Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable

It’s December 13, 2020. Trump’s been crushingly defeated, Democrats have won the Senate — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

Just three weeks of lame duck Republican control remain. Mitch McConnell, who blocked Supreme Court nominee Garland, calling it wrong to fill a seat during a president’s last year, now plans to rush through a Ginsburg replacement.

What could stop them?

It would be so civically destabilizing, so blatantly illegitimate, that forceful action would be justified. I could see legions of people marching on Washington, possibly to occupy the Senate chamber and physically prevent a vote. Non-violent civil resistance. The regime’s response would probably be very violent.

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, sets forth in exhaustive factual detail how much human violence, in all its many forms, has declined in modern times. And all the many reasons accounting for that. Cynics and pessimists mocked Pinker, but couldn’t refute him. The decline in violence is one of the things that makes me a believer in progress and an optimist about humanity.

But while opposing violence I am not a pacifist. I’ve always believed an ideology of pacifism fails to confront the true moral choices life sometimes presents. That some things are worth fighting for.

While the Ginsburg scenario is hypothetical, Trump’s defeat is highly probable. And with it, a very real danger of political violence. Trump openly says he will reject the election as fraudulent if he loses; laying the groundwork, by impugning mail voting. Even though it’s long widely been used with great reliability and security. Trump would like to create chaos by delaying the Postal Service’s delivery of ballots, and to delegitimize the whole election. Giving America a big black eye; hardly short of treasonous.

Important: a study by The Economist estimates that 80% of mail ballots could be cast by Democrats. Thus on Election Night, before mail ballots are counted, Trump may seemingly be ahead. He will claim victory and then ferociously insist it’s being stolen by fraudulent mail ballots, whose count he will try to disrupt. He’s intent on retaining power by hook or crook. “Will of the people” be damned.

A poll showed 29% of Republicans would back Trump if he refuses to leave office claiming vote fraud. No matter how big the eventual landslide against him? Does that sound insane? But for anyone to still support Trump at this point — after his disastrous record on covid, economic devastation, divisive racism, mountain of lies and corruption, vicious cruelty, and so much else — including trying to sabotage the postal service and the election — isn’t that already a bit insane?  And given all those powerful reasons why so many people will vote against Trump, can Republicans actually delude themselves that only fraud could defeat him?*

A lie cannot be worth fighting for. Yet not only are Trump diehards crazy enough to swallow all his lies, some are indeed the kind of people crazy enough to fight for them. Many of them are gun nuts — besotted with a fantasy of “defending liberty” against “bad people,” with bullets. Convinced, against all reality, that their führer’s been cheated of re-election. Trump’s last stand could well be, for them, a now-or-never, do-or-die moment.

A particular worry is the frighteningly large “QAnon” conspiracist network. Which Trump praises, having retweeted QAnon content almost 200 times. The FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, with its members already responsible for gun violence. In their insane mythology Trump is the god, supposedly battling against a vast “deep state” conspiracy of Satan worshippers, engaged in child sex trafficking and even baby eating. His election defeat, accompanied by his flagrant incitements, will send these already deranged people way over the edge. With a very different sort of March on Washington.

This is our coming Armageddon. Ever since the Civil War the idea of an American political settlement through violence would have seemed inconceivable. No longer. What would this do to our democratic way of life? A democratic culture is one in which issues are decided by debate, with acceptance of pluralism, respecting the legitimate role of people who are different and have divergent opinions. Even accepting political defeat. With rule of law — not guns.

That is something worth fighting for. If attacked by people with guns, it must be defended. One might expect law enforcement and the military to do so. I doubt the military would be party to any sort of coup. But the traitor-in-chief being commander-in-chief is a wild card. We’ve already had a foretaste with his deployment of goon squads in Portland. And Trump is the kind of person who, if he can’t get his way, will try to burn the place down.

How all this will finally play out could be very ugly, leaving deep lasting civic wounds. One might rationally suppose a Trump putsch attempt would shred his last remaining political support. But don’t bet on it; rationality is in short supply in that cult. One report on a Trump rally showed a woman saying she’d welcome him as a dictator.

It’s becoming clear that whatever happens, this is not going to be a normal election with an orderly peaceful transfer of power. We’ve had 232 years of them. One way or another, that sterling American record is about to end, thanks to Trump. It breaks my heart.

I pray we can get past this very dark and dangerous passage in our history, that the plague Trumpism represents will finally dissipate, and America will resume its far longer climb toward building a better society for all.

*The same poll showed Democrats would be reluctant to accept an election outcome they believe was produced by Russian subversion, or another Trump electoral college win despite losing the popular vote. Those views would at least be grounded in rationality. But they’re likely moot because Biden is so far ahead.

7 Responses to “Political violence: thinking about the unthinkable”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    First things first. If the same people who thought they did not need to vote in 2016 repeat their error this year, the questions raised on this page mean nothing. Assuming you are going to win usually means defeat. We who have already requested our mail in ballots can worry if those will be counted but even if the election is completely fair, we do not know the outcome.

    I wonder how the mainstream media will handle reporting results when there are as many mail in votes not yet reported as there are ballots cast in person. I also wonder how many people who wait to vote in person will die Halloween week. This could be scary in places with a love of large parties. What happens in places that can not get poll workers?

  2. Mark V Says:

    It seems significant that the words that come to mind considering a continuation of this government once applied only to foreign oppression: putsch, regime, junta, cabal.

  3. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Unfortunately, I believe everything you say here is correct. I will be dramatically reducing my stock investments before the election because I am so concerned about what Trump will do and how that might affect the political and business climate.

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Fascism can be blocked by classroom analysis of demogogy, remediated by subdural or intracranial neuroplants a la Musk. H. genosapiens may yet provolve. Mars & the stars await! The kosmos, meanwhile, keeps its endogenous counsel. See what I mean, Verne?

  5. Jim Says:

    As current events suggest, the left is more apt to use violence as a first resort in the event of a disputed election.

  6. David Says:

    Your implicit support of the anarchists in Portland says a lot about your views and so marginalizes your analysis. I don’t support Trump, nor do I support Biden. Our constitution needs to be modified so the American people can state ‘no confidence’ is any suite of candidates and force the unfortunate duopoly of political parties to put forward enlightened candidates…not more losers.

  7. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    Your blog, Frank, brings back a memory of November 1952. My parents and I had just arrived as displaced persons in the United States in June 1952. One of our first experiences in our new country was the very heated election campaign Eisenhower versus Stevenson. So when on the day after the election suddenly all the rancor, demonstations, and hype ceased, we were dumbfounded. Sure, some people grumbled about the outcome, but there was peace — no demonstrations, no fighting, nothing. My parents had lived throught the 1930-1933 chaos in Germany and had survived the Third Reich, Then it dawned on us what a great country the United States must be if such peace and calm could follow a rancorous electoral campaing. That became part of my parents’ and my American dream. Will that dream survive November 2020? Sadly, the omens are not good.

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