An authoritarian holds the reins of power: Don't assume Donald Trump can lose the election

The commentariat keeps insisting there's no way Trump can win this time. Seriously, have we learned nothing?

Published October 20, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With just two weeks to go, trailing badly in most polls, how can Donald Trump possibly win the 2020 election?

That question and its attendant assumptions are dominating the conventional wisdom regarding the 2020 presidential election. The question itself is not unreasonable, and the evidence in support of the assumed answer (that Trump cannot possibly win) is substantial, if not overwhelming.

Donald Trump trails by approximately 11 percentage points among likely voters in national polls. If that trend continues through Nov. 3, he would suffer one of the worst defeats in recent American political history. More than 26 million people have already voted, four times the number at this stage in 2016. A majority of these early voters are Democrats. Based on precedent, this high turnout is extremely bad news for the incumbent. 

FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver's website, recently calculated that Joe Biden has an 88 percent chance of victory.

Political scientists and historians have developed various models for predicting whether a given candidate will likely win a presidential election. Nearly all the indicators suggest that Donald Trump will not be re-elected, thanks to a dreadful and worsening economy, the coronavirus pandemic, scandals, social unrest, and a general sense of discontent with his administration.

Trump is apparently bleeding support. The so-called white working class, which supported him so enthusiastically in 2016, seems to be abandoning him. Polls and other research also show that Trump is losing older white voters — another of his key constituencies — by significant numbers, both in key battleground states like Florida as well as nationwide. Trump's attempt to use white supremacy to frighten "suburban housewives" (his coded term for married white women) into supporting him appears to have failed.

To that point, neuroscientists have conducted new research which shows that Trump's fear-mongering and other scare tactics will likely not be as effective with undecided voters as they were in the 2016 election.

The Trump campaign has raised significantly less money to this point in the 2020 campaign than has Biden's campaign. Reportedly, the Trump campaign is no longer able to run ads in states he must win if he is to have any chance at an Electoral College victory. According to rumor, the Trump campaign (and his inner circle more generally) is disorganized, with its members turning against one another and seeking escape. There is a deep sense of dread has taken over that Donald Trump's defeat and humiliation are inevitable.

Trump's hospitalization with the coronavirus and the various drugs he was administered have appeared to make an already mentally unwell and pathological person even more deranged, dangerous and out of touch with reality.

"How can Donald Trump possibly win?" is a comforting question for the American people and a mainstream news media collectively suffering from PTSD and still trying to navigate the malignant reality of the Age of Trump (and beyond). At its core, the question reflects a deep desire, if not desperation, for a return to "normalcy".

The question the American people and the country's political class should be asking, however, is this: How could Donald Trump possibly lose the presidency?

Trump is a fascist and an authoritarian who has repeatedly threatened that any election where he does not win is by definition illegitimate and to be disregarded. He has also suggested that he wants to imprison leading Democrats such as Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for being part of an attempted "coup" against him. 

As with other authoritarians and fascists, Trump's followers and inner circle believe that he literally embodies the law. Moreover, they have accepted that his word is law and that Trump's personal interests are the same as the nation's interests. For them, Trump is now effectively a king or an emperor. Like other authoritarians and fascists in this century, Trump uses the law as a weapon to give the regime a veneer of democracy and "populist" legitimacy.

Donald Trump has the highest level of baseline support — that is, loyalty among his own party and his core supporters — in the history of modern public opinion polling in America.

The 2020 election is also taking place in a season of death cased by the coronavirus and the Trump regime's negligence and sabotage of relief efforts. "Coronavirus-fascism" is a unique moment in the country's history and presents another opportunity for Trump, his regime and his followers to break longstanding norms about presidential elections.

In total, Donald Trump and his regime have many more tools to remain in power than Biden and the Democrats have to remove him. The Biden campaign is well aware of this fact, which is why its spokespeople have been telling Democratic voters to disregard the polls suggesting that a landslide victory on Election Day 2020 is inevitable.

