The Eve of Destruction

There are plenty of scenarios for unrest following the election, but the most plausible comes from the right.

Election Night used to mean several things in the news business. Cold coffee and free pizza is the newsroom stereotype. There was also the grueling and annoying task of calling local election officials to see what the returns looked like. It’s been almost a decade since I sat at a desk in a newsroom on Election Night and made those calls, ate too much pizza and drank coffee deep into the night to add my small part of the larger news-gathering operation that needed to get into the paper before deadline. But that doesn’t mean I don’t fondly remember it as a moment when the wheels of democracy peacefully rolled along a track toward some shared future.

It’s an idealistic vision that is somehow able to invade the minds of otherwise very cynical journalists. It’s one I can’t imagine possessing anymore, not with everything I’ve seen and covered in the last six years since I left newspapers for good.

We are on the precipice of something not seen in this country for several decades. A choice between a very dark future or a relatively normal one. This Election Night will not be like any of the others in my time behind a computer screen. That idealistic vision of a peaceful transition of power is gone, bludgeoned to death by the same dim violence of Donald Trump’s madness that has ruined much of the American experience in the last four years. The normal preparedness — lining up all the phone numbers at far-flung election boards two counties away; preparing to do the thing I hate most about reporting: approaching random people to ask them their political opinions; and reaching out to losing and winning campaigns — now must be joined by preparing for unrest.

A recent email from an editor stuck out to me in its indication of this new, disheartening normal. He just wanted to make sure I was available for deployment in the event of clashes at polling places, acts of vigilantism, and general chaos. Forget calling polite and competent local election officials to get vote counts; I and many other people are making sure our cars are gassed up and gas masks cleaned because of the fucked precipice we as a nation now find ourselves on.

Another realization of this danger zone we are all about to march into came yesterday when my wife asked about all the possible scenarios. I began talking about early voting numbers being probably good for Biden, the likely possibility of a “red mirage” on Election Day, and a new poll showing Biden ahead in several swing states. That wasn’t what she was asking. She wanted to know what I thought were the various scenarios and their consequences on the streets.

In order of least likely to most, they are as follows:

Trump landslide

This very implausible scenario would cause more confusion than anything else. After that, the left would take to the streets nationwide just as they did in historic numbers after Trump’s first election. But the protests will be more subdued, I believe, because many in the crowds will understand that their efforts to incapacitate a second Trump term will be better used elsewhere — donating to Democratic politicians, backing liberal groups, and supporting organizations that defend migrant, abortion, voting and other rights under attack from Trump and Republicans. There is the slight possibility of a left-wing domestic terror attack, but that’s not historically been part of the left’s playbook, and in the last few years has increasingly been part of the right’s.

Biden landslide

This is the best possible Election Night outcome not just for humanity but for a chance to avoid unrest. A Biden landslide will defuse those on both the left and the right who would otherwise take to the streets in any of the scenarios below. Trump will make his typical complaints about a rigged election, but the numbers will be too overwhelming for many Republicans to back his claims. More importantly those numbers will be too damning for many of his radical supporters to do anything other than complain. But, if Trump refuses to leave office — and is subsequently removed by law enforcement or the military — his supporters may enact revenge on the various groups they blame for his defeat. Finally, as is the ever-present danger of American life, a militia group or a lone wolf, enraged by Biden’s victory, could pull off a mass shooting or other act of domestic terrorism.

A close win on Election Night

Where all this is almost certainly headed, the tight numbers on Election Night will likely cause the nation to freeze. Trump voters, who apparently believe the coronavirus is not a threat, will turn out in large numbers on Tuesday, prompting Trump to claim victory as millions of mail-in votes stream in and are counted — or not, as the president has directly told Americans he intends to prevent. If Trump does something crazy, like sign an executive order saying no more votes can be counted, DC will burn. Short of that, as the numbers go up and down for each candidate in the days and weeks following Tuesday, there will be flare-ups in places where votes were discounted or added to either side’s tally. Imagine the Brooks Brothers riot but in several different states and involving supporters from both sides. Behind the scenes, lawyers from both campaigns will be maneuvering to have their votes counted and their opponent’s thrown out. Then will come the court cases and the lawsuits — which are already twice the number that came as a result of 2000’s contested presidential election — and the worst possible scenario for mass unrest: a Supreme Court case.

2000, but worse

Clearly part of the playbook considering how much emphasis Republicans placed on quickly nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a decision at the country’s highest court for either candidate will cause acts of violence. That unrest will be more widespread if the decision comes down for Trump, which early indicators point that it will. Protests in major American cities will turn violent when police try to crack down on protesters. Right-wing agitators will embed themselves in the crowds to stir the pot just as they did in the wake of George Floyd’s killings. The president, emboldened, will insist on a heavy-handed law enforcement response. His supporters might take to the streets themselves, feeling justified by the Supreme Court decision and protected by law enforcement who overwhelmingly support the president, to enact their own violence on protesters.

The unsettling truth is that something will burn and someone will be shot on or following Election Day. The unrest has already begun in New York City, where Trump supporters and protesters clashed on Sunday afternoon, with police intervening. If it’s flames, it will be because Trump either won or stole the election through the courts. The fire will come in a riot, because riots are the weapon of the left. If it’s a shooting, it will be because Biden won and Trump claimed — as he has been telling us that he will do for months — that the election wwas stolen from him. Someone will be shot by someone on the right because the weapon of the right is the gun. It is their weapon both because they are cowards who could never kill someone with their bare hands and because the gun is a ruthlessly efficient weapon that has proved very successful in the killing the right’s enemies in Black churches, Jewish synagogues, Walmarts filled with brown people, and all the other places I’m forgetting right now where the president’s supporters and right-wing terrorists have murdered their fellow American in the past four years in support of Trump’s fascist ideology.

Everyone has something to lose in this election. But Trump’s white working class base — the same people likely to be armed or involved with militia groups — have not only a higher propensity for violence but something they desperately can’t afford to lose: identity. Their jobs didn’t come back from China, as Trump promised. Their taxes aren’t any lower and their wages no higher. Their healthcare isn’t any better than it was before as a pandemic sickens or kills their family and friends, upending their lives. All they have is the sense of white identity that the president provides through his daily rages and grievances. This is what comforts them — it is all that they have — and losing it could send them over the edge.

All the photos from this post are from Inauguration Day in 2016. I had forgotten that millions took to the streets following Trump’s election, which is a good reminder when considering what will happen in any of the scenarios above. I will be covering events on Tuesday from my home in Savannah. If anyone has anything that needs looked into or hears about plans of violence or unrest, please let me know. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share this newsletter with a friend. To all, godspeed.