An article from Atlantic magazine is drawing considerable notice. The publishers considered the article so important that they published the October issue of their magazine (which contains the article) before its scheduled publication date.
The article’s author, Barton Gelman, predicts what he considers a likely state of complete confusion in the outcome of the presidential election. He explains that the real threat does not come from Trump refusing to vacate his office if he officially loses. “The worst case scenario is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him” in the first place he writes. “He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.”
As if by magic, on the exact day that the article was published, Trump held a press conference in which he said, “Get rid of the [mail-in] ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful… There won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation….”
A large part of the problem stems from the lack of fight of the Democrats who, in addition to responding to the Covid 19 crisis, were trying to find a way around the Republicans’ voter suppression by encouraging mail-in voting. They did this instead of mobilizing in the streets to actually put a stop to voter suppression.
In-person vs. Mail-in Ballots
As a result, it is entirely possible that Trump could win enough in-person votes in enough states on November 3 to “win” the presidency, but then in the following days and weeks, the counting of the mail-in votes reverses this. Known as the “blue shift”, this has happened with increasing frequency in recent elections.
In that event, all sorts of legal and political maneuvering both at the state and federal level could leave both parties to declare their candidate actually won. In addition, it’s legally possible that the Speaker of the House, presently Nancy Pelosi, could assume the presidency since she is third in line after the president and vice president.
The legal maneuverings would happen at all different levels. If neither side backs down, then at the state level, it’s even possible that state legislatures could select the electors (who actually determine who will be president) rather than the electors being selected by the voters. It’s also possible that the votes of two different and competing slates of electors reach congress, where these votes are counted. At the national level… well, it would require several pages to explain the possibilities, but suffice it to say that neither the Constitution nor the law is clear on how such disputes must be resolved nor even who, exactly, counts the votes. (You should just read Gelman’s article.) Also, there will be hundreds, possibly thousands of court challenges.
Cries of Anguish and Enflamed Passions
All of this will be accompanied by outraged cries of anguish on both sides. Much of that may be just theater, but it will stir up already enflamed passions among tens of millions. That will add to the threats we’re already starting to see. Trump has said he’s sending 50,000 poll “observers” on election day. There will also be the various militias and other racists and xenophobes out in numbers.
“Brooks Brothers” Riot
As for counting the many millions of mail-in votes after November 3, we should remember the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000. In that event, some thousands of Bush supporters rioted to prevent officials from recounting the ballots in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, in order to ensure the installation of Bush. If counting of mail-in ballots looks like it may reverse a November 3 in-person–vote victory for Trump, that riot may well be like a child’s birthday party in comparison. This time, instead of Brooks Brothers suits, many of the rioters will be wearing camouflage and will be armed to the teeth in the open carry states at least.
To avoid such a complete “shitstorm”, as one Republican advisor called it, one of the two parties would have to back down. Is that likely?
Would Trump Back Down?
It would be extremely difficult for Trump to back down. His having sent the poll “watchers” itself will drive him further down the road he’s already headed down. He has also amped up his violent and unreasoning base who are already starting to interfere in early voting. Along with them are the violent militias and similar types. Finally, his party has a lot to lose since if he backs down, many of them will also lose their offices together with all the perks and possibilities for skimming.
A key question is whether the capitalist class would unite to convince Trump to back down. At present, the great majority of the capitalist class favors Biden. We see this, for example, in the letter of nearly 500 former top military and civilian leaders who took the unusual step of urging a vote for Biden. Prior to that, we saw the outcry of many retired military leaders when Trump threatened to call out the military against the Black Lives Matter protests.
Extreme Weakness of Base of Capitalist Class
Some may conclude from this that Biden will be the next president. That is similar to the mistake many of us – this writer included – made in 2016. Then, it was clear that the vast majority of the capitalist class preferred Hillary Clinton. Even the editors of the Wall St. Journal were continually attacking Trump. We drew a mistaken conclusion from that. After Trump won, at least this writer figured that the capitalist class would be able to get him into line. Wrong again.
What I and others didn’t account for was the extreme weakness of the base of support for the mainstream of the US capitalist class.
How about today? The mainstream of the US capitalist class has been trying to get Trump at least partly under control for over three years now. Not only have they failed, he’s getting worse.
