Will He Go?

Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020


By Lawrence Douglas

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In advance of the 2020 election, legal scholar Lawrence Douglas prepares readers for a less-than-peaceful transition of power.

It doesn’t require a strong imagination to get a sense of the mayhem Trump will unleash if he loses a closely contested election. It is no less disturbing to imagine Trump still insisting that he is the rightful leader of the nation. With millions of diehard supporters firmly believing that their revered president has been toppled by malignant forces of the Deep State, Trump could remain a force of constitutional chaos for years to come. WILL TRUMP GO? addresses such questions as:

How might Trump engineer his refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat? What legal and extra-legal paths could he pursue in mobilizing a challenge to the electoral outcome?

What legal, political, institutional, and popular mechanisms can be used to stop him?

What would be the fallout of a failure to remove him from office? What would be the fallout of a successful effort to unseat him?

Can our democracy snap back from Trump?

Trump himself has essentially told the nation he will never accept electoral defeat. A book that prepares us for Trump’s refusal to concede, then, is hardly speculative; it is a necessary precaution against a coming crisis.



On the last day of August 2019, a group of prominent scholars gathered in a conference room in the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Befitting the center’s mission, the scholars represented Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives. What brought them together was a shared expertise in presidential electoral law. That, and a fear that our process for electing the president might be vulnerable to spectacular failure.

To describe the threat facing our system, some of the experts borrowed metaphors from astrophysics. An asteroid is heading straight toward America. Are we equipped to knock it out of the sky? Others spoke in meteorological terms. A Katrina-like storm is gathering off our shores; how strong is our system of levees?

Their sobering answer—prepare for a flood.

For tens of millions of Americans, the 2020 election promises to accomplish what the impeachment proceeding never stood a chance of doing—remove Donald Trump from office. For those who questioned the tactical wisdom of impeaching the president, focusing on 2020 was always the better way to go.

Come Tuesday, November 3, at issue will not be whether Trump committed high crimes or misdemeanors but whether he has earned another term as the nation’s chief executive. Republican lawmakers cannot accuse Democrats of trying to defeat the will of the people if the people vote Trump out of the White House.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Trump will be defeated at the polls. But if he is, he will leave the White House not as a martyr of Congress but as a rejected incumbent. Trump survived the judgment of the Senate; he will have no choice but to submit to the verdict of the voters.

That is the hope, anyway.

Some observers, however, have expressed grave doubts about the coming election, including several of the experts gathered last summer in the D.C. conference room. Their concern was not that Trump might win the election, or that he might steal it through disinformation, foreign interference, and voter suppression, real as those concerns are. Their worry was different. What if the election produced an unclear result, one that could be contested? Or what if Trump lost—but refused to acknowledge or accept his defeat?

To believe that beating Trump at the polls provides not only the proper but also the most secure way of removing him from office is to miss the singular menace that this president represents to a basic principle of democratic governance: the peaceful succession of power. If Trump is thoroughly trounced in November 2020, he will be limited in his maneuvers, master in democratic negation though he may be. But in case of a slender victory by his Democratic challenger or an uncertain result, chaos beckons. Trump will not go quietly. He might not go at all.

Asked to assess the magnitude of the risk that Trump represents to orderly succession, most of the experts I consulted soberly gave it a nine on the proverbial one-to-ten scale. A former senior advisor to President Obama reflected for a moment, then gave a different answer: “Do we have an eleven?”

Note to reader: As this book heads off to press, Joe Biden has emerged as the clear front-runner in a two-man race with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. In the pages that follow, I assume that Biden emerges as the Democrats’ candidate. Please excuse me if history moves faster than book production.



November 3, 2020: The GREATEST FRAUD in HISTORY!!

Imagine the following scenario: It’s November 3, 2020, election day. The most expensive—and nastiest—presidential race in U.S. history is over. Turnout is light but only because the COVID-19 outbreak has led tens of millions to vote by absentee ballot. By the time polls close on the West Coast, the race remains too close to call. President Trump carries the crucial swing state of Ohio, keeping his chances of a second term alive. But shortly after midnight, CNN projects that Joe Biden has won Pennsylvania, giving him 283 electoral votes, 13 more than the 270 needed for victory. Wolf Blitzer announces that Biden has been elected the forty-sixth president of the United States.

The other major networks also declare Biden the winner, with one exception—Fox. At 2:00 a.m., Biden delivers a short speech to his jubilant supporters. He notes, to a chorus of boos, that President Trump has not yet called to congratulate him and expresses the hope that he will be hearing from the president shortly.

His wait is in vain; the call never comes.

