Donald Trump joked at his Florida rally about staying in the White House for “10 or 14” years. Interesting that he didn’t say eight or 12. This after “joking” earlier that he deserved two extra years because all those nasty investigations had effectively cost him his first two. He’s clearly thought this through.
We’ve heard a lot of presidential humor along these lines, and we’re surely going to be hearing more. If you’re anything like me, you break out in a cold sweat waiting for the punchline to each new Trump gag about plotting against the Constitution.
And sometimes, I hear or read something that happened in one of those countries we used to assume we could never be like, and a chill shoots through my body. This, I think; this is something Trump could and, if he thought he could pull it off, would do.
I had one of those moments in a big way this week reading about the coming re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election in Turkey. Because yes—this, or some version of this, could happen here.
The election was held on March 31 and featured two contenders, one from autocrat-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party, and the other from the opposition party. It was nip and tuck all night and into the next day, but ultimately, the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu, was declared the victor. He appeared to have defeated Binali Yildirim, the candidate of Erdoğan’s AKP, by around 13,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.
It’s just a mayoral election, but you have to understand that Istanbul is, though not the capital city, the dominant city in Turkey by far. It’s also where Erdoğan got his political start, as mayor in the 1990s. So it’s a very important office symbolically and one that comes with outsize influence. For the opposition to hold that office would sting Erdoğan.
In addition, his hold on power has been near complete since the “coup attempt” of 2016 (its origins still mysterious). He has fired and imprisoned academics, school teachers, civil servants, judges and others he’d collectively dubbed “the deep state” well before Newt Gingrich and others borrowed the term; he has shut down newspapers and taken effective control of TV stations. In such an atmosphere, there’s no way the opposition party was supposed to win a big one on the president’s home turf.
Before the vote, Erdoğan appeared to accept that the result would be a verdict on rule. “If there are any shortcomings,” he said, “it is our duty to correct them.” Well, he has a strange definition of the word “correct,” because soon enough, the PR wheels started spinning. The AKP contested the results, alleging various irregularities. The president weighed in a few days later. “We, as the political party, have detected an organized crime and some organized activities,” Erdoğan said. “No one has the right to declare themselves victorious with a difference of around 13,000-14,000 votes.”
On it went. At one point, Yildirim, Erdoğan’s candidate, seemed to accept in late April that the election was “behind us.” But then, last Saturday, Erdoğan called on the country’s Supreme Electoral Council to annul the election: “My compatriots tell me this election must be redone.”
And, on Monday, the Supreme Electoral Council, most of whose members are appointed by the president and the ruling party... annulled the election. Incredibly, though it found technical issues with how the election that was held that supposedly compelled a do-over, the only race being run again is the one that Erdoğan’s team lost.
Wanna take bets on who’ll win in round two?
Now. The United States isn’t Turkey. Trump isn’t Erdoğan, although naturally he has expressed unbounded admiration for him. “He’s running a very difficult part of the world. He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks,” Trump said in 2017.
That was a few months after Erdoğan watched as his bodyguards beat protesters—on the streets of Washington, D.C. in the middle of the day.
Trump can’t fire school teachers who aren’t loyal Republicans. And he can’t close down newspapers, even though there seems to be little question that he wishes he could.
But there are some other things he can do. And this led to the 2020 scenario I conjured after reading about Turkey.
Trump can, and surely will, spend the three or four weeks before the election out on the campaign trail telling his audiences that the vote is going to be rigged against him. He can and will say that the Deep State and fake news media and the “Democrat” Party are all in on the scam, and who knows, he’ll probably throw in Russia too, since he’s always projecting his sins onto his opponents. He’ll say, repeatedly, that he doesn’t know if he’ll honor the election results, it will depend on what they are and how much fraud there was, because “everyone” knows the fraud is going to be massive, like, folks, you’ve never seen this kind of fraud.
He’s said much of this before, in 2016, but he didn’t control the government then.
Now, it’s Election Night. For the sake of argument, just to put a face on it, let’s say it’s Trump vs. Joe Biden, because he’s ahead in the primary polls. As in Istanbul, it’s nip and tuck, back and forth. It’s after midnight. Trump wins Ohio; Biden puts Pennsylvania on the board. But two key states, say one fairly large and the other less so, are still too close to call. Both candidates have won about 250, 255 electoral votes, meaning that the candidate who wins the large state (or, obviously, who wins both) has won.
Say the smaller of the two states (in electoral vote terms) is out West, so it all runs into the wee hours. Imagine all the tweeting, all the lies and baseless claims. But by 4 am, Biden has been declared the winner in both states—by 8,000 in one state, and by 14,000 in the other, so that he has something like 276 electoral votes, leaving Trump nine votes shy.
What do you suppose happens next? You think Trump accepts that?
Of course he doesn’t. But he alone has no power to change it. That will require the complicity of his party.
What will unfold in those two states will depend almost entirely on which party controls the election machinery there. We have no national Supreme Electoral Council controlled by the president and his party, as Turkey does. But we have, in the states, either state elections boards or elected officials (secretaries of state, mostly) who oversee elections. And of course governors have enormous power over matters like this.
So suppose our two close states are in Republican control. You know what will happen as well as I do. Trump will say he rejects the results. That line of Erdoğan’s—“no one has the right to declare themselves victorious with a difference of around 13,000-14,000 votes”—can’t you just hear Trump saying that?
He’ll scream it was rigged, and out will trot the army of Republican election lawyers pointing to what they will say were thousands of instances of fraud. And those Republican secretaries of state and/or elections boards will know their jobs and will get to work. They’ll have recounts and they’ll shave Biden’s margin down as much as possible.
Fox will broadcast segment after segment about the supposedly massive fraud in these two states. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and everyone else who once called Trump a phony (looking at you, Mitt) will be on TV averring that sadly, they’ve come to conclude that a re-vote may be the only acceptable remedy.
Now we’ll be headed into Thanksgiving, or past it. President-elect Biden will be assembling a Cabinet. But Trump, working through the state and local officials in the two states in question, will sue. It will get to the Supreme Court.
Now this is where this is no longer funny (actually, it isn’t funny already). You’ll recall that in 2000, with the situation reversed—that is, with the Republican barely ahead—the conservative majority on that Supreme Court ruled to stop the recount, that we needed a new president on January 20.
So you’d think another conservative court would rule similarly. But this time, that ruling would help the Democrat. And remember, the 2000 court took pains to note that Bush v. Gore was not precedent. Did you wonder then why they said that? Well, maybe this was why! So that a future court conservative majority could feel free to rule in support of the principle that actually matters to them, namely, installing the Republican. So the five conservatives order a re-vote in the two states in question.
Impossible? We used to be able to say with confidence “no, that can’t happen here.” But who knows what can happen here anymore? The treasury secretary is openly breaking the law, and the attorney general lied to Congress. I don’t think John Roberts would provide the fifth vote to annul an election, but we know after 2000 what can happen when the Supreme Court uses some tiny technical issue in a state to effectively decide our next president.
I talked about all this with Abdülhamit Bilici, who was the editor of the opposition newspaper Zaman, which Erdoğan closed down. Bilici now lives in exile in northern Virginia. “Americans should be cautious,” he said. His experience had taught him, he said, that two institutions are vital to democracy: a free media, and an independent judiciary. “If there is an attack on the media,” he said, “everyone should be concerned. An attack on the media is an attack on democracy.”
And, he continued, “at the end of the day, all decisions go to the judges, so their independence is crucial to keeping democracy alive.”
He saw it die firsthand. So keep an eye on Istanbul. Listen to what Erdoğan and his henchpeople say and commit some of it to memory, in the event we might be hearings those things said again.