At a press conference last week, Donald Trump refused to say that he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. He doubled down on this position during his Friday campaign rally where he implied that he would not be “stupid” enough for a peaceful transition of power if he loses, because the only way he would lose would be if the Democrats “cheat.”
This is the latest in months of anti-democratic rhetoric by Trump that indicate that he does not plan on accepting the election results. It would seem that, combined with the Machiavellian moves of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP in regards to gaining and maintaining power (as witnessed in the recent fight over filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat), the Democrats might be terrified. These plans, announced over and over again by the president, are an existential threat to democracy and an existential threat to the Democrats.
Joe Dunman was a plaintiff’s attorney in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case which legalized gay marriage by the Supreme Court, and is an assistant professor of legal studies at Morehead State University. He believes the Democrats are failing to prepare for the possibility that there might not be a peaceful transition of power because they view the Party merely as an instrument to win elections, and as a result, they cannot see any other strategy for politics—especially a more disruptive or grassroots one.
“The Democrats exist because people give them money to win elections. If elections are not the answer, there’s no reason to give them money anymore, and the Democrats cease to exist,” Dunman said. “If people realize that elections are no longer the best vehicle for achieving political goals, the Democrats become instantly irrelevant.”
So far, the Democrats’ responses have been underwhelming and tied to appeals to electoral politics. Here is how Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded to Trump saying he will refuse to step down: “The American people are wedded to democracy, we believe in democracy, and the kind of thing that Trump is talking about just will not happen,” Schumer said on CNN. “One way or another there will be a peaceful transfer of power.”
Schumer did not expand on how the Democrats would respond to Trump contesting an election. According to Schumer, voting and handing Joe Biden a landslide would be enough to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi essentially said the same thing. When she was asked about Trump’s statements, she said that she trusts the American people to protect democracy, but did not state any particulars as to how the Democrats would ensure it actually was protected.
“You are in the United States of America. It is a Democracy,” said Pelosi, addressing Trump, “… so why don’t you just try for a moment to honor our oath of office to the Constitution of the United States.”
Dunman warns that despite Schumer and Pelosi’s assertions that there will be a peaceful transfer of power, there is no failsafe in the Constitution to ensure that this happens: “If Trump straight up refuses to relinquish power and the Secret Service plays along with it, then you’d have to have some rival force go and kick him out. The Constitution is absolutely silent on this. It just states the rules and expects good faith compliance. It doesn’t have any contingency plan for somebody who refuses to play along,” Dunman said.
Some of the more progressive members in the Democratic party have been raising alarms about Trump’s rhetoric. Bernie Sanders appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher on Friday and stated that, “the bottom line is, there are things that we have to do now to make sure that Biden wins. And if Trump attempts to stay in office after losing, there will be a number of plans out there to make sure that he is evicted from office.”
But those progressive voices have still primarily been drawing on vague assertions that the rule of law will carry and that the American people need to vote in order to ensure the smooth transition of power. They have not delineated what a Democratic plan to stop this from happening would be. Barton Gellman in The Atlantic argues that Trump will not concede the election under any circumstances, a situation that might call for anything from a prolonged court battle in multiple states to military intervention. No Democratic plans have been announced to confront any of these possibilities.
Dunman argues that a refusal to disturb the status quo and cowardice are the primary motivators behind Democrats’ failure to address this threat: “People fear physical confrontation, riots, street battles, and hope to resolve problems without having to deal with that stuff,” he said.
While a president has never refused to leave office, there is some precedent for the Republicans using extreme measures to contest an election. In the 2000 presidential election, the Republicans were more than willing to muddy the waters. The infamous Brooks Brothers Riot, when paid Republican operatives stormed the Miami-Dade polling location to stop the counting of votes, may prove to be a blueprint for how Republicans respond to poor results in counties with mail-in balloting. They may not have to rely on paid operatives to do their bidding this time, as right-wing vigilantes and conspiracy theorists have been more than willing to independently act in violent ways in support of Trump.
In June, Biden appeared on The Daily Show and jokingly responded to the question as to what would happen if Trump refused to concede the election. Biden said that authorities “will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.” Biden’s answer on a comedy show hardly seems like enough to stop a president who refuses to leave office.
“I don’t think they have a plan beyond faith that Trump will just give up if the results convince enough people around him. I definitely doubt they’re recruiting an army to depose him,” Dunman said.
The failure of the Democrats to come up with a plan for a contested election or for Trump refusing to leave office has concerned leftists since the start of his presidency. The Democrats have continually responded to Trump by appealing to norms and the rule of law, even as time and time again Trump and the Republican leadership have flouted those norms. In the face of this norm-breaking, the Democrats not having a plan seems foolhardy, particularly considering the fact that the Republicans almost certainly do.
“I think it’s way more likely that the Republicans have a plan than the Democrats do—long-game planning is like the GOP’s chief skill,” Dunman said.
With no plan from the Democrats to protect the election, Tatiana Cozzarelli in Left Voice argues that what might be able to stop Trump is direct action from the people that goes beyond going to the polls en masse, advocating that protests for the right to have a free and fair election should merge with the current protest movement already sweeping the country: “We need mass marches, now, demanding the right to vote and to have all votes counted. The fight for democratic rights should include the right to protest and the fight against racist police violence, helping to unite the movement against stealing the election with the movement for Black Lives.”