American Carnage

Samuel Rubinstein 3 November 2020
“Destruction", in 'The Course of Empire', by Thomas Cole – Wikimedia Commons

‘Given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election there will never be a peaceful transition of power’. Before his fall from grace in 2018, Michael Cohen enjoyed a very close relationship with Donald Trump. Aside from being his attorney for twelve years, Cohen was the vice-president of the Trump Organisation, the co-president of Trump Entertainment, the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee: few individuals have been so close to Trump for so long, in a variety of contexts, and few know the inner workings of his mind as well as Michael Cohen does. If he is scared, we all should be.

What was unthinkable a few years ago, the scenario that Cohen warned us about, is now at the forefront of most people’s minds. Joe Biden is poised to win the election, but Trump will not concede. And for this, there is no precedent. The constitution never considers that the loser of a presidential race simply wouldn’t concede, and why should it? Losers accept defeat: that is the cornerstone of political stability. Trump’s ‘win at all costs’ mentality is unintelligible to the constitution’s framers, alien to their understanding of the gentlemanly politics of honour.

Trump’s ‘win at all costs’ mentality is unintelligible to the constitution’s framers, alien to their understanding of the gentlemanly politics of honour.

To concede in an election, to facilitate the peaceful transition of power, is one of the most patriotic acts any American can undertake. Al Gore in 2000 eventually understood that, in the national interest, he had to concede to George W. Bush. At a personal level, he may well have felt aggrieved: his victory was scuppered by the more arcane elements of Floridian election law, a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, and a rigid and draconian dismissal of ‘hanging chads’. But Gore placed the constitution and democracy above his wounded ego. Even Richard Nixon, a politician hardly known for his self-sacrifice, morals, and patriotism, accepted defeat to John F. Kennedy in 1960, even though he could feasibly have litigated his way to victory.

Trump clearly is not the same. He is already casting doubt on the democratic process by threatening not to concede to Joe Biden. Trump’s entire personal brand is built on being a ‘winner’: ‘We’re going to win so much that you’re going to be sick and tired’ was his rallying-cry (it seemed ludicrous, then) back in 2015, when he was taking on the establishment from the outside. Trump was reluctant to name his son after himself, because (as he said to his then-wife, Ivana) ‘What if he’s a loser?’. He does not want to even be associated with ‘losing’; defeat is by far his biggest fear.

And to be defeated by someone as doddering and mediocre, at least to Trump’s mind, as Joe Biden, would carry a particular sting. This, after all, is Biden’s third attempt at the presidency. Back in 1988, he was defeated in the primaries by Michael Dukakis. If Michael Dukakis (who?) can beat Joe Biden, then surely Donald Trump can. Gore might well have resented being defeated by Bush. He was experienced and clever; Bush was sloppy and gaffe-prone, propelled onto the national stage only by the coincidence of his birth. Nixon, the soldier and self-made man, might have resented Kennedy on similar lines: young, vapid, the embodiment of east coast privilege. But neither Gore nor Nixon allowed their animus or narcissism to obstruct the democratic process. Trump, however, lacks that ability to separate his personal grudges and grievances from basic political responsibility.

But what, in practice, will this actually look like? Since it has no precedent, it is very difficult to say. The image of Trump being physically escorted from the White House by Navy SEALs is not so far-fetched as we might like to think; as an aside, one of Biden’s merits in the primaries, as I tried to persuade my Sanders-supporting friends, was that, should it come down to it, the generals are more likely to back him than someone further to the left. More probable is Trump throwing all of his resources in a vain attempt to salvage victory in the courts. If Biden wins in a landslide, the conventional narrative goes, the Republicans will abandon him en masse, accepting that Trumpism is not electorally viable. If it appears to be tight – especially he seems to be ahead on election night until all of the votes are counted – Republicans in Congress might stay loyal. A compelling narrative could emerge that the election was an illegitimate farce, or that Biden won due to voter fraud. It is feasible, alarmingly so, that this narrative would be effective, inciting political violence up and down the country. Trump’s odds of winning in this fashion are slim, but he should feel emboldened by the fact that the Supreme Court, should it get that far, tilts very firmly in his favour, three Democrats to six Republicans, three of whom he appointed.

