If your central nervous system didn’t register a jolt on Wednesday when President Donald Trump refused twice to promise a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election, you should probably book an appointment with your neurologist.
“We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said, delivering a word scramble about “the ballots”—presumably absentee ballots—being a “disaster.”
“Get rid of the ballots and you’ll, we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer frankly. There will be a continuation,” Trump rambled.
Other presidential candidates, especially in the 19th century, have challenged the results of elections. In 1800, 1824, and 1876, resolution of the presidential election extended almost to Inauguration Day, with Congress determining the winners. Southern politicians vowed to secede during the 1860 race if Abraham Lincoln won. But Trump seems to be the first contending presidential candidate, not to mention being an incumbent, to explicitly express zero faith in the election system.
We could say that Trump’s words open a new frontier of political chaos and turmoil except that he has been consistent in treating elections as something plastic that he can mold to his liking. In an October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, he claimed without proof that the election was being stolen and declined to say he would accept the results. “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?” Trump said. Days later, he said he would accept the count “If I win,” but promised to contest the results if he didn’t. Then-senator Barbara Boxer tweeted, “Only a dictator would say he will accept the election results on one condition—if he wins.”
In a July 2020 interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump again claimed the election was being rigged and twice gave an “I have to see” response to the pointed question of whether he would abide by the election’s results.
What makes Trump’s most recent statements so fretful is that as president and leader of his party, he possesses powers he didn’t have in 2016 to dispute the tally. As Barton Gellman reports in a new and frightful Atlantic feature, plans are afoot for Trump to set aside the voting results in six swing states controlled by Republicans, and have their legislatures cast their states’ Electoral College ballots for Trump. “If [Trump] throws the decision to Congress, which he can do almost at will, the law is a labyrinth full of dead ends when it comes to how that’s resolved. Experts tell me that the Electoral Count Act is so garbled and full of logic bombs that it can easily lead to deadlock,” said Gellman in an in-house interview.
So nobody should discount Trump’s avowal, especially now that he actually serves as president and seems bent on delegitimizing the election. But you don’t have to be a Trump fan to concede his right to challenge ballot results, especially in a tight state contest. Al Gore’s campaign did that in 2000, protesting “illegal votes” and “legal votes that were improperly rejected” in Florida in a dispute that went to the Supreme Court for resolution, without permanently soiling the fabric of democracy. We should mention, of course, that Gore ultimately conceded defeat after the Supreme Court decision and made no move to enlist a pitchfork brigade in overturning the Supremes.
But will Trump follow through on his disturbing threats? Flipping through the news clips of his presidency, one can’t help but notice his penchant for issuing of ground-scorching threats that end in flounder and retreat. He not only loves to bluff, but he loves to bluff big. He made nuclear war noises against North Korea and then cuddled with Kim Jong-un in a pair of summits. He vowed to jail Hillary Clinton but folded. He laid the rhetorical groundwork for invading Venezuela but then backed down. He threatened to close the border with Mexico, demanded that General Motors reopen its Lordstown plant, promised to end birthright citizenship, said he would strip California of federal funds, pledged to adjourn Congress, and bragged of holding “absolute“ power over the states that he would use to reopen them. He even thought he could bluff the pandemic into submission by claiming that it would disappear soon.
In the poker world, there’s a name for the style of game Trump plays, New Yorker writer and poker champion Maria Konnikova told me last year: “aggressive maniac.” The aggro maniac is the player who raises and raises on poor hands, hoping to cow more passive players into submission. “It’s a style of play that’s incredibly high in variance: you win a lot, but you also lose the maximum,” she said, as better players figure the maniac out.
Trump’s poker game would be fatally compromised by his inability to manage his emotions. “He would take any loss as a personal slight, and play even more recklessly as a result,” she said. A player like Trump remains confident as long as he’s raising the stakes, but goes wobbly when the stakes get raised on him. “If you’re going to be an aggressive player, you have to be willing to go all the way. Trump seems unable to, and that is a crucial weakness in the game of strategic back-and-forth,” she said.
Democrats shouldn’t become complacent just because so many of Trump’s prior threats were empty. Nor should they start hollering about a fascistic takeover. Instead, they should apply the lessons of the poker table to Trump’s latest political atrocity. Trump has tipped his hand—or at least his political strategy—by promising post-election brinksmanship all the way to Inauguration Day should he not win the November election decisively. A smarter player than Trump would have kept a blank face and not blustered that he was going to ignore the election results until the optimum moment—like the last week of the campaign—to catch the Democrats off guard.
Democrats now have the time and the incentive to prepare their own legal and political offenses. What makes a card-player like Trump so supremely exploitable, Konnikova told me, is that he will fold when his bluffs encounter high resistance. In addition to protesting Trump’s vile political manners, Democrats need to visibly lawyer-up and assign their brightest minds to waging the ancillary presidential campaign in the states, the Electoral College and, if need be, the Congress.
Never back down against Trump. If you want to win, you must call his bluff.
What if Trump refuses to leave? Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan explained why that won’t happen. Send your nightmare scenarios to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts want it noted that parliamentary systems don’t have this problem. My Twitter feed always votes twice. My RSS feed says its vote is for sale.