Donald Trump's 3-step plan to cling to power

It starts with making voters question whether they can even trust the elections at all

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 25, 2020 US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Newport News/Williamsburg International in Newport News, Virginia. Donald Trump always fancied himself streetwise, a real tough guy, and at the first presidential debate with Joe Biden next week he'll be wearing the verbal brass knuckles.
Trump, 74, is not a leader comfortable with the soaring rhetoric of JFK or Ronald Reagan. He's not one for the nuanced elegance that fans loved -- and detractors saw as aloofness -- in the speeches of Barack Obama.
 / AFP / Brendan Smialowski
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With five weeks until the November 3 election, US President Donald Trump isn't really running against his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. Instead, the Republican President is campaigning against the election itself. I identified the beginning of this pattern in these pages on August 3, noting that Mr Trump was preparing to manage defeat rather than to win.

He has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and has implicitly outlined a three-phase strategy for managing an election he appears to be losing. But what's crucial isn't what the President does to cling to power. It's what other Republicans do to help him. On his own, Mr Trump can't do much.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 23, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Black Economic Summit at Camp North End in Charlotte, North Carolina. The volatile US presidential election enters a fierce new stage this week when Donald Trump and Joe Biden hold their first debate -- a television spectacle finally allowing Americans to witness the two antagonists head to head.
Tuesday's clash, coming right after Trump defied Democrats and nominated a conservative to replace the late Supreme Court liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could again upend an already nail-biting contest.
Biden, 77, leads in polls against the Republican incumbent, both nationwide and in most of the crucial swing states set to provide the decisive electoral college count on November 3.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that the US government would be prepared to escort President Donald Trump out of office should he lose the election and refuse to leave. AFP

Phase one, discrediting the election and preparing to challenge the results, has been under way for weeks. Mr Trump has been angrily denouncing postal voting as irredeemably tainted, even though he invariably votes by post himself, and many states as well as the US military have been using postal voting with high security for decades. Repeated surveys have indicated that Democrats – members of Mr Biden's party – are more than twice as likely to vote by post than Republicans.

He is also creating a fictional distinction between absentee voting, in which US citizens abroad vote by post, and regular postal voting. In reality, there is no difference, and in championing the first while denouncing the second, Mr Trump has signalled that he is preparing to dismiss millions of votes.

Meanwhile, he has repeatedly urged his own supporters to vote twice, both by mail and in person, an act which in many states would be felony vote fraud. Some Republicans worry that Mr Trump's actions, in effect, may discourage some of his followers from voting at all.

Phase one also features Mr Trump vociferously insisting that if he loses, the only explanation could be that there was massive fraud – even though Mr Biden has held a comfortable or large lead in virtually all polls for months.

Phase two mainly involves election day. Mr Trump has called on his supporters – who often carry firearms in public – to serve as ad hoc “poll watchers". This makes at least a widespread atmosphere of voter intimidation alarmingly possible.

People take a knee as an organizer reads a prayer to the crowd of several hundred gathered during a Proud Boys rally at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. Far-right group "Proud Boys" members gather in Portland to show support to US president Donald Trump and to condemn violence that have been occurring for more than three months during "Black Lives Matter" and "Antifa" protests. 
 / AFP / Maranie R. STAAB
Armed supporters of US President Donald Trump gather at a rally in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. AFP

Without explaining why, Mr Trump and his aides have repeatedly insisted that, despite the pandemic, only results tabulated on the night of the election should be considered legitimate. Republican Senator Rick Scott is even pushing legislation to limit vote counting and reporting around the country to a mere 24 hours for all federal elections. The underlying motivation seems both clear and nefarious – postal votes inevitably take longer to tabulate.

The implied scenario is that Mr Trump, if he possibly can, will declare himself the winner no matter how many votes remain uncounted, and dismiss all subsequent votes as fraudulent. US Attorney General William Barr's compliant Justice Department may be weaponised to fight the ensuing legal battles, including possible efforts to seize uncounted ballots. This would be the heart of phase three, which involves all-out, multifaceted efforts to challenge as many votes as possible – not only those by post, but also those from urban centres, where the Democrats are strong – providing the President's camp with a simple means of distinguishing likely friend from probable foe.

In such a scenario, given the current US political climate, the potential for unrest and violence is obvious. Mr Trump may try to bring American security forces coming into play in order to amplify the sense of chaos and danger.

The endgame of phase three becomes murkier, but the intention would be, of course, for Mr Trump to declare or secure victory, the actual ballots notwithstanding. Unfortunately, there are a number of possible paths for attempting to do this that are technically within the letter of US law.

For example, Republican-controlled state legislatures could appoint their own electors for the electoral college poll, to be counted by Congress on January 6, 2021, that formally decides the presidency, regardless of the public vote.

This is unheard of, but may be technically within their constitutional authority. According to Barton Gelman in The Atlantic, it is being seriously considered, at least by Republican leaders in Pennsylvania.

Senior Republicans in Congress will set the early tone. Republican-controlled legislatures in swing states will probably be urged to discount the votes of thousands of their constituents. The Supreme Court may be asked to stop vote counts or invalidate millions of ballots. The President has bluntly said he is counting on the Court to secure his victory, and is rushing to add another right-wing justice, Amy Coney Barrett, before the election, giving Republican appointees a possible two-thirds majority.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Judge Amy Coney Barrett (R), with US First Lady Melania Trump, arrive at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 26, 2020. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated Saturday to the US Supreme Court, is a darling of conservatives for her religious views but detractors warn her confirmation would shift the nation's top court firmly to the right. / AFP / Olivier DOULIERY
US President Donald Trump is nominating Judge Amy Coney Barrett (R), a conservative, to be a justice on the Supreme Court. AFP

Unless the presidential election result is very close, however, the choice will be clear cut between deploying power in a brazenly antidemocratic, even if perhaps technically legal, manner or, as all losing US parties have in the past, acknowledging defeat and preparing for the future. Republican Richard Nixon in 1960 and Democrat Al Gore in 2000 both had other options, but accepted close and questionable losses in order to protect the credibility and viability of the American political system.

Mr Trump has made his personal disregard for democratic principles evident. And his three-phase strategy outlined here for potentially bypassing a negative election outcome is not speculative. He has made his intentions perfectly clear, and the process is already underway.

But it's ultimately not up to Mr Trump. The decision will fall to the Republican Party as a whole.

If Mr Biden clearly wins at the polls, as seems likely, we will discover whether the leaders of an entire American party have finally given up on democratic processes and values, and the principle of securing the consent of the governed, and will happily jettison them to hold onto power.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National