A compelling narrative could emerge that the election was an illegitimate farce, or that Biden won due to voter fraud.

And it is the point about extrajudicial political violence which is most frightening. Because Trump’s supporters, even if they are a small minority of the American population overall, possess a majority of firearms, and, like Trump himself, some of them won’t concede, and won’t accept the new reality of Joe Biden occupying the White House. He will, in their eyes, be an illegitimate usurper; it will be their responsibility to save America from the grip of the far-left Antifa Democrats, whatever the cost.

What is it like, I often wonder, to live at the very beginning of a dramatic and unexpected moment in history? How many people realised, when Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke in Sarajevo, what that event would come to signify? There were no doubt alarmists and pessimists who immediately assumed the worst. But there were also some who dismissed the pessimists as far-fetched and hysterical. We all know who got it right.

One of the most interesting academic debates of the last decade has been that between Steven Pinker and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and like all of the best academic debates (Plato-Diogenes, Leibniz-Newton, and, in the more recent online world of 2020 psephology, Silver-Morris) it is tinged with intensely personal contempt. Pinker argues that the last seventy years have been a golden age for humanity, characterised by the end of political violence. Wars are scarcer than ever, as nations across the world have enriched themselves through capitalism and liberal democracy instead of plunder. We look back on the history of conflict with a sense of confusion: conflict, after all, is highly irrational, so why did people ever resort to it? We know better now; we are no longer impelled to sacrifice our lives for things like religion or the nation; the twenty-first century man doesn’t bother with such things. Thus we enjoy an unprecedented age of peace, which shows no sign of slipping away.

Taleb is a pessimist. Human beings are psychologically and evolutionarily disposed towards conflict as a means of resolution. There will almost certainly, in our lifetimes, be a great and terrible war. We have not escaped that aspect of our nature, and we never will. War is one of the only constants in the human experience, and we are foolish to believe that we have outgrown it. Pinker sees a trend of only seventy years and expects it to be representative of the future. He is like the Wall Street analyst of the summer of 1929 who assumes that the good times will last forever, or the German citizen of 1932 who cannot conceive of his country, civilised and European, as anything other than a tolerant democracy.

Wars don’t happen anymore. Except, of course, for when they do. We like to follow Pinker in imagining ourselves as living in a post-violence age, where political disputes are settled through negotiation, compromise, and election. We like to imagine that the current world order of capitalism and prosperity represents an invincible age of tranquillity, in which states and their leaders have finally acknowledged, after centuries of being blind to this fact, that it makes more sense to trade with one another, to get along with other people, than it does to resort to conflict. Yet in terms of political polarisation, today’s America is surely the worst it has been since 1861, and this election is the most contested and potentially explosive since Lincoln’s.

In terms of political polarisation, today’s America is surely the worst it has been since 1861, and this election is the most contested and potentially explosive since Lincoln’s.

So, armed with what little precedent we have, why not take seriously the prospect of a second American Civil War? There’s no point being coy about it: this is my sincere prediction of the next few years, and, given the information we have, it seems eminently rational. The ingredients for civil war are all there. If Biden wins, maybe we can hope for Trump to scuttle away into obscurity (though I can’t imagine him actually saying the words “I concede”). But a large number of Trump’s supporters, and their large number of firearms, won’t perceive and respect Biden as a legitimate president.

‘A great civilisation’, says Will Durant, ‘is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within’. Perhaps I am a hysterical pessimist, more Taleb than Pinker, and, soon enough, this article will be seen either as horrifyingly prescient or hopelessly ridiculous. Still, it is unquestionably clear that we cannot expect the norms of American democracy to apply this time around. The founding fathers could not have anticipated the first civil war, and they could not have anticipated this election either. The 3rd of November 2020 is a momentous date in the history of the world. We must prepare ourselves to witness America’s destruction from within.