from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Trump and the Makings of a Constitutional Crisis

October 20, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

During yesterday’s third and (mercifully) final presidential debate, Republican candidate Donald Trump stated explicitly what he has hinted at for months: he will not agree ahead of time to accept the results of the election on November 8. When asked directly by moderator Chris Wallace, Trump only promised: “I will look at it at the time.” Wallace pressed further by explaining the American tradition of a peaceful transition of power, and inquiring, “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” The candidate, trailing Hillary Clinton by 6.4 percent in averaged national polls and forecasted a 12.7 percent likelihood of winning, replied: “What I’m saying is I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

It cannot be overstated how serious and potentially harmful Trump’s comments are. Hillary Clinton responded accurately: “That’s horrifying.” It is possible that he flip-flops on this position, as he has on many over the past fourteen months. During the first debate on September 26 when moderator Lester Holt asked if he would accept the results of the election, Trump eventually admitted: “The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.”

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However, the candidate’s assertion last night must be taken more seriously, as it his final statement on the matter before a national audience, and it echoes what he and his campaign surrogates have been increasingly proclaiming over the past month. Trump alone has pledged to “get a special prosecutor” to look into Clinton’s background, adding “you’d be in jail.” He has encouraged his followers to monitor polling places exclusively in inner cities—“Watch Philadelphia. Watch St. Louis. Watch Chicago”—a transparent call for intimidation of minority voters. He has pre-alleged fraud in the voting process and in the counting of votes.

Most disturbingly, Trump has transitioned from making a general case for his presidency, to warning that the election is the “last chance” to save the United States. As he yelled on Tuesday in Colorado, “This is our final shot. Either we win this election or we lose our country. I mean that. I really believe that this is the last time. This is it folks. This is it.” Trump almost certainly does not realize how closely this echoes revolutionary movements, like the Khmer Rouge, or apocalyptic leaders, like the People’s Temple prophet Jim Jones. However, the pivot from mere ideology to “last chance” eschatology may heighten the stakes for his ardent and true believers. If they actually think the United States “ends” in some way if Hillary Clinton is sworn in as president, even some small percentage could reject the outcome and instigate politically-motivated vandalism or violence.

In almost any other country in the world, this escalating rhetoric by a candidate to be leader of state would be early warning indicators of potential electoral violence and political instability. The peaceful transition of power is among the core principles of the U.S. Constitution and of functioning democracies. The United States by most relative objective measures is not the deeply corrupted and nondemocratic country that the Trump campaign seems to believe. It receives a ten, or “full democracy” rating, in the Polity data series and got the highest score for political rights and civil liberties in the latest Freedom House rankings.

Today, on Good Morning America Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway conceded that the candidate respected the principles of democracy, but added: “Unless the results are actually known, certified and verified, he’s not going to concede the election.” According to the National Archives and Record Administration, there are five deadlines for states to certify the election outcomes, and submit them to the Congress. It is only on January 6, 2017, that Congress will meet in a joint session to count the electoral votes. If no candidate receives 270, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution allows the House to decide the Presidency. This means that Trump could enjoy fifty-nine days of media mentions and vitriolic tweeting before deciding how to concede his likely defeat. During this timeframe, he may manufacture a constitutional crisis to further compel his supporters to react angrily, or simply to sustain public attention for the launch of a media empire.

Should Trump overwhelmingly lose on November 8, hopefully he takes the responsible and dignified step of graciously accepting defeat that same evening. Sadly, given his recent statements and outlandish comment last night, we cannot assume that this will be the case. We could be in for nearly two more months of a denigration of American constitutional principles and questioning of the foundations of democratic governance.

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