What will happen if Trump refuses to leave after losing the election

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

An interesting revision to the history of the 2016 election has taken hold among Trump supporters. We’re all aware of his claim that he had the biggest crowds at his inauguration, or that he would have won had it not been for the millions of illegal aliens allegedly voting in the election. Like a claim printed in Trump’s favorite publication — the National Enquirer — that a woman gave birth to an alien baby, Trump’s hard-core supporters lap it up and accept the revision unquestioningly.

This latest claim first came to my attention a few days ago when someone responded to one of my posts. Trump, his supporters claim, never said prior to the election that he would not accept the election results if he lost. The absurdity of that claim is Stalinesque. We all watched the Presidential debate in which he clearly made that statement. But like so many things in our post-truth society, what Trump says publicly one minute he didn’t say the next.

This statement came to mind just the other day when Trump stated to Breitbart News that “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

That statement has been viewed within the context of Trump’s other statements urging violence in his supporters. Like when Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for assaulting a reporter in his bid for Congress last year, saying “[a]ny guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.” Or when he urged his supporters to attack protesters during the 2016 campaign saying “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.” The killers in several violent attacks, including the recent one in New Zealand, cited Trump’s rhetoric as part of their motivation.

This statement is in some ways more disturbing when put into the context of Trump’s praise for dictators and other authoritarian leaders. Like when he praised the Phillipines’s Rodrigo Duterte, who has actually killed journalists. Or Recep Erdogan of Turkey, when Trump praised his victory in a show election. And need we even mention Kim Jong Un of North Korea or Vladimir Putin of Russia. Trump clearly wishes he could behave the way they do.

But as Bill Kristol pointed out, American institutions have proven more durable than Trump and some of his supporters might have hoped. Despite Trump’s relentless attacks, our judiciary, our law enforcement officials, and even our intelligence services.

Our most fundamental institution, of course, are our elections. Elections are what define us as a democratic republic, one in which the governed consent to our government, as was prescribed in our Constitution. Remember the Constitution’s first three words, “we the people?” That’s what they were talking about.

In 2016, it is beyond dispute that at least one hostile foreign nation attempted to interfere in our elections. Whether it can be proven whether Trump colluded with them or not is still an open question, but the interference itself is clear. But such attacks are not the most serious assaults on our democracy. Instead, the worst attacks have come from within.

What I’m talking about is the Republican policy of disenfranchising Americans. This policy has been strikingly successful for the G.O.P., allowing them to win elections and control Congress despite losing the popular vote. Indeed, it is possible that Democrat Stacey Abrams would currently be the Governor of Georgia had her opponent, then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, not actively suppressed the Democratic vote. It’s worth noting that in Georgia, the Secretary of State is in charge of the state elections, and at the time, it was Brian Kemp who was then running for Governor. Draw your own conclusions.

While both parties have historically engaged in gerrymandering, currently, the design of legislative and Congressional districts clearly favors Republicans. But voter suppression is a strategy particular to Republicans, allowing them to continue in power despite their minority status. Indeed, it is arguable that voter suppression allowed the Republicans to retain control of the U.S. Senate in 2018, a critical result given the Senate’s role in confirming judges.

Thus, Trump’s disdain for elections is not uniquely his. Instead, the Republicans have made it clear for some time now that they care more about their own power than about our democracy. Somehow, the idea that a President would refuse to leave office despite losing the election seems beyond the pale. However, it is in keeping with steps Republicans have taken to take away power from newly-elected Democratic governors in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere.

So the idea that Trump would refuse to abide by the results of the 2020 election are not beyond consideration. The question becomes then, what next?

In most countries that face an authoritarian coup, the question is whether the military supports the dictator or the democracy. Trump hinted at their importance in his statement when he said that “I have the support of the police, the support of the military…” These are the people empowered to enforce the power of the state. To put it bluntly, they are the ones with the guns. Minimally, the President is in charge of them. So can he use them to suppress our democracy?

Remember that in the United States, soldiers, sailors and marines take an oath to the Constitution, not to our leadership. Our officers are taught to only follow orders if they are lawful. Clearly, orders to help Trump retain office after losing the election would be unlawful. So what would they do?

My guess is that they would ignore Trump’s direction and help the new administration take office. Military officers take their duty very seriously. They understand that they defend our system, not just our land. People may have protested the actions of the military in the Vietnam War, for example, but the military took pride in the fact that they defended our first amendment rights nevertheless.

I think Bill Kristol is right. Despite a relentless attack upon our institutions, they have shown remarkable resilience. Ultimately, as the keepers of our national power, the military are the last institution standing between our system and chaos. As of now, we have a strong basis for faith in their loyalty not to Trump, but to the idea of America.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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