Election Violence

[T]he only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election, so we have to be very careful. — President Donald Trump to campaign supporters in August.

Trump is trying to convince his supporters — probably has already persuaded many of them — that Democrats are stealing the election. His constant litany against voting by mail is part of his strategy. If his supporters, many of whom are heavily armed, are convinced that a Trump loss can only occur in a “rigged” election, will they simply accept the result? Will Trump demurely step aside or will he urge his supporters to demonstrate their “Second Amendment” rights, as he has in the past? 

Many voters — on both sides — may find their nerves frayed if, as is likely, the results on Election Day are not clear. With millions of voters casting their ballots by mail, the tabulating will likely be slow. It may take days, probably weeks, to know the winner. A likely scenario for this November mimics what happened two years ago. On November 6, 2018, it appeared that Democrats had scored modest gains in the House and Senate, but not the expected “blue wave.” But, because more Democrats voted by mail than Republicans, many races shifted — the so-called “Blue Shift” — into the Democratic column as the mail-in votes were counted. 

Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis campaigning in 2018. Scott was elected to the U.S. Senate, DeSantis governor of Florida

Expect the president and his sycophants to take to Twitter and the air waves to demand that election officials certify the results as of November 3 — Election Day. There is a precedent for this in Trump’s response to the very close senatorial and gubernatorial races in Florida in 2018. “The Florida Election should be called in favor of [Republicans] Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!” the president tweeted. Scott and DeSantis won in the end, but Trump was quick to yell fraud, even though there was no evidence of any. 

American elections are usually close, and the body politic today is divided evenly into opposing camps who no longer trust each other to play by the rules. Add to this toxic mix increasing evidence of political violence and a president who encourages his supporters to take matters into their own hands and you have a powder keg. In recent weeks, armed individuals have shown up at more than 50 demonstrations. A 17-year-old from Illinois drove to Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed with an assault rifle that he used to kill two demonstrators and wound a third.  Armed right-wing militants shut down the Michigan legislature over mask wearing and social distancing. In Portland, Oregon, unidentified federal officials shoved demonstrators into unmarked vans.  

Heavily armed militia members in the Michigan State Capitol

Stoking violence appears to be part of Trump’s reelection strategy. He retweeted recently a prediction by conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza that “recent riots and political unrest could lead to ‘rise of citizen militias around the country.’” This past week, the president appeared to endorse extrajudicial executions when he described the death of an alleged shooting suspect at the hands of U.S. Marshals as “retribution.” Trump has a long history of appealing to the worst instincts of his supporters. He began his climb to political power by graphically warning of “rapists” from Mexico.

Election violence in the United States is more common than most Americans would like to think. There is, of course, the example of the Civil War when Southern Democrats refused to accept the election of a Republican president because he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories. Three-quarters of a million Americans died as result of that refusal, which led to secession and the Civil War. 

In 1856 in Baltimore, nativist Know-Nothings used gunfire to keep opponents form the polls, and in many districts in the city immigrants were not able to vote at all. In 1874, five-thousand men fought in the streets of New Orleans in a battle that pitted supporters of Louisiana’s Republican governor against the White League, a group allied with Democrats and opposed to racial equality and Black suffrage. Forty years earlier, battles between Whigs and Democrats on election day in Philadelphia resulted in the burning to the ground of an entire city block. 

“Brooks Brothers” rioters in Miami in 2000

Violence has been rare in recent elections, with the exception, perhaps, of the so-called “Brooks Brothers” riot in Miami in 2000 in which Republican campaign operatives, congressional staffers, and lawyers — many of them in suit jackets and ties — invaded the Miami-Dade County election office, ending the recount of votes in that heavily Democratic city. Perhaps the most famous operative on the scene was Roger Stone, the old Richard Nixon “dirty trickster” and current Trumpista. Stone, a convicted felon, has said the president should declare “martial law” and seize power if he loses in November. 

Benito Mussolini seizing power in Rome in 1922

Trump — who encourages violence in the first place — might use violence as a pretext to attempt something along the lines suggested by Stone. Benito Mussolini exploited violent clashes between his Blackshirts and their left-wing opponents to ascend to power. The Fascist Italian dictator positioned himself as the only person who could end the violence that he himself had encouraged from the beginning. A similar scenario played out in Germany in 1933 when Adolf Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag as the pretext to consolidate dictatorial power. 

Trump is a good deal lazier than the Mussolini and Hitler, and the United States has stronger institutions and, hopefully, a deeper commitment to constitutional norms than either Italy or Germany had. But, the danger of violence remains great, which is why it is necessary that Joe Biden win an overwhelming victory in November, a victory so big that all Trumpian claims of fraud would be viewed as absurd whining.

Posted September 15, 2020

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