There’s nothing wrong with treating American politics like a sport as long as everyone involved in the competition is playing the same sport by the same rules. There’s nothing wrong as long as both sides agree the rules are legitimate, both commit to obeying them and both accept the consequences when they break them.
But there is a problem with treating American politics like a sport when one side is playing soccer and the other is playing football while neither can agree to the rules, because one side won’t commit to obeying them. There is something wrong when one side not only refuses to accept the consequences of rule-breaking but sets out to undermine the idea of rules altogether. In that case, treating politics like a sport, as the Washington press corps habitually does, isn’t helpful. It’s harmful. Even dangerous.
The biggest problem with the upcoming election, from the point of view of Americans who want to see the incumbent gone, is something that would not normally be a problem. Indeed, it has never been a problem in our lifetimes. It has been a civic good. What I’m talking about is blind institutional faith. Most of us, even the great cynics among us, still believe the system is fundamentally sound. We believe the rules are inviolate. Little appears to be standing in the way of a 2020 Democratic landslide.
Before explaining why blind institutional faith is a problem, let me add that it feels so good to have blind faith in our institutions. All of us want to believe the only thing threatening Joe Biden’s victory is voter apathy, and many of us want to believe that voter apathy is moot after the trauma that was the 2016 election. Blind institutional faith is moreover affirmed, and that good feeling compounded, by a Washington press corps that habitually treats American politics like a sport. If all the major polls show Biden ahead of the president by double digits in critical swing states, then surely this nightmare is about to end. Good will triumph over evil, and everything will be fine.
Everything won’t be fine, though, and good might not triumph over evil if recent findings by Nils Gilman and Rosa Brooks are any indication. Together with about 70 expects—legal scholars, retired military officers, former US officials, strategists and attorneys—they oversaw a series of “war games” that “peered ahead to the Nov. 3 election, now less than 90 days away, and explored how the race between Trump and Joe Biden could turn into a post-election crisis,” wrote USA Today’s Joey Garrison. In the process, they demonstrated, I think, how blind institutional faith is problematic.
Called the Transition Integrity Project, the group gamed out, in June, a series of plausible and possible scenarios. Its findings are frightening. “In an election taking place amid a pandemic, a recession and rising political polarization, the group found a substantial risk of legal battles, a contested outcome, violent street clashes and even a constitutional impasse,” Garrison wrote. Here are the key points of group’s report:
The election won’t end on Election Day: “We face a period of contestation,” the report said. “The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on ‘election night’ as officials count mail-in ballots.” “An unscrupulous candidate”—meaning Trump—will cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy and “set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome.” Everyone must be “educated to adjust expectations” starting now.
The election will be contested well into January 2021: “We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides.” The president “will very likely use the executive branch to aid his campaign strategy, including through the Department of Justice. There’s a chance the president will try convincing red-state officials “to take actions—including illegal actions—to defy the popular vote.” Of particular concern, the report said, is “how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results.”
The transition will be highly disrupted: Instead of handing off power, “Trump would prioritize personal gain and self-protection,” the report said. He “may use pardons to thwart future criminal prosecution, arrange business deals with foreign governments that benefit him financially, attempt to bribe and silence associates, declassify sensitive documents, and attempt to divert federal funds to his own businesses.”
The report offers recommendations. They boil down to getting ready. This is not a normal president. This won’t be a normal transition. We are entering a period of historic uncertainty in which none of us can take anything for granted, not even the rules—laws, norms, institutions—that many of us place our trust in. There’s still time to re-balance expecting the worst with hoping for the best. That’s fortunate, because most of us are still expecting the best to happen while praying the worst won’t.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.