New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen, author of the new book "Surviving Autocracy," argues that America in the Age of Trump is in the midst of what Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar describes as an "autocratic attempt." In a recent interview with Salon, Gessen explained:

One of the concepts in Magyar's work is that it begins with an autocratic attempt, and up until the moment of an autocratic breakthrough, you can actually use electoral mechanisms to resist the autocratic attempt. And then after the autocratic breakthrough, the institutions have been weakened sufficiently that you can no longer use them to resist. ...

[I]n order to be able to use the institutions that we have to resist the autocratic attempt, we have to assume that they're working and we have to assume that we're using them in good faith. But the problem is that we might be using them in good faith — but he is not. So in a way we have a clash of realities. And we're at a huge disadvantage because the institutions were not designed to resist somebody who's approaching them in bad faith.

Instead of learning these new rules, too many Americans, especially among the chattering classes, are still operating on outdated assumptions about the country's politics. This is an example of the unhealthy behavior psychologists describe as "repetition compulsion."

In more normal times "repetition compulsion" in political life would just be a type of quirk. But in a failing democracy such behavior is often catastrophic.

Trump's weapons to finalize an autocratic breakthrough include the Supreme Court, where Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed before Election Day 2020. Trump has publicly suggested what Barret's first and most important job will be: she is to vote in his favor if the Supreme Court decides the outcome of the 2020 election.

For decades, the Republican Party has created a system of voter suppression, gerrymandering and other means, both "legal" and otherwise, to prevent the American people from voting for the Democratic Party.

Attorney General William Barr, the Republican Party, right-wing interest groups and other organizations will use their vast resources to keep Donald Trump in power. Such a strategy is about much more than Trump's reign. It is part of a decades-long plan to protect white power in America by creating a new apartheid order in which a white minority can oppress, with impunity, an increasingly black and brown country.

At the Boston Review, Reed Hunt, CEO of Making Every Vote Count, details the steps involved in Donald Trump's anti-democracy gambit:

As of now, Biden's margin is likely going to be closer to 10 million votes. About 145 million people will vote. So, 10 million would put you around a 7 percent range. If everyone who wanted to vote voted, and if all those votes were counted, the probability that the votes would be allocated across the country in such a way that Trump would win the electoral college is vanishingly small when the national margin is that big.

So, what will Trump do? His strategy has to be the following: first, he has to deny people the opportunity to vote; second, he has to make sure that not all the votes that people have cast are counted; third, he has to make sure that judicial rulings on voting and the election are in his favor; and, fourth, he has to have a backup plan in which Republican legislatures take control of the electors if the other steps did not so alter the counting as to give Trump victory in the critical swing states.

Unlike Joe Biden and the Democrats, Donald Trump and his regime are not limited to "normal politics." Trump has been recruiting what he describes as an "army" of right-wing paramilitaries and would-be terrorists as "poll watchers" who are tasked with intimidating and harassing Democratic voters. Given their recent and past behavior, Trump's paramilitaries and right-wing terrorists will likely be heavily armed and physically violent. During his first presidential debate with Joe Biden, Trump even told his paramilitaries and other political hooligans to "stand by" in case he does not win the election. As recently seen in Michigan, where a group of Trump supporters planned to kidnap and potentially murder Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Trump's political thugs are eager to keep their Great Leader in power by any means necessary.

The U.S. military has repeatedly said it will not involve itself in the country's election and transition of power regardless of the outcome. That decision offers both worry and comfort to those Americans who truly care about the country's democracy.

If Trump somehow steals the 2020 election, either at the polling booths or in the courts or both, the American people, the news media, and the political class more generally cannot claim that they were in any way taken by surprise or limited by a failure of imagination. They saw a preview of American fascism in the form of Donald Trump and his movement in 2016. The years since then have offered painful lessons about the country's failing democracy. Unfortunately, too many members of the mainstream news media, the commentariat more generally, and other political observers — as well as the American people en masse — have refused to learn them.

If Donald Trump finds a way to "win" it should not shock anyone. Those who may claim to be amazed or befuddled by such an outcome are themselves among the reasons American fascism took root and flourished in this moment. Such voices are not innocent. They are in many ways complicit.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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