In a feisty address to his supporters in the Presidential Ballroom of the Trump International Hotel in D.C., the president makes clear that he is not about to concede. “We knew they’d stop at nothing, didn’t we?” Trump says. “The radicals and socialists who control the Democratic Party can’t beat me fairly, and they know it. So now they’re trying to steal our victory. These are bad, bad people, disgusting people. Scum—I hate to say it, but it’s true, it’s so true. But something tells me they’re not going to get away with it, are they?”

No!” the crowd calls back raucously.

“I think I see some folks here willing to fight the scum. Am I right?” Trump asks.

Yes!” roars the crowd before breaking out into a chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight!

The next morning, the nation awakes to a presidential Twitterstorm.

Donald J. Trump


Biggest SCANDAL in AMERICAN history! Rotten Dems tried to steal presidency with FAILED Mueller WITCH HUNT. They tried to steal presidency with FAILED impeachment WITCH HUNT. Now SLEEPY JOE and the CORRUPT Dems are trying to STEAL this election from the American people. I will…

Donald J. Trump


… fight the RIGGED result and will punish TREASONOUS CNN and failing NY Times and the Pelosi GANG responsible for worst election HOAX ever!! The TREASONOUS HATERS won’t get away with the GREATEST FRAUD in HISTORY!!

And so begins a constitutional crisis of unprecedented gravity.

Of course, it may never come to this. To begin with, there is no guarantee that the American people will vote Trump out of office. He continues to enjoy fervent support among his base; he holds the same geographic Electoral College advantage he had in 2016; and he has amassed an enormous war chest of contributions to finance a campaign far more sophisticated and organized than his prior bid. While the COVID-19 pandemic has rattled financial markets and exposed the administration’s failure to mount a timely response, the fact that a president who presided over three years of economic growth would even face a serious electoral challenge is a testament to how divisive and unhinged Trump’s leadership has been.

But while his defeat is far from certain, what is not uncertain is how Donald Trump would react to electoral defeat, especially a narrow one. He will reject the result. Our nation needs to prepare for this scenario. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat is not possible or even probable—it is all but inevitable.


Trump Rejects Defeat

How can we make this prediction with such confidence? In February 2019, Michael Cohen ended his testimony before the House Oversight Committee with this note of alarm: “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”1 Two months later, in an interview with the New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed this concern, warning that should Trump lose, “he’s not going to respect the election.”2

We needn’t turn to Trump’s former “fixer” or to the House Speaker for insight into Trump’s intentions. Trump himself has essentially told the nation he will never accept defeat. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he insisted in a tweet that “there is large-scale voter fraud happening” and predicted that the election “could be ‘stolen’” from him. His campaign website entreated supporters to “help me stop Crooked Hillary from rigging this election!”3 In an August 2016 interview with Sean Hannity, Trump predicted that “the election is going to be rigged,” adding, “I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”4

Two months later, in his third and final debate with Hillary Clinton, candidate Trump refused to answer when moderator Chris Wallace asked him whether he would “absolutely accept the result” of an electoral loss. “I’ll look at it at the time,” Trump responded. Reminded by Wallace that the peaceful transition of power is a critical feature of our constitutional order and essential to American political stability, Trump still refused to commit to accepting the results. “I will tell you at the time,” he repeated. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”

The comment left Hillary Clinton visibly stunned. Calling Trump’s response “horrifying,” she went on to elaborate: “That is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years.… We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them, and that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.”5

Clinton was hardly alone in her astonishment and dismay. In its post-debate coverage, MSNBC ran a chyron: “Trump Refuses to Say If He Will Accept Election Results.” CNN led with virtually the same message—“Trump Won’t Commit to Accepting Election Results”—while the Associated Press declared that “Trump Refuses to Say He Will Accept Election Result,” and accused him of “threatening to upend a basic pillar of American democracy.”6

The prominent American historian Douglas Brinkley went further still, describing Trump’s words as “secessionist” and “revolutionary”; they were the views of a presidential candidate, Brinkley commented, “trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”7

Most pundits, on both the left and the right, agreed that in challenging the peaceful transition of power, Trump had sealed his fate. Nicolle Wallace, an NBC News analyst and advisor to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said, “He may as well have laid down in his own coffin with a hammer and nail and pounded it in himself.”8

Nonetheless, the Obama White House was sufficiently concerned by the possibility that Trump would refuse to accept defeat that senior staff convened in late October 2016 to fashion a response to the political crisis such a refusal would ignite. The plan called for congressional Republicans, former presidents, and former cabinet-level officials, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, to publicly validate Clinton’s victory. They would also emphasize the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community—namely, that the Russians had interfered with the election and had done so to favor Trump, not Clinton. The idea, as Ben Rhodes explained, was to avert any potential crisis in as bipartisan a manner as possible.9



