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A week or so before the election I was listening to an episode of Radiolab, which began by introducing Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown, and someone who is, beyond that, very well connected in DC. The episode begins with Brooks telling the story of being at a dinner party sometime in 2019 (when people still had dinner parties) and posing a hypothetical to one of the other guests, “gosh, you know, what if Trump loses and he won’t step down…” The guest had a ready response, “oh, the military will never let that happen.” This answer surprised Brooks, though in turn I’m surprised that Brooks was surprised, I mean yes, I can understand how the exact mechanics of the military stopping things might be fuzzy, but it’s surprising that a DC insider, and someone, who in fact worked in the Department of Defense for several years, would be so ignorant of how power actually works.
To her credit, Brooks paid attention to the fact that she was confused, and decided to do something about her ignorance. She decided to war game the election. As it turns out this election was uncertain enough, that lots of people decided to do the same thing. You may have heard of Jeffrey Toobin’s fall from grace after he did something he shouldn’t have during a similar “election simulation”. (There are so many jokes that could be and have been made about this situation, but I will forebear.) In any case Brooks’ war games explored four different scenarios, one of which was an ambiguous result and other of which was a narrow Biden victory. Trump supporters seem to be acting as if it’s the first, when it seems pretty clear that it’s the second. Regardless it was while Brooks and the people she had assembled were working their way through the various scenarios that the answer the other dinner guest had offered finally played out:
The Joint Chiefs of Staff…sort of let it be known unofficially through leaks that they had decided that Biden was the legitimate winner and… that he was the guy who was getting the nuclear codes and so on. And that was the thing that proved decisive.
And so in that [scenario], Biden was eventually inaugurated. But in the [ambiguous scenario]… The partisans on both sides were still claiming victory, leading to the problem of two claims to commander in chief power, including access to the nuclear codes, at noon on January 20.
And it was left totally unclear what the military would do.
The possibility that at noon on the 20th, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to hand the nuclear codes to someone.
Who holds the nuclear codes? They can come in and take them from Trump and hand them to Biden. They can do nothing, which means Trump holds them. But it was sobering as a sort of a non-warmongering, peaceful American citizen to realize that it’s the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military who will decide who the president is.
And that was both amazing and, also, as a strategist – oh, well, then we got to work the military. Those are the refs, and you got to work the refs.
To generalize those conclusions, when everything is stripped away, things are decided by force. The referee is always, when all is said and done, those who have the guns (and the tanks and the nuclear missiles). These rules are unsurprising to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with libertarian thinking, where the central tenant is that all laws are eventually enforced at the point of a gun or historically at the edge of a sword. This is especially the case when you’re talking about who is going to rule an entire country, which is to say who is going to have a monopoly on the use of that force. As Brooks herself was eventually forced to admit at the end of her war games, “I think we collectively put a little too much faith in the law and in institutions as if they exist outside of politics and power, but they don’t.”
None of this is to say that we haven’t made progress, or that things aren’t better, in fact they’re so much better that people like Brooks, despite their education and experience, have essentially forgotten the fundamental rules, because these rules haven’t been necessary since the Civil War (more or less). Despite how long ago that was, I think the distance we’ve actually travelled is less than people think. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that recently we have reversed course and we’ve been moving closer to the time when those fundamental rules will come into play.
This is not the venue for detouring into a huge discussion of history, but in the pre-democractic era, when power changed hands in a country, the person who ended up with the power was generally the one with the biggest and most powerful army, and if there was some doubt then armies would engage in the true test of power and fight. Of course all of this fighting and uncertainty over the transfer of power wasn’t good for the country and so various methods were arrived at to transfer power peacefully: laws, assemblies, and of course the idea that power could be inherited and passing it from father to son. But in a sense this just made the person who could draw on these various customs, laws and traditions more likely to have the biggest army because those things made power easier to call upon.
