Moments after President Donald Trump tweeted that perhaps this year’s election should be delayed, a wave of responses suggested that his public musing should be dismissed. The Constitution gives Congress the power to set election dates, political Twitter noted, and the Democratic-controlled House would never go along with the idea. It was impossible. It was a non-starter.
It was also suggested that the president floated the idea as a distraction from the other news of the morning: that the economy during the second quarter had suffered the worst economic collapse in U.S. history, that another 1.4 million people had filed for unemployment, and that former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended Trump’s Tulsa rally without wearing a mask, had just died of COVID-19.
These Twitterverse pundits relied on the strangely enduring theory that the president is once again playing 3-D political chess, even though he is currently in free-fall, often cannot read prepared remarks and has regularly shown he doesn't comprehend the challenges facing him. Don’t be distracted, they advised. Don’t be shocked. Don’t take the bait.
Despite the soundness of the legal arguments being made, however, shock was precisely the right reaction — and complacency about the seriousness of the threat posed by the president’s tweet was exactly the wrong one. Because beneath Trump’s far-fetched words, his anti-democratic intent was blood-chillingly real.
Breaking laws is what Trump does
Those who see the Constitution as a barrier to actions attempted by Trump have not been paying attention. The Constitution explicitly designates oversight powers to the Congress that Trump has rejected and ignored. The Constitution explicitly designates the right to allocate spending to the Congress that Trump has rejected and ignored. The Constitution explicitly forbids a president benefiting from foreign or domestic emoluments and Trump has nonetheless done so. The Constitution says no one should provide aid or comfort to a foreign enemy, yet Trump has done so.
The Constitution was written based on the principle that we are a nation of laws and yet, Trump has worked ceaselessly to undermine the rule of law in the United States. It is was drafted to ensure that no American is above the law — and yet Trump and his abettors, like Attorney General William Barr and the GOP leadership in the Senate, have worked to ensure that Trump is.
Even the casual observer must conclude that Trump has, with impunity, broken campaign finance laws, tax laws, laws against the abuse of women. It is not an aberration for him. It is what he does. It is who he is.
But concern should not be limited to the fact that Trump acts daily with contempt for laws and the Constitution. Trump’s tweet about postponing the election followed by minutes one that once again argued without any basis in fact that mail-in balloting created a risk of voting fraud. It is a regularly repeated lie, one that was offered up by the attorney general in his recent testimony to Congress, even though he was forced to admit he had no evidence on which he based his conclusions.
Trump and Barr are establishing the predicate to restrict mail-in balloting as part of their effort to restrict access to the polls. Given the state of the economy, the catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic and Trump’s systematic undermining of America’s standing on the world stage, he has nothing of substance to run on and his plummeting poll results support that conclusion. The only option he seems to have at this point is to suppress voter turnout and cast doubt about the fairness and later the results of the election.
Sending federal forces into the cities to combat questionable or non-existent threats is related to this effort. It creates a premise for martial law-like decisions later that will make it harder for people to vote. Cities with large Democratic populations have been targeted. In Georgia and Tennessee and Wisconsin, to choose just three states, we have recently seen egregious efforts at other forms of voter suppression. It is a tactic that is being institutionalized — weaponized against our democracy — by the modern GOP.
Trump fears this election not simply because the general public seems to want him to lose but because a loss of the powers and asserted immunities associated with the presidency may ultimately cost him his freedom in the long run. A post-Trump era might indeed be rife with serious legal threats not just to Trump but to Barr and many close to them. Therefore, they will do whatever it takes to win.
Look at intent, not the letter of the law
We already know, from Russia in 2016, Ukraine in 2019 and the GOP unwillingness to vote funds to protect our elections this year, that Team Trump is perfectly willing to not play fair. We know that they see laws as impediments only to those without the power to sidestep them. We know Trump’s past history suggests that creating confusion about election results, whether through delays or foreign intervention or voter suppression or bad counts, will give him an opening he would happily seize to contest results in the courts.
Hence, the threat posed by Trump’s musing about illegally delaying the election must be seen not in terms of the letter of the law but of Trump’s intent, of his situation and of his history. He is contemptuous of our democracy and cares only about himself. He is aided by others with similarly very narrow self-interest as their guiding imperative.
Do you doubt that if Trump could be a dictator, he would be? Do you doubt it is his intention to cheat America’s voters again? Do you dare dismiss his disregard of the Constitution given his track record? Are you willing once again to trust the voices that say “Trump would never do that, the GOP would never do that, they could never get away with that,” after all we have been through?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, then do not take lightly this president’s threats no matter how far-fetched or outrageous they may seem. They reveal this man for who he is and what he represents: The greatest threat our democracy has faced from within since the Civil War.
David Rothkopf is host of "Deep State Radio" and CEO of the Rothkopf Group, a media company that produces podcasts on political, scientific and international issues. His latest book, "Traitor: A History of Betraying America from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump suggests delaying election. His anti-democratic intent is no joke.