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How Trump could still win — the 1876 plan

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Donald Trump is one of five men who have become president without winning the popular vote. Could he do it again in 2020? He is well behind in the current polls and has been stricken by COVID-19, but he could still retain the presidency.

Unless the vote for Joe Biden is overwhelming, Trump and his supporters could achieve another minority victory with an “1876 plan.”

By depressing the minority vote, delegitimizing the results and creating enough legal chaos that the Electoral College cannot reach a majority of 270, the Trump team could throw the election into the House of Representatives where each state has one vote. Something like this happened in 1876, though most historians regard that precedent as a shameful and corrupt bargain. Such an outcome today might be within that constitutional precedent, but it would shred the norms and substance of our democracy.

American politics is highly polarized, but this has been true at other times in our history, and our democracy has survived.

A difference in 2020, however, is the idiosyncratic personality of Donald Trump, who observes few of the moral norms that form the guard rails that democracy requires. For example, according to Washington Post fact checkers, as of July 2020, Trump has made over 20,000 false or misleading statements while in office. All presidents have told lies, but the extent of Trump’s behavior debases the currency of truth and trust that are essential to democracy.

As a leader, Trump stands out for his low emotional intelligence. Psychologists describe emotional IQ as the ability to understand and master your emotions as you try to lead others. Trump is clearly smart, but his temperament ranks low on the scales of emotional intelligence that made FDR or Ronald Reagan so successful, but which undid Richard Nixon with his “enemies list.” In “Do Morals Matter?,” my recent study of 14 presidents, Trump ranks in the bottom quartile in the negative effects of his personality on foreign policy. Confirmation of this judgement can be found in descriptions by his former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Many analysts expected that after the 2016 election, Trump would move to the center to broaden his political support as George W. Bush had done after his minority victory in 2000. Instead, Trump continued to play to his loyal base and used that base as an effective weapon to threaten primary campaign challenges so that Republican Congressional figures feared to express open criticism. 

Conventional wisdom also expected a victorious Trump to change his style of using Twitter to make outrageous unstaffed statements and to “become presidential” after his inauguration. Instead, he governs with the techniques he learned from reality TV — being outrageous helps you control the focus of the camera.

As Trump says in “The Art of the Deal,” this was the management style he used in his New York real estate business. But this approach also creates blind spots.

According to Tony Schwartz, who assisted Trump in writing the book, “Early on, I recognized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.” Schwartz attributed this to Trump’s defense against domination by a father who was “relentlessly demanding, difficult and driven . . . Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others.”

Whether Schwartz is correct or not about the causes, Trump’s ego and emotional needs often seemed to color his interpretation of events and to limit any sense of moral constraints. Journalist Bob Woodward reported that Trump told a friend about bad behavior toward women that “real power is fear . . .  You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. Never admit.” Trump’s amorality is not merely a matter of etiquette — it leads him to try to corrupt the outcome.

The democratic remedy to such behavior is inoculation of public opinion by full discussion of the such possibilities. Before the election, the public must become accustomed to thinking of “election month” not “election night” — and the press should prepare accordingly. The slogan should be “all votes count: count all votes!” even if it takes weeks. After that, if the president and his supporters refuse to accept the results, non-violent protests could help.

As the political scientist Erica Chenoweth has noted, historically a wide variety of non-violent protests have been effective — not by melting hearts but by changing incentives.

Perhaps, a massive early victory can avert an 1876 plot, but citizens must prepare now to defend our democracy.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.” He served as undersecretary of State and chairman of the National Security Council group on nuclear nonproliferation during the Carter administration, as assistant secretary of Defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, and as a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board during the Obama administration.

Tags 2020 election contested election Donald Trump Electoral College electoral college tie House vote Joe Biden John Bolton Legal challenge peaceful protests

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