Eventually, of course, we arrived at a democratic system. Most people understand that a democracy is supposed to work under the idea that the course favored by the majority of the citizens is more likely to be the right one, but it’s also a way of tallying up the size of each side’s army. Of reminding those vying for power that it’s best to stick with a peaceful transition of power, because, when they’re voted out of power, it was in consequence of the other side having a bigger “army”. So resisting that transfer is less likely to succeed, it’s already been demonstrated that you have the smaller “army”. Obviously this is overly simplistic, both because there’s a lot more that goes into an “army’s” power than the number of people in it, and also because people are not the only source of power. But it has the advantage of being simple, reflecting something real, and being tied into larger principles of civic duty, participation and decision making.
All of this takes us to the current situation, which is no longer a war game, but a battle which is really happening, and in essence Trump supporters are claiming that they had the bigger army, but that the Deep State used their other forms of power to deny them the victory that was rightfully theirs. But isn’t that precisely what a battle is? Two sides bringing their power to bear, with the one who brings the greater power to bear winning?
To put it more concretely there are basically three options:
- The election was broadly legitimate. There might be some fraud, but if so we’re looking at something on the order of a few ballots here, or a few ballots there. Nothing even close to the 14,000 ballots which would be needed to tip even Georgia, which has the narrowest margin. And even if Trump could prevail there that would just make the race 290 to 248. Trump would need at least two other states on top of that to actually win the election. Two states where the gaps are even larger.
- The election was stolen by the Deep State. Either through some massive, unheard of level of fraud or through actually messing with counts at the level of the voting machines. The battle was joined and the anti-Trump forces were able to bring a huge amount of power to bear and quite frankly whether they beat Trump fairly with votes, or unfairly with power that Trump and his followers couldn’t match, they won, it’s over. And in the final analysis it doesn’t matter if the war was fought in the manner Trump supporters expected or if it was fought with dirty underhanded tactics they never saw coming. The war is over and Trump and his supporters have lost.
- The same as 2, but Trump and his supporters have power of their own, that they are in the process of bringing to bear. The power of being on the right side of the law, because there really was massive fraud. Or the power of a 6-3 Supreme Court which will eventually rule in Trump’s favor despite the prima facie vote totals. Or the power of the military, who, when January 20th rolls around, won’t take away the nuclear codes. Or we’ll find out that there’s enough hardcore Trump supporters in the military that there will be a bona fide violent coup. Or the power of a violent and bloody revolution, with armed Trump supporters (of which there are many) rising up and storming the Bastille.
To be clear, I have seen very little evidence that it’s not option 1 (I’ll get to the “very little” part of that in a minute.) Because of this I’m very confident that it is option 1, I don’t think there’s some massive coverup, some huge source of undetected fraud. I do think that the mail in balloting which was implemented in response to COVID which was always going to result in the slow counting of urban ballots which were, additionally, always going to be heavily Democratic, happened at the worst possible time. That it provided fertile soil for people to plant conspiracies in. But not only do I not believe any of the election related conspiracies, even if I did, I still think it would be best to ignore them. Which brings us to option 2. What I’m trying to get across by having you consider this option is that once you start from the premise that the election was stolen (which by the way is a significant filter that will distort all subsequent reasoning) then you have already admitted that we’re not playing the game of “count the legitimate votes”, we’re playing the game of “exercise power in whatever way you can” and if that’s the game we’re playing you’ve not only lost, you’ve lost so comprehensively, that continuing to play the 2020 round of the game is only going to make you look foolish. That you should regroup, realize how inadequate your own power has been and start preparing for the 2024 round of the game.
