Increasingly, over the past few days, I find my own expectations for November 3rd pulled in two diametrically contradictory directions. On the one hand, every conceivable metric of electoral support in polls, turnout estimates, and all the rest of it seems to favor a solid Biden win, if not something considerably more substantial than that. At the same time, there are accounts of the expectations for Trump’s legal/extralegal response to the election results that range from comical to terrifying.
Into the mix comes Ron Suskind, a veteran reporter who has had some of the most eye-popping scoops in recent media history. It was Suskind, for instance, who got an unnamed senior White House official in the George W. Bush administration to say the following:
The aide said [according to Suskind] that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' [...] 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do'.
The quote really captured the zeitgeist of an earlier moment of terrifying overreach in the White House, a moment where the concept of the “imperial Presidency” had taken on a particularly alarming cast. It spoke to a period in which the Bush administration’s messianic ambitions in Iraq were only outweighed by their willingness to bend reality to achieve them.
Later, in his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Suskind got extensive access to Obama administration officials, providing a somewhat unflattering portrait of most of the era’s key actors during the period of the financial crisis of 2008. In other words, Suskind is not the kind to speculate wildly; he is a reporter who can often get at some profoundly revealing Washington stories.
Now Suskind is back with an alarming report in the New York Times, one that takes many of the hand-wringing (if largely speculative) op-ed pieces of the center-left/Never Trumper punditocracy, and turbocharges their concerns with a number of direct quotes from Senate-confirmation-level senior Trump administration officials. Some choice excerpts:
Many of the officials I spoke to came back to one idea: You don’t know Donald Trump like we do. Even though they can’t predict exactly what will happen, their concerns range from the president welcoming, then leveraging, foreign interference in the election, to encouraging havoc that grows into conflagrations that would merit his calling upon U.S. forces. Because he is now surrounded by loyalists, they say, there is no one to try to tell an impulsive man what he should or shouldn’t do.
“That guy you saw in the debate,” a second former senior intelligence official told me, after the first debate, when the president offered one of the most astonishing performances of any leader in modern American history — bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent. “That’s really him. Not the myth that’s been created. That’s Trump.”
A bit further along, Suskind engages many of these senior White House officials (some former, I imagine) to try to suss out as much as possible how they believe Donald Trump would act in the days following a contested election, or at least how he might exploit the unfolding of events:
They [the senior White House officials] are loath to give up too many precise details, but it’s not hard to speculate from what we already know. Disruption would most likely begin on Election Day morning somewhere on the East Coast, where polls open first. Miami and Philadelphia (already convulsed this week after another police shooting), in big swing states, would be likely locations. It could be anything, maybe violent, maybe not, started by anyone, or something planned and executed by any number of organizations, almost all of them on the right fringe, many adoring of Mr. Trump. The options are vast and test the imagination. Activists could stage protests at a few of the more crowded polling places and draw those in long lines into conflict.
A group could just directly attack a polling place, injuring poll workers of both parties, and creating a powerful visual — an American polling place in flames, like the ballot box in Massachusetts that was burned earlier this week — that would immediately circle the globe. Some enthusiasts may simply enter the area around a polling location to root out voter fraud — as the president has directed his supporters to do — taking advantage of a 2018 court ruling that allows the Republican National Committee to pursue “ballot security” operations without court approval.
Would that mean that Mr. Trump caused any such planned activities or improvisations? No, not directly. He’s in an ongoing conversation — one to many, in a twisted e pluribus unum — with a vast population, which is in turn in conversations — many to many — among themselves. People are receiving messages, interpreting them and deciding to act, or not. If, say, the Proud Boys attack a polling location, is it because they were spurred on by Mr. Trump’s “stand back and stand by” instructions? Is Mr. Trump telling his most fervent supporters specifically what to do? No. But security officials are terrified by the dynamics of this volatile conversation. It can move in so many directions and very quickly become dangerous, as we have already seen several times this year.
I find all of this to be as hallucinatory as it is terrifying: even given the extremely non-normative conditions of the last three years, I still find myself approching Suskind’s prognostications with a sense of disbelief. Up until fairly recently, it was possible — if we squinted hard enough, and overlooked a range of unsettling stories about Diebold voting machines or red state voter ID measures — to kid ourselves that the US was somehow home to a wholly functional 21st century democracy. After all, you’d get John King and whatshisbucket from MSNBC pawing and groping their “big boards,” gleaming electronic maps of the electoral college states and their estimated tabulations; you’d get the losing candidate to phone the winner to concede by 11 or 12:30 or so PM, and there would be a series of amusing anecdotes, full of Schadenfreude, about Karl Rove whipping himself up into frustrated indignation when his anticipated waves of suburban conservatives failed to materialize, or the comeuppance of the whole “unskewed polls” belief system that allowed Mitt to live in the fantasy-land of an imaginary impending victory. Then, nothing but champagne, balloons, and parties set to amazing Curtis Mayfield playlists until the wee hours.
But now we’re in a moment where a veteran journalist, whose sources are high-ranking government officials, is conjuring up the possibility (or likelihood) of an imminent dystopian hellscape, with the Proud Boys instigating their own little beerhall putsches all over the country, Trump weaponizing the DOJ and the more ambiguous passages from the Constitution to secure his own hold on power.
Anyhow, please do have a look at the piece, if only to give yourself an unsettling picture of what might or might not happen. If anything, for the reasons Suskind vividly outlines, it would do well for Democrats to secure a win that is, as the Biden campaign apparently calls it, “too big to rig.”