If Trump Loses in November, He Will Thrust the U.S. Into a Legitimacy Crisis

The president is already setting the stage to challenge the election results.

One month ago, the polling aggregator at RealClearPolitics showed Joe Biden with a four-point lead over Donald Trump. As of Wednesday, that lead had jumped to eight points. Additionally, Gallup reports that Trump’s approval rating has dropped ten points in the last month. In other words, things aren’t looking very good for the president’s re-election.

In the month before the 2016 election, this is what Trump was tweeting.

It is probably fair to say that, at the time, Trump was preparing an excuse for why he lost—something that everyone was expecting. But the stakes are much higher in 2020. Failing to win a second term would brand Trump as a loser, something his narcissistic ego cannot tolerate. Even more importantly, it is very possible that the president could face criminal charges once he is out of office. So he’s picked up the mantra of a rigged election once again.

This time, Trump is signaling that if he loses in November, he will create a crisis of legitimacy when it comes to our electoral process.

“Given that the president has been making unsubstantiated voter fraud comments for years, I expect that these comments will continue,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California, Irvine. “The comments are very worrisome because they increase the chances that the president’s supporters would not accept the election results as legitimate should he lose in November.”

Brian Klaas suggested that we need to be prepared.

We don’t know whether Trump will be reelected. But, as we head toward November, you have to ask yourself: If he loses, would it be more surprising if Trump graciously accepts defeat and congratulates his opponent or if he claimed to be the victim of a rigged election and a “deep state” plot?

The answer seems clear.

But how do we prepare for something like that? Some of us remember the crisis of legitimacy that happened after the 2000 presidential election. But in the end, Al Gore recognized the danger such a crisis would pose to our democracy and conceded the election to Bush. We can all debate whether or not that was the right call. But we’ll never know what kind of chaos would have been unleashed if he had refused to do so.

Much as we’ve seen over the last few years, the backstop to all of the president’s destruction of norms lands in the lap of the other two branches of government: Congress and the courts. Our founding documents gave us an outline for how Congress can remove a president from office, but they don’t address what the legislative body can do if he refuses to leave. Moreover, time and time again congressional Republicans have refused to stand up to Trump. Would a crisis of legitimacy change that?

It is difficult for me to imagine the Supreme Court validating an attempt by Trump to deny the results of an election. But then, I never would have expected it to stop the counting of ballots in Florida in order to hand the election to Bush. So that’s a tough call.

I’d like to believe that American institutions could withstand a test like the one we are very likely to face in about five months. But the Trump era has made me much more cynical than I used to be about that kind of thing. I see a very dark cloud out there on the horizon and the reality is that there’s not much we can do to stop the storm from coming. I honestly don’t think that Trump will win the election. But based on what we know about him, it seems clear that he will not “go gentle into that good night.” The only thing we can do to prepare for something like that is to be honest about what we see coming.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.