Now I understand that, despite labelling it as a game, that this is a dark view of the world and to reiterate, it’s not my view, I’m just saying that once you’ve accepted that view, then you’ve ceased to think of the election as the legitimate and law-abiding counting of votes, and you’ve moved to thinking of it as an exercise of raw power, and my point is, that even reframing it in this way, you’ve still lost. But perhaps this part of the post is unnecessary, you’re already comfortable with the idea that we’ve moved into the realm of raw power, you just think that whatever power the anti-trump forces have mustered, the pro-trump forces can match. Which takes us to option 3, and the various ways the pro-trump side might exercise their power, given that this is the game you’ve decided we’re playing. I already listed several, let’s go through them in more detail:
The power of the law: This is what Trump’s defender’s claim that he’s doing. I personally think that he has moved beyond this, but we’ll start here. First as I already mentioned Trump has to change the results in three of the close states, and his arguments for doing it in even one are extremely tenuous. I went to a friend of mine who’s very intelligent, and who has a far greater tolerance for conspiracies than I do. (As a side note I’ve gotten far more benefit out of respectfully engaging with this friend than I ever would have by dismissing him.) And I asked him for the single most compelling evidence of fraud he had come across. He gave me a few, and so I looked into them. At first glance they were all pretty compelling, but after digging in deeper, (see the afterword for a dissection of one of them) none of them represented the kind of clear evidentiary smoking gun necessary for courts — which by the way should be less susceptible to accusations of bias having recently received an influx of Trump appointees — to exercise enough power to overturn the results of the election in three different states.
Mechanically, it’s not even entirely clear what Trump supporters imagine is going to happen. A full audit of results would be ideal, but so far unless I missed something that’s only taking place in Georgia. And I am willing to bet substantial real money, at favorable odds to whoever takes me up on it, that this audit will not change the results of Georgia. But even if it did that wouldn’t change the results of the election. Also even if people wanted to do audits in all the states that are close, we’re running out of time. Recall that in Bush v. Gore the decision came down to the idea that they couldn’t do a full recount in Florida in the time remaining. That was one state where only a few hundred votes separated the candidates, here we’re talking about thousands of votes across a minimum of three different states. Though, speaking of Bush v. Gore, that takes us to the next form of power the Republican’s might be able to exercise:
The power of the Supreme Court: These options are basically in order of how damaging they would be to the long term civic health of the country, and mostly that maps to their probability as well, but not in this case. The idea that the Supreme Court, because of its conservative majority, would hand Trump the election, given the evidence as it currently stands, is insane. There is zero chance of it happening, even more so after the lukewarm reception the justices gave to the recent Obamacare case.
A decision by the military: I’m trying to be somewhat comprehensive here and as one of the war games I mentioned in the beginning was finally resolved by the Joint Chiefs using back channels to indicate their support, I thought I should cover that option, but it seems even more disruptive and more improbable than the Supreme Court deciding the election. I know that there’s a common perception that the military is strongly Republican, but a quick review of recent stories on the subject seem to indicate that this is not the case with Trump, and I see no reason to suspect that it’s different at the highest levels. In the situation we’re in, I agree we may see exactly the scenario mentioned in the war game played out. And by “exactly” I mean we may see backchannel support for Biden. We won’t see it for Trump.
An actual military coup: Of course historically, those times when a country’s military decided to intervene in an election generally took a more dramatic form than subtly making it know who the next leader should be. Typically, if the military intervenes in the transfer it’s to seize power through the use of force and at the point of the sword. This is another thing which is incredibly unlikely to happen in 2020 as a way of Trump “winning” the election. But as an option it’s always going to be lurking in the background because as I’ve been trying to explain, power is ultimately implemented through force, and there is a lot of force in the military.
The power of a popular uprising: It seems clear that Trump is already trying to access this power, and while I don’t see too many problems with him doing that if it just takes the form of some peaceful protests like the Million MAGA March that happened over the weekend (what’s good for the goose, and so on), there’s a very fine line between 1st Amendment Freedom of assembly and violence. Also as I have repeatedly urged people to consider, “What if you’re wrong?” What if you rise up in anger over a fraudulent election and it wasn’t? What if you’ve been misled? And even if you’re 100% sure you’re right, not only is this exercise of power fraught with danger for the country, it’s also unlikely to go the way you expect. To use a quote I’ve used several times before in this space, from a post by David Hines:
Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works.
