During the presidential election of 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly remarked that the election was rigged against him, and suggested that he might challenge results that were not in his favor.
In his new book, Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020 (Twelve Books), Lawrence Douglas, Amherst’s James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, conjectures what might happen if the 2020 results do not favor the incumbent president and such a crisis plays out.
“The Obama administration,” says Douglas, “was prepared to deal with a candidate challenging the results of the election. But if you have an incumbent doing that, that’s a far more dangerous situation, because that really represents a challenge to peaceful succession.”
Below, Douglas answers questions about Will He Go?, which outlines a series of scenarios in which the election could go awry.
Q: You say that the idea of peaceful succession is being challenged. Doesn’t our system of government safeguard this?
A: There’s nothing in our laws and Constitution that really guarantees or secures it. What guarantees and secures it is the behavior of candidates. They have to sign onto the norms of the democratic process. That’s what you saw in 2000 when Al Gore lost the presidency by 537 votes. He chose not to push the issue.
Q: In the scenarios in the book, you distinguish between an incumbent’s refusing to concede and his refusing to leave office. What do you mean?
A: If you refuse to concede, you're refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of your defeat even if you do ultimately leave office. My guess is that even if Trump were prepared to leave, he would boycott the inauguration—not an unprecedented act. I believe Andrew Johnson boycotted Ulysses Grant’s inauguration in 1868, Johnson having just recently survived his impeachment.
Q: What else does history teach us about this?
A: The most spectacular electoral mess we’ve had in our history was in 1876. It was this famous election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. As a result of that total electoral meltdown, Congress passed a law in 1887 called the Electoral Count Act, which is still on the books today and is meant to troubleshoot this type of mess. That law is an unqualified disaster. It just does not give guidance as to how to get out of an electoral meltdown once it starts happening. In fact, I would say the law makes it more likely that you go from crisis to complete meltdown and paralysis.
It is not inconceivable to get to Jan. 20, 2021, and not know who the next president is. And that’s a world of hurt. You don’t want to be in that situation.
The best way to avoid it is to not have a really close result. But the Electoral College system makes it all the more likely that you can get a very, very close result, even if the popular vote isn’t all that close.
Q: COVID-19 has completely changed the map, and I see you updated the book to reflect that.
A: I think the COVID crisis makes the concerns I raise all the more pressing and a disputed outcome in 2020 all the more likely. COVID makes it all but certain that a record number of Americans will be voting by absentee ballot—ballots that Trump has already sought to discredit and dismiss as vulnerable to fraud. As we saw in the Wisconsin primary and election in April, voting in November, in the midst of a still ongoing pandemic, promises to be chaotic. Together these create ideal conditions for Trump to challenge and dispute any outcome other than his re-election.