So I really hate to get political, or rather I hate to give the impression that I may be getting partisan, but I was a little alarmed when I saw Trump’s comments this week on whether he would “commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election”. I watched it several times to make sure I was hearing it right, and as I always do, I tried to see both sides of this conversation. Honestly, the most generous reading I could come up with was that the president simply didn’t understand the phrase “peaceful transfer of power”. Considering that this is a man whose entire career has been one long act of false bravado, I could imagine that he was perhaps just refusing to even countenance the idea of losing the election.
But what came out of his mouth was a refusal to abide by the most basic principle of American governance. The long history of peaceful relinquishment of power is one of the only tenable arguments for American exceptionalism. It is ironic that a president who claims to think America is great would refuse to abide by one tradition that actually does make us great. The idea of a president refusing to leave office is mostly silly, but I began to imagine what would happen.
First off, we may be saved from this scenario by a landslide Democratic victory. I’m generally not a fan of huge mandates for either party, because I am committed to a principled neutrality. I think that handing the keys to either of these ships of fools would be the worst thing for our country. Gridlock is the only way to keep them all in check and let America get on with business. But if one of the parties is threatening some low-grade civil war if they lose, I suppose I would have to hold my nose and pull for a big blue win.
That doesn’t look terribly likely though. What feels most likely is a narrow Biden margin. In this case, we’d be looking at Mr. Syracuse sulking in the White House for several months. Hopefully, that would give enough time for the Supreme Court to make a Bush v. Gore decision on the election. I know people are bent out of shape about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the possible appointment of another conservative justice, but I really do think the court will decide by conscience not party. These are professional attorneys who understand the law and they serve for life, so they have little incentive to curry favorites. I’m not a psephologist of any kind, but I don’t put much stock in the conspiracy theories about voting. I think the court would decide in favor of Biden.
Now our scenarios get really wild. Trump doesn’t strike me as a physically courageous man, but what would happen if he refused to leave? Would a standoff occur? Would it be in DC? New York? Or would Trump attempt to rule as some anti-pope from Mar-A-Lago? In DC, the population would clearly be hostile to Trump. I don’t think the capital would be a good place for him to stay, but if he did, we would have 27 different law enforcement agencies who would potentially be called upon to remove him. I don’t know whose responsibility it would be, probably because no American president has ever been irresponsible enough to talk this way. I’m not sure anyone knowns. Would it be up to the Secret Service to defect? Would you have multiple agencies making different decisions and possibly coming to blows between themselves? Lincoln had to depend on the services of the Pinkerton Agency to ensure his personal security during the first days of the Civil War. I’m not sure the lines are drawn any more firmly today. Would Trump need to rely on private security forces? Would they back him?
I’d like to take it for granted that the military would follow the law in deciding whether or not to support a rogue president. I suppose I do in my heart of hearts. But in these days, it seems at least remotely possible that the question could be up in the air. To reference the events of 1861 again and the war I hope we can continue to refer to as the first and only American Civil War, each branch of the military made its own decisions. The Navy went overwhelmingly with the Union and the Army, especially the officers went south. I think this is how it would go again. Politically, the Navy and Air Force are less conservative, and geographically there would be very little ability for the red states to support much of a navy. But the Army at the officer level is dominated by right-leaning, white, and mostly evangelical people. That isn’t as true at the rank and file level, but most of the expertise would go red, I think.
So, if Trump could manage to survive in the short term. I think the Army would back him. That would be the most likely way for him to succeed. In the highly unlikely event of a long-term war, the higher population of the blue states, the fact that the Army enlisted population is much more diverse, and the fact that the blue states would control nearly the entire American coastline would prove decisive.
But like most fantasy scenarios of modern war, this leaves out the truly decisive factor of geopolitics in the last century. What would happen to the nuclear arsenal? The world has never seen, aside from some low-grade regional insurgencies in India, a civil war in a nuclear armed country. Even when the Soviet Union fell, nations like Ukraine relinquished their weapons (much to their later chagrin). In the United States, the Navy would control the submarine fleet, while the Air Force would control the bombers and the missile silos. But if quick-thinking and politically right-leaning members of the Army moved to seize either the bombers or land-based missiles, we could quickly have a standoff where conventional might would be nearly meaningless. So, this is the truly frightening scenario, where nuclear blackmail could be used to keep an electorally neutered president in office. It seems too dark to even contemplate a president holding the country hostage this way. Thank goodness Trump has shown such restraint throughout his presidential term.