What means do they have of ousting him? With the exception of Fox, all the news channels have anti-Trump commentary and news just about 24/7. Yet he is still in striking distance of Biden. He is steadily moving to assume direct, personal control over many of the key federal bureaucracies – the Department of (in)Justice, for example, where he’s installed a loyal flunky in Barr, and where untrustworthy officials are removed one by one. Same in the State Department.
True there are limits to this process. Unlike an outright dictator, Trump cannot just execute those who aren’t loyal to him. He can’t even fire all of them. Just the other day, September 25, his head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, testified before congress that there are no examples of serious vote fraud through mail-in voting, but it will be politically difficult for Trump to fire Wray at this time. However, overall it is very difficult to see how Trump could back down unless he loses on election day itself, which is possible but very far from assured.
Can the Democrats Back Down?
How about Biden? Could he concede if Trump & Co. try to steal the election through a combination of voter suppression on election day plus “getting rid” of the mail-in ballots as Trump has called for? It’s possible. That’s what the Democrats successfully pressured Gore to do in 2000. This time, though, the stakes are far, far higher and a far wider layer of the US capitalist class is much more determined that the Democrat take office on January 20. One detail, which may not be such a detail, is that in 2000, that concession by the Democrats required no challenge from any US Senator or Representative. There was a challenge from a few Representatives, but the party was able to enforce discipline and prevent any senator from challenging the result. It seems unlikely but not impossible for the tops of the Democratic Party to conclude that it’s better to allow Trump another four years than have a state of utter chaos. What does seem even more unlikely is that some Senator would not break ranks and make a challenge such as did not happen in 2000. In fact, if Biden were to back down to Trump’s voter suppression, fraudulent vote counting and outright terrorism in the streets, it could only happen with enormous battles inside the Democratic Party.
If the Democrats did back down, then in the face of such craven cowardice, a movement towards a mass working class party could spring to life overnight.
Trump or Biden?
A return of Trump to office will be a huge setback for the US working class and for all especially oppressed peoples. It will greatly increase the confidence and aggression of the armed and dangerous militias and similar groups. It will also accelerate Trump’s tendencies toward one-man dictatorship (aka “bonapartism”). If Biden slides in, this will also be a setback for the working class and the oppressed, except less of one. After a brief “honeymoon” period of popularity for Biden, the same far right groups would likely regroup. In fact, some of them, feeling bitter, could launch terrorist attacks soon after Biden came to office or even before. And anybody who expects Biden to really fight for the working class and the oppressed simply has not been paying attention.
Overall, the choice amounts to one between overt bigotry and further steps toward one man dictatorship vs. capitalist democracy. Even with capitalist democracy’s lies and hypocrisy, exploitation, oppression and environmental disaster, that choice should be a no brainer. That choice, though, doesn’t mean we should be campaigning for Biden or any Democrat.
As things are being “planned” for the moment, the working class as a class would be mainly a spectator. As things stand, an independent role for even a sector of the working class is not even being considered.
The main task of socialists and others is to call for and try to build an independent movement of workers. Since the only mass working class organizations that exist in the US presently are the unions, that means trying to get the unions to mobilize their base. Many of the unions are filled with right wing white bigots, but many are not. In addition to the public sector unions, there are those like the ILWU, transit workers, health care workers, hotel workers and grocery clerks. That would be a basis for starting to build an independent working class mobilization, including political strikes and leading towards a general strike against the attacks on democratic rights by Trump as well as against police assaults.
For that, a program of demands is needed. This is not the place for an adequate discussion of such a program, but it would have to include economic demands as well as demands around the police, special oppression, international working class links, and Covid 19 and the environment. The main point is that the unions should actively organize and fight for its members on the job and for all workers and the oppressed in society as a whole. For that to happen, rank and file union members will have to build an organized opposition to the current leadership.
This means a sharp conflict with the entire union leadership, including its “progressive” wing. Such conflicts are outside the comfort zone for many socialists and many other activists. They should consider stepping outside that zone because what is headed down the railroad tracks may be far, far more “uncomfortable”.
Such a campaign is the best way to transform the mood and start to establish at least a sector of the US working class as an independent force in society. This would be the first step towards building an independent working class party. As a side benefit, it would also be the best way to assure that Trump is not returned to office.