On a blustery January 20, following the November elections a highly-honoured tradition takes place in America every four or eight years: a sitting President and the First Lady wait in the portico of the White House for the newly elected President and his wife to arrive. After some small talk, the couples move inside and have coffee. And thereafter they leave for the Capitol with the outgoing President sitting in the front row, watching the new leader of the free world take his oath of office at noon. And then the formal transfer of power takes place; the outgoing President and his wife leave to their hometowns in a Marine chopper; and the new President and the First Lady drive back to watch a parade in front of the White House and for the start of a new life.
Worry over Trump’s idiosyncrasies
The big question that has come up now and one that has rarely been posed in American history is if President Donald Trump will follow this tradition and gracefully leave Washington DC, or dig his heels in and refuse to accept the results of the November election. That scenario is not far-fetched at all, given what Trump is made out of; or for all the things that he has said in the recent past. In a recent interview, Trump has said that he will find something and move on. But his Democratic opponent this November, former Vice-President Joseph Biden, is not so sure and has said that if it comes to that situation, the military will escort Trump out of the White House. The fact that people are even talking about something like this leaves a chill for the simple reason that America has not witnessed anything so bizarre as this in recent memory.
If responsible citizens and those in the media are discussing this, it is not without good reason. In fact, people are not even talking about how Trump will handle an election defeat; there is loud thinking on whether the 45th president will use every trick in the book to postpone the November 3 election, using COVID-19 as a handy reason. For a person who every now and then pretends that there is nothing like coronavirus, he will not hesitate to use this pandemic if only he believes that it is to his advantage.
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The virus has taken a toll of close to 120,000 lives, left close to 2.5 million infected across all states, drowned billions in economic losses, and rendered some 30 million Americans out of work. Politically, the pandemic has nudged some states to opt for mail-in balloting, a red rag to Trump and his allies who have for long argued that this system brings with it a lot of corrupt practices—only allegations without proof, as always.
Trump has always been obsessed with the 2016 election, especially in the fact that while he may have got 306 electoral college votes, Hillary Clinton got the better of him by 3 million in the popular vote. From then on, he has been on a contradictory rant: that three million people illegally voted for Clinton and in the same breath arguing that 3 million of his supporters were denied the vote.
In the current scenario, the election turns out to be a close one, Trump and his right-wing supporters could tie it up in the courts in the hope of delaying the process and much of it based on the mail-in votes, especially in the swing and battleground states where the margins of win-lose would be small. In 2000, George W Bush won the Presidential elections by the smallest margins after a bitter court fight. But after the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 and stopped the Florida recount, Albert Gore Jr immediately conceded the election—he had lost Florida by a 0.009 per cent margin or by a mere 537 votes. But Donald Trump is not Albert Gore, by any stretch of the imagination!
President’s fears and signs of a ‘violent showdown’
The apprehension about Trump also stems from some bizarre comments made by the sitting President: that he would not mind staying on beyond two terms if his supporters wanted him to; and according to John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, Trump had told the Chinese leader Xi Jinping that there should be no limits on how long an American President should be in office and that the current stipulation should be repealed. It is crazy enough that Trump is thinking along these lines, but for him to confide to a leader of a communist nation without a shelf life who could not care less for the 22nd Amendment of the American Constitution, is reflective of the desperateness to hang on forever as also in perhaps a misplaced confidence that he is going to be re-elected on November 3.
Some of the fears have to do with how Trump has manipulated social media, be it Twitter or Facebook, especially by way of peddling misinformation, disinformation, outright lies, incitement, and taking on media and journalists in the most brazen manner. Coronavirus to Trump meant the spreading of lies by the Democrats and communist media houses; if state governors refuse to end the lockdown, people should not forget their second amendment rights; and racial unrest is the handiwork of looters, thugs and terrorists. It is not the thought of Trump hunkering down in the basement or chaining himself to the fence of the White House refusing to accept the election verdict, it is in the distinct possibility of the losing president inciting his supporters for a violent showdown.
“I don’t see him leaving willingly, based on what I’ve seen of how he’s used his position. He does not believe he’s subject to any constraint,” former Defence Secretary in the Clinton administration, William Cohen, and a respected Republic Senator from Maine told The Atlantic.
Supporters of the president have argued that worries of Trump refusing to leave the White House or trying to “steal” the elections of 2020 are either “nutty” or “just another brainless conspiracy theory from Joe Biden”. Seeing President Trump for more than three years in office, nothing can be said of certainty: he may just play it professionally in the aftermath of an electoral defeat and move on to Mar-a-Lago in Florida after attending the ceremonies. But there is only one difficult scenario to visualize: that in the face of dwindling fortunes in opinion polls especially in critical must-win Red states, Trump decides to suddenly call it quits before November 3, 2020, and in the process plunging the Grand Old Party in chaos!
(The writer was a senior journalist in Washington DC, covering North America and the United Nations)
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