy can’t be accomplished remotely.

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