I am reading an old book on the history of our presidential elections. I’m still early in the book, but one thing that has impressed me so far is just how much the players in the politics at the beginning of our constitutional republic disliked and distrusted each other, sometimes for petty reasons and sometimes for important ones. Yes, just like today.
But another thing that has impressed me is just how smoothly—despite the disagreements large and small and despite the animus between the two fledgling political parties (Federalists and Democratic-Republicans)—the transfer of power, the transition from one partisan administration to another, was conducted. Throughout the years, such smooth transitions, which we too often take for granted, have served us well and kept our democracy stable. In other words, there haven’t been many, if any, Donald Trumps around who, quite openly, would vigorously claim after a loss that the election they ran in was rigged and therefore illegitimate.
And that is despite the fact that in those early, early days the elections were in fact much closer to being rigged than today. The outcome largely depended on insiders in the various state legislatures and in the federal government, all white men and all white men who owned property. And those chosen to be electors in the Electoral College–which actually elects the president—were most often not chosen directly by voters in the states; they were chosen by state legislatures. For instance, in the 1800 election in which Thomas Jefferson was first elected, only four out of the then-sixteen states chose their electors by popular vote. That is why, if you look at popular vote records for those early elections, you won’t find any until 1824. The truth is that the Founders just didn’t trust democracy. They actually wanted a system that they could in fact rig when they needed to.
Today, even though the Electoral College is still in place, everyday folks in all fifty states actually choose the electors when they vote for a presidential candidate and running mate. But in only 29 states and in D.C. are those electors legally bound to vote (the vote is on December 19 this year) for the candidate who won the popular vote in their respective states. But there is an ongoing question as to whether those electors who are legally bound actually can be held accountable for a violation of the law, which in most states is just a misdemeanor anyway. And there is actually nothing, except party pressure, to stop those electors in the 21 states without a binding law from refusing to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote.
This has led to a rather muted discussion this weird election season that the Electoral College should, if Trump actually cons enough voters and wins in November, ignore the preferences of those voters—likely only a plurality—and do what the Founders intended when they designed the Electoral College: thwart the “sudden and violent passions” of the people who have been “seduced by factious leaders.” (Those were Madison’s words in Federalist 62, as he defended the creation of a mostly undemocratic Senate in our Constitution.) Now, if that were to happen, all hell would break loose, which demonstrates that the Founders’ distrust of democracy was either valid or not valid, depending on your view of how dangerous Donald Trump is.
Having said all that, a very important discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today caught my attention. It was a good discussion because Joe Scarborough wasn’t there to muck it up. Steve Schmidt, a Republican who worked on both George W. Bush’s winning campaign in 2004 and John McCain’s losing one in 2008, made a point about how dangerous it could be if Trump loses and claims the election was rigged against him. Watch:
When Steve Schmidt suggests that a Trump loss, accompanied by a Trump tantrum full of “rigged election” talk, might undermine “the pillars of how we function as a democracy,” I began to ask myself: Is Trump more dangerous, in the long term, if he wins or if he loses? Why? Because of this:
When Schmidt speculates that if Trump loses he may start a billion-dollar media empire that would feed millions of his cult followers lies and half-truths for years and years, it frightens me to the bone. I realize there has been some speculation about this for months, but there is something in the two video clips above that makes it more real for me. Donald Trump, winner or loser, is a genuine threat to our democracy, to the stability of our nation.
Is all this really happening? Huh? Are we now forced to hope that since Trump has failed at so many other things in his life, that a defeated Trump will ultimately fail to create a viable media company that would allow him to continue to take advantage of his low-information devotees and make it nearly impossible to govern the country?
Or is our only hope a thorough trouncing of Trump in November? One that would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind, except those hopelessly deluded by insane conspiracies, that the country truly and definitively rejected the racist-friendly demagogue?
Wow. What a year.