As both national and state-level polling reveal growing support for Joe Biden’s bid to make Donald Trump a one-term president, Trump and his allies have begun framing the stakes of November’s election in increasingly apocalyptic terms — and rejecting the idea that a Democrat could legitimately win.
Thirty-six of the 45 men who have shouldered the burden of the American presidency have done so by way of a peaceful transfer of power from a living predecessor. Of those 36, nine have done so after failing to secure a second four-year term.
But even by the hardball standards of American presidential politics, Trump’s reelection bid stands out in history as the sole example of an incumbent president who is pushing his supporters to view a loss as the end of the republic, rather than the end of his political career.
This unprecedented strategy is raising concerns among experts on extremism and authoritarianism, and even veterans of Republican politics who say it is likely to result in violence should Trump lose in November.
While speaking last Friday at the foot of Mount Rushmore as part of an official, taxpayer-funded celebration of American independence, Trump characterized the antiracist protest movement that has swept the country in recent weeks as “a new far-left fascism” and a “left-wing cultural revolution” that is “designed to overthrow the American Revolution” and “would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress”.
The next day, on the 244th anniversary of American independence, he stood on a stage built on the White House’s south lawn for an official event at taxpayer expense, to declare war against a growing majority of Americans who oppose him, dismissing them as “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing”. He claimed that “the process of defeating” those people is akin to the Greatest Generation’s battle against fascism during the Second World War.
And on Monday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Sean Hannity’s primetime Fox News audience that the incumbent President of the United States — who, according to recent polling, trails Biden in many key battleground states — is “the only thing that stands between the mob and the American people”.
“First, it’s the statues. Then it’s the businesses. Then it’s their homes," said Meadows, whose remarks echoed what his former House Freedom Caucus colleague Lee Zeldin told Hannity four days earlier.
Zeldin posited that losses by Trump and other Republicans in November could leave the federal government looking like governments in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Los Angeles (all of which have majority-minority populations and prominent non-white leaders).
“This is what one-party rule is going to look like in Washington, if we allow the Democrats to run the table this November,” he said, adding that “losing isn’t an option”. And on that same day, American Conservative Union president Matt Schlapp — a close Trump ally whose wife Mercedes is an adviser to the Trump campaign — warned his 193,000 followers that “if the Marxist leaders [Democrats] have their way, we will celebrate Independence Day for the last time as a free people”.
Brian Klaas, a University College London professor of global politics who studied political violence in non-western nations as part of his doctoral fieldwork, told me he “would be surprised if there is not at least some sporadic low-level violence around the election” in the event of a Trump loss, as a result of his frequent promotion of conspiracy theories and explicit arguments against Biden’s legitimacy as a candidate.
“Our election is looking much more like an election in developing world countries…and what really worries me about this is that the [Republican] base has been primed to not believe that the election is legitimate if Trump loses… [Trump also] suggests that if the Democrats were to win, that this would be the end of life in the United States,” he said.
“In modern American history, there has never been a major mainstream political figure who has argued that his opponents are not legitimate,” Klaas continued, adding that the “high concentration of weapons among Donald Trump’s supporters,” plus the “steady diet of information that tells them that they are the last defense for America against some conspiracy against them” in most conservative media, is a toxic combination that could cause an unstable person to respond to a Trump loss by lashing out violently.
“People who have really worked themselves up in this vortex of disinformation… and have really gone down the rabbit hole… may take Trump's tweets literally and say: ‘OK, they're my enemies, they're committing treason, they're part of the Deep State, and it’s time to be a patriot and stand up against them,’” he said. “That would be very, very dangerous.”
Former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who won election to Congress as part of the Tea Party backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency, said the current track of the Republican Party under Trump is “the last gasp of a dying party” that will become “even more desperate” if they lose control of the White House or Senate this fall.
“They will engage in violence, they will engage in trying to stop the machinery of government from even working,” said Walsh, who broke from the GOP to mount a brief, quixotic primary challenge to Trump last year.
“I can see them in states and even in DC, not even participating — walking out. A lot of it will depend on what Trump does, because I still think Trump's gonna be around, and he'll be calling a lot of shots,” he added.
Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst who consults with law enforcement agencies on combatting far-right extremism and domestic terrorism, warned that there is already significant “chatter” about the election among right-wing extremist groups, which he said are “flourishing” under the Trump administration.
“They're already talking about what they are gonna do if the Republicans don't win,” he said. “They've already… accepted the narrative that it would be a false election, that it would be a result of fraud.”
Johnson, who was pushed out of DHS after a 2009 report warning of a resurgence of recruitment and radicalization by right-wing extremist groups provoked outcry among Republicans, said the increasing number of Republicans in state and local politics who are sympathetic to extremist beliefs raises the probability of violent confrontations, particularly in places like the Pacific Northwest.
“You've got people like [Washington State Delegate] Matt Shay advocating and working with people that were actually training white Christian males in the art of warfare and getting them kind of stoked for a violent confrontation with the left. And there's other delegates and congressmen that are sympathetic and supportive of these types of causes,” he explained.
“These extremists have crept into mainstream politics, and they're trying to say one thing, but they're doing another behind closed doors. It's something that's growing and is increasing in volatility, so the capability to inflict mass carnage already exists within… these far-right groups.”
Jonathan Lockwood, a veteran Republican operative who recently served as a spokesperson for Republicans in the Oregon Senate, said Johnson’s concerns about the Pacific Northwest are valid.
In recent years, Oregon Senate Republicans have thrice fled the state to deny the Democratic-controlled legislature a quorum rather than allow the passage of legislation with majority support, forcing Governor Kate Brown — a Democrat — to use the state police to compel lawmakers’ attendance at the state capitol.
During one such walkout last June, Dallas, Oregon state senator Brian Boquist warned that police should “send bachelors and come heavily armed” because he would “not be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon”.
Lockwood, who broke with the GOP after the Trump administration used tear gas to suppress peaceful protesters in Washington last month, said the “continued pattern of lockouts” stems from “defiant objections to being governed by Democrats,” and posited that those same sentiments could result in a violent reaction from some corners of the right to a Biden win this November.
“I think we should fear a violent uprising… All it takes is for Trump to say one line or post one tweet,” he said, adding that such an uprising could consist of occupying state capitols or even taking hostages to prevent state legislatures from certifying election results.
“I think you could see takeovers of every [state] capitol, since the president seems to enjoy watching that from DC, and the country can descend into a chaos that we've never seen. People are gravely underestimating how pervasive these conspiracies and the de-legitimizing of Democrats governing truly are.”