By the time you read these words, we will have basked in the midnight returns from the tiny New Hampshire communities of Dixville Notch and Millsfield. And, if 2016 is any guide, Donald Trump should have emerged with a lead from the combined vote at around 12:05 a.m. on election morning.
You can almost expect that sometime today, Trump will loudly claim that all votes counted anywhere in the nation after the two New Hampshire pinprick towns are illegitimate. Everything that Trump says about the election is governed by an unalterable strategy — if it is good for him, it is real; and if it isn’t, then it’s “fake,” “rigged” or “dangerous and terrible.”
Trump, if somehow you haven’t noticed, is about as good at keeping a secret as a hyperactive 7-year-old who just found a closet filled with early Christmas presents. Talking with reporters Sunday in North Carolina, he confided, “We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.”
This, it must be stressed, is not the president’s response to a close, knotted election like 2000. It is his reaction to any outcome — including an unequivocal Joe Biden triumph — that displeases him and will ultimately displace him.
There have long been persistent rumors that Trump will prematurely declare victory on election night if the numbers on the TV screens suggest he has taken an early lead. Since in-person votes are expected to favor Republicans while slow-to-count absentee ballots are assumed to tilt Democratic, Trump would have a deceptive, Potemkin village edge.
(Trump as recently as Sunday has denied these reports. But let’s just say that the president’s words are not exactly the gold standard for factual truth.)
Not over till it’s over
TV networks and The Associated Press have been stalwart in their determination not to call any state based on misleading, fragmentary early returns. And a growing percentage of voters are aware that the presidential race almost certainly won’t be called until Wednesday or even later.
None of this is new.
In this century, only Barack Obama’s twin triumphs in 2008 and 2012 were called on election night. Even Trump in 2016 had to wait until the wee hours Wednesday morning to have his victory formally ratified by the networks.
But there are two massive differences this Election Day. We have, of course, never held an election in the middle of a pandemic with an upsurge in balloting by mail. And, more important, we have never had a president who has publicly refused in advance to abide by the results of a democratic election.
As the returns come in tonight, it is safe to predict that Trump’s behavior will be even more mercurial than ever. If the numbers are genuinely looking good for the incumbent president, Trump may indulge himself with nothing-can-stop-me-now stunts like firing Anthony Fauci on national TV, as if the nation’s most respected doctor were a losing contestant on “The Apprentice.”
But what if Trump senses that the early numbers are a TV mirage and he sees a second term slipping away from him? The danger is that we will then have a president working overtime to discredit the results of a democratic election.
It is easy to imagine Trump claiming to have discovered some dastardly cabal when overworked election officials in key states fail to complete the counting of the ballots by midnight. Or Trump may concoct the fiction that all remaining absentee ballots are somehow the result of electoral fraud.
Will they speak up?
All this brings us to members of Congress, particularly Republicans.
Any elected official who has ever survived a tight race in a primary or the general election has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of voting procedures in his or her state. What that means is that prominent Republicans will know if and when Trump begins making unjustified charges about the way the votes are being tallied.
The hope — and, yes, I know I am being naive — is that GOP senators and House members will go public to say that Trump is misrepresenting how votes are normally counted and the president is fostering off-the-wall conspiracy theories.
This is not a moment when Republican legislators can get away with their standard “it’s not my table” evasions about Trump’s words and conduct. Under the Constitution, Congress plays a central role in counting the electoral votes and deciding disputed elections for president and vice president.
Even in these polarized times, there are moments when democracy requires elected officials to rise above partisanship. If we cannot achieve consensus on the need to assure a free and fair count of ballots for president, then constitutional government may be coming to an abrupt end after 231 years.
Let me again stress that I am not talking about a knotted election like 2000 in Florida. What I am instead worrying about is if Trump challenges the results of an election in which he has been unquestionably defeated. And if you think that Trump cannot be that dismissive of reality, recall the president’s stubborn claims that he actually won the popular vote in 2016.
Trump, as president, has been as disastrous as I expected when the returns came in four years ago. What has surprised and disappointed me is the subservience of congressional Republicans as they truckled in fear of Trump tweets.
It is too late for most GOP legislators to reclaim their honor. But, at minimum, election night and the days that follow should still give Republicans the chance to do their bit to preserve democracy.
Walter Shapiro is covering his 11th presidential campaign. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.