Donald Trump is escalating. Wednesday afternoon, under questioning by Brian Karem of Playboy, Trump offered what the mainstream news outlets are calling a "failure to commit" to a "peaceful transfer of power." One might also call it "threatening a coup".
The first time Karem asked Trump whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, Trump pulled his usual move, pretending that the fate of our democracy is like a reality-show cliffhanger: "Well, we're going to have to see what happens."
But Karem was dogged and asked him again: "Do you commit to making sure that there's a peaceful transferral of power?"
That's when Trump let the cat out of the bag: "Get rid of the ballots, and you'll have a very — we'll have a very peaceful, there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."
"The ballots are out of control," Trump continued, making crystal clear that he resents those gosh-darn ballots and the way they allow American citizens the (theoretical) right to choose their own leaders.
All this moaning over "ballots" is an extension of the conspiracy theory Trump has been hyping for a long time. With assistance from other Republicans — most notably Attorney General Bill Barr — Trump has been falsely claiming for months that mail-in ballots are fraudulent.
The purposes of this false claim are crystal-clear. First, it creates a pretext to prevent people from voting in the first place, through legal challenges against efforts to make mail-in voting more accessible during the pandemic. Second, it's the excuse Trump and Barr intend to rely on when they try to get those votes thrown out before they can be counted.
It's no secret that Trump plans to do whatever he can to steal the election. But by openly demanding that ballots be thrown out, Trump confirmed publicly what many activists, historians and legal experts have been warning may be coming: An actual attempted coup against democracy.
Trump has created a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition: Either he wins the election, or the election was fraudulent. He refuses to accept the third (and likeliest) option, which is that his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, wins outright, which is the outcome the polls are currently pointing toward.
Trump is going to attempt to stage a coup if he loses. (And right now, FiveThirtyEight gives him a 77% chance of losing a fair election.) There is no use dancing around this or using euphemisms.
Trump has lined up his legal team to fight this in the courts. He's indicated that he expects his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to join a conservative majority to rule in his favor. He's also been stoking the paranoia of well-armed angry white men, encouraging them to join up with militias that can be leveraged in the upcoming fight over whether all the ballots will be counted.
This is all very scary, but it's no time to give into despair and hopelessness. Those of us determined to resist Trump's coup have one big advantage that resistance movements around the world often don't have against authoritarian leaders: Trump just keeps giving the game away.
"Typically power grabs are organized in secret and launched suddenly," explains the website Choose Democracy. "It's rare for any country leader to publicly admit they might not respect the results of an election."
"[P]eople who stop coups rarely have the chance to get training, warning, or preparation," they continue.
Trump's motormouth, however, means that the upcoming coup is being advertised and his strategy is being outlined, bit by bit, in the public eye. He's given up the advantage of surprise.
As anyone who has ever played a war game can tell you, that's an enormous advantage to give up. And no, Trump didn't do this for strategic reasons. He did it because he's a narcissist and an idiot who can't help running his mouth.
Because Trump keeps talking, he's making it very hard for anyone to ignore the fact that an attempted coup is nearly inevitable — and is already underway, through the Postal Service slowdown and the efforts to keep people from getting mail-in ballots. Despite that, the New York Times initially reverted to its ingrained instinct to minimize Trump's behavior by burying the story about his comments towards the bottom of their front page. (Times editors eventually moved it up to the No. 2 position, below stories about the protests in Louisville over a grand jury's failure to indict police in the killing of Breonna Taylor, after social media shaming.)
Trump's big mouth has made it possible for typically cautious but prestigious publications to run articles about the attempted election theft. The Atlantic recently published a piece by Barton Gellman that details concrete and terrifying evidence that Trump is amassing an army of lawyers and activists who plan to pull every political and legal lever available to them to vacate the results of the election and install Trump for a second term. (Ahem: Salon got there first.) Slate also published a piece on Wednesday by political scientist Richard L. Hasen that didn't pull punches in alerting leaders that an attempted coup is coming.
Still, it's hard to dislodge the instinct among much of the punditry to tell fairy tales about how our institutions will protect us and that a coup is un-possible in America.
One example is Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who sneered on Twitter Thursday afternoon, "It seems like the mood among some of the blue-checkmarks here has drifted a bit too liberally from 'there's a plausible chance of some very bad outcomes' (true) to 'Trump is fersure going to steal the election and you're all sheeple for thinking otherwise'."
This was, of course, a straw man. People are scared, but talking about Trump's inevitable and ongoing attempts to steal the election is not defeatist at all. By highlighting Trump's likely tactics and strategies, journalists and activists are trying to stir the public to the actions that will be required to stop him.
It isn't surprising that this makes Nate Silver uneasy. Silver's space in the punditry is about the statistical modeling of election outcomes. But as in sports, statistical models only really work within the rules of the system. Whether we're talking about a basketball game or a presidential election, if one side is flagrantly cheating, the predictive value of the models falls apart. Silver doesn't want to look too hard outside the neat little word of rules and statistics he has built.
But Trump's loquaciousness got in the way of Silver's valiant attempts to sound savvy and not like those "hysterical" #Resistance people. Trump's comments about getting rid of ballots occurred just a few hours after Silver's efforts to shame people who take the attempted coup seriously, and he was forced to tweet, "OK this is real bad tho" in response.
Getting over the wishful thinking that holds that such things can't happen in the United States is the first step in preventing them from happening. In this, we have a major advantage, since Trump won't shut up about it. He doesn't just talk in the abstract about rejecting the election results — he goes ahead and outlines the steps he and his minions will take to try to pull this off. Trump has handed his opponents the blueprint for his intended coup, with the leverage points that might be most effective at stopping him helpfully highlighted. The only question is whether people have the clarity to take him at his word, and the will to do what it takes to save democracy.