What If Trump Loses in 2020 But Won’t Leave?

In early May, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi warned the Democratic field of presidential candidates not to stray too far from the ideological center lest they risk alienating moderates and enable either a victory for Donald Trump or a narrow loss. In the latter case, Pelosi told The New York Times, Trump might not “respect the election”.

What’s extraordinary about Pelosi’s statement is that she implies there’s a chance Trump won’t challenge a loss. Trump will surely question an unfavorable result. It won’t matter if this historically unpopular president gets a historically bad whupping on election night. Weeks before the 2016 election Trump flat-out declared he would only accept the outcome “if I win.”

As Maya Angelou would say, Trump has already shown us what he is, so we all better believe him, or else. With Trump in the White House, all Americans who want to continue living in a democracy can’t take it for granted that the institutions that more or less worked in every other election will work again in 2020. This time, it may take direct action by everyday Americans, not just our elected officials and institutions, to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

The stakes are higher for Trump in 2020 than they were three years ago, when it was just Trump’s (admittedly huge, admittedly delicate) ego on the line. This time, there are a number of active criminal investigations involving Trump’s campaign and his businesses.

As president, as half the planet now knows, Trump is effectively immune from prosecution. Does anyone really think a cheap hood like Donny T will voluntarily step out from behind those protective White House walls to face a potential fusillade of indictments just because it’s what most voters want? Please.

Many might scoff at the possibility of this lazy, stupid president with his 42-second attention span pulling off a masterful, Stalin-esque coup. And that skepticism is warranted. The United States may be a flawed democracy, but we’re not a fledgling one; centuries of democratic practice and the rule of law aren’t likely to be undone with the stroke of Trump’s pen during a grim Rose Garden ceremony.

And yet.

Tens of millions of Americans believe everything Trump says and dismiss contrary information as fake news. If Elizabeth Warren or any of the other Dems who polls say would crush him in the Electoral College ended up crushing him as predicted, Trump could accuse the CIA of conspiring with the Democrats and the Iranians in a scheme to flood the polls with millions of undocumented immigrant voters. Then, Trump once again invokes emergency powers, the Republicans in Congress once again fall in line and to hell with checks and balances. Anyone who’s sure the Supreme Court would never let it happen needs to google Bush v. Gore.

Limning even the rough contours of a scenario is difficult this far out from early November 2020. Nonetheless, all of us who want to preserve our democracy must now, today, wrap our heads around the possibility that it might take mass action to keep Trump from maintaining his hold on power in defiance of election results.

What form could this mass action take? It would have to begin by simply refusing to comply. At first, this would be as much a state of mind as anything else, with countless Americans remembering what the Declaration of Independence says about a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. Proceed from a refusal to grant that consent, and suddenly the possibilities for nonviolent action become clear.

Nationwide protests are an obvious avenue, but a coordinated, coast-to-coast strike would be even more effective. Millions of Americans choosing a day or two when they refuse to go to work or patronize any businesses would send a powerful message, especially if it were repeated. Also, the people in states where Trump lost could demand their state governments refuse to certify anything but a legitimate election result. Citizens could demand that congressional Democrats take a page from the Republican playbook and shut down the federal government.

Yet another possibility, and a time-honored one in America, would be a tax strike, where millions of Americans flatly demand representation before they pay federal taxes. These are just a few suggestions; there are many others.

It might not even take that large a slice of Americans to pull it off. According to one study, just 3.5 percent of the population would be enough to halt the gears of incipient autocracy.

Whatever form the resistance takes, however, it must remain peaceful. Vandalism and beatings by protesters could be all the justification Trump needs to deputize his more demented minions in order to guarantee everyone’s “safety.” Violence would discredit the resistance in the eyes of most people, who by and large would put up with almost anything rather than run the risk of being shredded by nail bombs. We already know from Gandhi and MLK and the various revolutions of this century how much more effective peaceful resistance can be when it comes to winning hearts and minds.

Even a nonviolent movement could be incredibly disruptive. Still, that would be far more preferable than the alternative: a nation led by a Donald Trump armed with the dictatorial mandate he so clearly craves.