How Donald Trump Plans to Overthrow American Democracy

Sean Wilentz
·6 min read

Unless we awaken, the American people may well be sleepwalking into an electoral coup d’etat.

If their own words are to be believed, Donald Trump and his operatives have been preparing for the election heist for some time. The rough model will be the 2000 Bush V. Gore election, when, by a single vote, the Supreme Court halted the counting of ballots in Florida, thereby stealing the presidency for George W. Bush.

So ludicrous was that court’s stated rationale, based on a tortured reading of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, that even Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the decision, later called it “a piece of shit.” But if today’s court follows the reasoning of Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a recent important vote-tallying case, the result will be worse than that “shit.” According to Kavanaugh, the counting of absentee ballots ought not to be continued too far after Election Day lest the final tally “flip” the results. This is what Trump has been saying — jaw-dropping in its anti-democratic arrogance even from Trump, but even more shocking coming from an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s colleague, Justice Elena Kagan, had to point out, as if to a schoolchild: “There are no results to ‘flip’ until all the valid votes are counted.” Well, Mr. Justice Kavanaugh: Duh. Trump and his cronies know that advance and mail-in voting are heavily favoring Biden. Yet if and when the election comes before the court, Kavanaugh will prevail, and Kagan — and the majority of the voters — will be likely on the wrong side of a partisan 6 to 3 decision.

The tricky part, for Trump, is how to manufacture something like the conditions that led to the Supreme Court intervention twenty years ago. One gambit would be for Trump simply to declare victory on Election Night, whether or not he held any kind of lead, to give the impression that the Democrats are trying to overturn the results. But the key will be to disrupt by any means possible the counting of votes in states where the vote is close: enough states to keep either candidate from winning an electoral college majority. This could be done with squads of lawyers deployed in state capitals, jamming up the counting, while other lawyers prepare to delay official state certification of any and all close Biden victories. If need be, it could also be done by shutting down the counting by force. In 2000, the notorious “Brooks Brothers riot” staged by a band of geeky but noisy Republican operatives and staff members was enough to shut down the counting of votes in Florida’s Miami-Dade County at a crucial juncture. After seeing the scenes last spring in Michigan — of armed and highly-organized right-wing paramilitaries shutting down the state legislature to protest Covid-19 restrictions, with some of their number plotting to kidnap and execute the state’s Democratic governor, (now under arrest), all as Trump tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” — can anyone, after all of that, doubt that that this time the interference would be much better coordinated and much more violent?

The goal would not be to manufacture an outright Trump electoral victory but only to prevent Biden from being named the official victor in enough states to carry the Electoral College. If Trump succeeds in doing that, he his coup would almost certainly succeed. Under the Constitution, if no candidate for president wins a majority of electoral votes by the assigned date for the Electoral College to cast its votes, this year on December 14th, then the election is decided by the House of Representatives. In that election, the Constitution stipulates, each state is entitled to one vote. Even though the Democrats hold a clear majority in the House overall, the Republicans control more state delegations, meaning that Trump, even if he loses in the popular vote and the Electoral College, would win with 26 out of 50 states. Alternatively, Trump’s phalanx of lawyers could succeed in throwing the election into the courts, which will speed the matter to the Supreme Court. Thanks now to the last-minute addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was a Republican lawyer-operative working with Kavanaugh in Florida in 2000, the Court will elect Trump, six votes to three. These would be the only votes that count in the 2020 election: six of them.

If the opinion polls hold, with some possible variations in details, this is Trump’s plan, his only hope for holding on to the presidency—and not incidentally, avoiding prosecution for his many crimes. Evidently, he thinks the courts are his best shot. How do we know? He has said so: “I think this will go to the Supreme Court,” he told reporters during the run-up to Barrett’s appointment. “This scam that the Democrats are pulling — it’s a scam — the scam will be before the United States Supreme Court.” At 3 a.m., the Friday before the election, Trump desperately tweeted out a warning to the Court not to give Biden a “ridiculous win.”

Trump cries, “Scam!” but he is the one staging a scam, just more of his big lies told with no shred of evidence. The “scam,” according to Trump, is really democracy itself, which, if heeded, would make Trump a loser next Tuesday, perhaps of historic proportions. But after he loses the election, Trump — having turned the American politics and government as nearly as possible into the tinpot dictatorship of a banana republic — could still steal the presidency.

One way to stop him would be for voters who have not yet voted to do everything they can to insure their ballots count, either by casting their votes in person or doing everything possible to insure they arrive by Tuesday. Amassing the biggest possible margins, even in non-battleground states, would make it harder for Trump to cry foul and interfere. But just as important, we need to wake up and call Trump’s attempted coup d’etat — which is occurring in real time, right before our eyes — exactly what it is, the greatest assault on American democracy since the Southern slaveholders seceded in 1860-61, touching off the Civil War. Those secessionists couldn’t be stopped. It’s still not too late to stop Donald Trump.

More from Rolling Stone

See where your favorite artists and songs rank on the Rolling Stone Charts.

Sign up for Rolling Stone’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.