This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.
Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works…
I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.
This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.
The next day, he does it again.
And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.
That’s kind of what it’s like.
Everyone imagines that they will rise up in a grand and glorious smiting, but that’s never how it works. Let me repeat: that’s NEVER how it works. As a consequence of this mismatch between expectations and reality, everyone vastly underestimates the value of stability. And here I’m going to lay my cards on the table. I’m a huge fan of stability. Which is to say at this point even if I was convinced that the election had been stolen on behalf of Biden (I don’t think Biden himself is capable of stealing it) and even if Trump was and will be every amazing thing his supporters claim. It would not be worth taking up arms. It would not be worth a violent insurrection. It would not be worth bloodshed.
I think it’s clear from my record that I am not an apologist for the left or the Democrats. Headlines like “Biden Fills Economic Posts With Experts on Systemic Racism“ fill me with unease. But discrediting and denying the results of the 2020 election is not the place to have the ideological fight. Whether through legitimate voting (by far the most likely scenario) or through an enormous exercise of vast and unmatched conspiratorial power, Biden won. And the longer it takes people to admit that and the more they fight that the greater chance there will be that we’ll all end up losing.
I’m trying something new, adding a brief appendix/afterword. Let me know what you think. If you like it (or anything I’ve written) the easiest way to show it is by donating. Even if you hate it, I think you’ll have to admit that softening the criticism with money is the right thing to do.
First I’d like to refer you back to my deep dive on the ADL’s numbers on extremism for a reminder that going deep into something is rarely as productive as one might hope. It can take an enormous amount of time to verify even one claim and I think at this point there are thousands. Still, it’s a useful exercise.
In looking through the claims my friend sent me, the one that jumped out as both incredibly damning if true, but easy to verify was one that said that in Georgia, on those ballots where people only voted for the president (and presumably no one else) those ballots went 818 for Trump and 95,801 for Biden. While those ballots which had votes for more than just the president went 2,456,915 for Trump and 2,376,081 for Biden. You can see an example of this on twitter here, and Donald Trump Jr. retweeting it here.
Well the first question is why would people go to the effort of creating approximating 95,000 votes for Biden, and not also create 95,000 votes for the two Democratic senate candidates in Georgia. Arguably when it comes to frustrating the Democrats, particularly over the long-term, Mitch McConnell and his Senate majority have been far more effective than Trump. Did the conspirators think that they had the Senate locked up but they needed all the help they could get when it came to Trump?
The next obvious question would be whether there are even 95,000 more votes in the Presidential vote pool than in any of the other pools. Taking the Ossoff-Perdue race (this will be important later) we find that there were a total of 4,945,704 votes, and in the Trump Biden race there were 4,992,004, for a difference of 46,300. Only half the number required for just the math to check out. (The numbers are from Fox News and include third party candidates.) But of course the question is where are these numbers coming from in the first place? Is there some official site I can look at? Some dusty corner of the Georgia state election office where I can find the paperwork?
Nope, the data the person making the claim is relying on, is right out there on every election website. It’s all based on the fact that Biden received 99,922 more votes than Ossoff and Trump received 785 votes less than Purdue. I’m going to assume that it was 95,801 and positive 818 respectively at the time the information began spreading, and that the late arriving votes which skewed Democratic are what moved it into the current position. So, in the end, I guess the mistake is not realizing that people don’t have to vote straight party?
Fortunately, this time around, the explanation was straight forward. It didn’t reflect anything extraordinary, and there’s no reason to suspect shenanigans. In fact when it comes down to it, it’s kind of embarrassing for the people making the claim once you realize what they’re doing. But at first glance it was something that seemed really damning. If anyone out there still thinks they have some smoking gun, let me know, I don’t have time to look into everything, but I’d be happy to look into something else you think it’s particularly convincing.