Trump Rejects Victory

While Trump’s election may have spared the nation the trauma of a presidential candidate refusing to accept defeat, it presented us a no less unusual display—a president-elect challenging his victory. In January 2017, the freshly inaugurated president tweeted, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” In the following days, Trump repeated and refined this claim, insisting that three to five million illegals threw the popular-vote count to Clinton. By way of proof, the president waved at an outlandish story: that golfing great Bernhard Langer had allegedly been barred from a polling station while others “who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote” were allowed in.1 Never mind that American voters have no particular “look”—or that Langer, a German citizen, could not himself have legally cast a ballot in 2016; the significant story here was the specter of a freshly inaugurated president challenging the results of an election that he had won.

In the 2018 midterms, Trump again played the fraud card. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis enjoyed a slim lead in the gubernatorial race, as did Republican Rick Scott in the Senate race, but state-mandated recounts promised to erode and possibly reverse these leads. Taking to Twitter, Trump attacked the recounts, alleging, again without an iota of proof, that Democrats were committing fraud:

The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible—ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!2

The recounts did not overturn DeSantis’s and Scott’s victories, but rather confirmed them; still, the episode again revealed a Trump fully prepared to attack the integrity of the electoral process in order to get the result he wants.



Elections the Authoritarian Way

The prospect of Trump refusing to accept electoral defeat in 2020 raises an obvious question: What would he hope to gain by challenging the system of peaceful succession?

To answer this, let me begin with an obverse question: Why would any incumbent leader ever accept electoral defeat? If the question sounds frivolous—if our clear answer is “Because he lost”—it’s only because the astonishing stability of our constitutional order makes us see the peaceful succession of power as a natural and inevitable feature of political systems. In truth, it is anything but.

Those who have studied nations transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy have shown that it is always easier to stage the first democratic election than the second.1 The first election is a moment of promise; it typically features a contest between persons offering bright visions of a nation’s future, with no candidate enjoying a claim to leadership prior to the verdict of the people. And whatever their differences, all the candidates typically express support for the nation’s fledgling democracy and pledge to eliminate the vestiges of authoritarianism.

Yet once installed in office, the new leader’s enthusiasm for democratic elections begins to wane. As the next election looms, the leader is now something more than a candidate—he is an incumbent. For the incumbent, the original justification for staging an election no longer applies. The electoral process has already served its purpose—it has installed him in power. With that power comes wealth, prestige, and immense influence, not only for the incumbent himself, but for a large coterie of supporters who share in the administration of power or otherwise benefit from the largesse of the regime. For the incumbent and his supporters, the very process that brought them to power now represents a threat.


  • "It's not clear that American democracy can survive if Donald Trump is re-elected, and it's not clear it can survive if he isn't. WILL HE GO? is the most compelling sort of political thriller -- one whose outcome will affect us all."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 17.0px; font: 14.7px Helvetica; color: #262524; -webkit-text-stroke: #262524}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of The Sixth Extinction
  • "Part page-turning thriller, part elegant mystery novel, part savvy political roadmap, part sophisticated legal and historical primer, this marvelous book is the first to take seriously a question many are too scared to ask themselves: What happens when the president, who believes he won the 2016 election in a popular landslide and without any help from his Russian friends, is convinced the 2020 election was stolen from him by a deep state conspiracy? In what ways might everything we know about Donald Trump and his devoted followers lead to an unprecedented constitutional crisis in 2021? Clearly written and carefully researched, this exploration of the several catastrophes we might face is a must-read for anyone who cares about preserving America."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}Laurence H. Tribe, author of To End A Presidency: The Power of Impeachment
  • "This is a break-the-glass alarm not just for one election, but for our constitutional democracy."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Helvetica}Richard Wolffe, New York Times bestselling author of Renegade
  • "As Douglas expertly shows, the principal constraint on ousted presidents behaving badly has historically been the collapse of support from within their own political party. But a far better solution would be to put our resources into making election results harder to dispute. It's unquestionably the right conclusion; one hopes only that it won't be too late."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Helvetica}Professor Stephen I. Vladeck, University of Texas School of Law
  • "With characteristic acuity, Lawrence Douglas asks the question so many would rather avoid: what if President Trump loses the election but refuses to leave office? His answer may astound you. But the best defense is a good offense. Read and prepare!"—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Helvetica}David D. Cole, national legal director, ACLU

On Sale
May 19, 2020
Page Count
160 pages

Lawrence Douglas

About the Author

Lawrence Douglas is the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College. He is the prize-winning author of seven books, most recently The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial.

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