In mid-August, Atlantic writer Shadi Hamid pushed back on what he called “catastrophism” on the left about the potential of President Trump being re-elected, saying “I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making, and I don’t believe America is a failed state.”  Then, he admitted to what kept him up at night: “I find myself truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.”

Whether President Trump himself would be able to accept defeat and transition peacefully has received large amounts of media attention in recent weeks. Spurred by his repeated claims that defeat would only happen if the election were “rigged.’ 

Much has been written about the concerning trends and rhetoric coming from the President himself and the right in generalpainting an array of nightmarish scenarios. But relatively little has been written about the similarly troubling trend growing on the progressive left. 

Last November, I wrote about growing, increasingly promiscuous references to revolution in American discourse (on both sides of the political spectrum).  In what follows, I review six rhetorical patterns on the political left that I argue—especially in combination—create predispositions towards outright rejection of the upcoming election, even violently. Rather than outlier positions, it’s entirely fair to say that each of these narrative patterns has been embraced by what appears to be a sizable majority of people on the political left.  After briefly summarizing each theme, examples are provided from public commentary and journalism in recent months. 

1. The fate of democracy hangs in the balance with this election.  Although this is something that comes up from each side of any political campaign (yes, virtually every year), something really does feel different this year.  When it comes to speculation about democracy being on the edge of a precipice, people really mean it—especially on the left. Listen to some examples:

  • The editorial board of the Washington Post argued, “a second term [for President Trump] might injure the experiment beyond recovery.
  • Referring to the uncertainty about a peaceful transfer of power, Thomas Friedman asks “will 2020’s election be the end of our democracy?” and ruminates about a possible “end of American democracy as we know it” connected to a contested election. 
  • One filmmaker argues the reelection of President Trump would be “the end of democracy.” 
  • And months before the election, Reed Galen of the Lincoln Project (formerly reliable members of the political right) wrote, “We have to make the next 100 days count. Nothing less than the fate of the republic is at stake.” 

To be clear, the narrative here is not that a re-elected Donald Trump would ‘steer the country in the wrong direction.’  It’s that democracy itself may not survive another four years.  

That’s an appraisal that feels overstated, even among many of the President’s strong critics. For instance, Ross Douthat argues for people to see President Trump as a “feckless tribune for the discontented rather than an autocratic menace.”

Whether or not the future of democracy in America actually hangs in the balance with this election, a large group of people in the nation now believe it. And that’s the point.

2. COVID-19 is sweeping over America, made far worse because of President Trump’s leadership. If you had to single out one dominant theme of all the messaging of the last six months about President Trump, this would be it. The virus has expanded because of his decisions. There are literally millions of examples of such a claim—in virtually every media outlet in the nation.

The same voices insist (and warn) that his continued leadership could lead to many more deaths in the year ahead.  

Are either of these contentions true?  Regardless, to pin vast consequences of an uncertain pandemic in our nation on a single man is something the reeks of politics for many. But the point here is that many believe it to be plainly true.   

3. Racism is everywhereand is a primary force in the Republican party’s recent political resurgence.  While people have seen racism as a problem for a long time, the number of people who see it influencing everything (aka, “systemic racism”) has expanded exponentially, especially on the political left. The entire American system is said to be affected by this corrosive influence—and all the way back. For instance, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called for more recognition that “systems and institutions that have served so many white people so well were built to do just that. They were not built from the beginning to serve everyone.”

That continues to this very moment, in this estimation. Soon after the death of George Floyd, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor decried the event in a New York Times op-ed as “a chilling affirmation that black lives still do not matter in the United States.” She went on to discuss “the failure of the state to protect black people” and argue that the U.S. “government has abandoned us” after years of being “impervious to [African-American] suffering.” 

Columnist Charles Blow similarly highlights what he calls “the nearly unchecked ability of the state to act with impunity in the oppression of black bodies and the taking of black life.” He goes on to describe a pervasive feeling that “people in power on every level—individual officers as well as local, state and federal government—are utterly unresponsive to people’s calls for fundamental change and equal justice under the law and equal treatment by it.”

Black people not mattering?  Abandoned?  With a government impervious – and utterly unresponsive?  

Alongside extensive commentary accusing law enforcement everywhere of caring less about black lives and being (implicitly) motivated to excessively punish them, the Republican Party itself is now widely regarded on the political left as driven by latent racial animus. Scholar Henry Giroux, for instance, claims that “Racism has become an open political strategy for the Republican Party, and under the Trump administration has become solidified.”  He went on to assert that a “culture of racial violence” is “embedded in reactionary cultural traditions, such as right-wing talk radio, militarized borders, police culture, the rise of mass racial incarceration, a blatant double standard in the justice system, and a rabid nationalism”concluding, “Trump made it clear that he is a candidate for aggrieved White Americans and that he is willing to fan the flames of hatred and bigotry.”

This is not an outlier view on the left. Despite early data that questioned similar assertions about racial animus propelling President Trump’s election, he has repeatedly made statements that are taken as fresh evidence for “white supremacy” and “racial hatred” as an animating force among Republicans—and across the entire American system. An August report from the Department of Homeland Security went so far as to call violent white supremacy “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland through 2021.”

Whether or not any of this is, in fact, actually true, the point here is that a large group of people in the nation now believe it.

4. The foundations of the country are rotten too. In the same moment that civil unrest has pressed many conservatives to reaffirm America’s foundational commitments, prominent voices on the left have highlighted recent events as yet more evidence of “fatal flaws” in some of our country’s very beginnings.  For instance, Peter Hornbein writes that the two founding pillars of America are “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” The New York Times’ 1619 Project agrees—claiming that  “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

If that’s true, it’s hard to see why the American system should be preserved. Indeed, filmmaker Ava DuVernay argues for the need to “try to dismantle these systems [in America]”concluding forcefully, “We have to get out of the framework, the way of thinking, that any of this is salvageable—because it’s truly not—it’s built on a rotten foundation.”

Against such an urgent backdrop, another four years of leadership from President Trump is more than a disappointment for many. 

Upping the ante, Caitlin Johnstone writes that “the US empire is the single most destructive force on this planet and is corrupt from root to flower….the US-centralized oligarchic empire is corrupt beyond redemption and should be completely dismantled.”

Beyond redemption?  Destructive force?  Rotten foundation?  

Once again, whether or not that aggression and inequity go to the heart of the American experiment, the point here is that a striking number of people in the nation now believe it.

5. The planet is going to burn up if we don’t act quickly to take certain stepssteps that Republicans have not shown the moral courage to do. Worries about climate change as a far off, looming threat have effectively shifted in recent years, especially among the political left, to something much more pressing and immediate. At a summit last year, for instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to say, “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.”

While some liberals have pushed back on such dire fears, her comment is hardly anomalous when considering the way many people are talking today. In an article that announces the “endgame” and “final battle for the climate,” Adam Tooze calls expanding commitment to “climate stabilization” “the most urgent priority” for society today.  And in a Washington Post piece, Amber Phillips described “scientists’ warnings that in about a decade, without action, the planet will be irreversibly, catastrophically damaged.”

Against such an urgent backdrop, another four years of leadership from President Trump is more than a disappointment for many.  It’s an “existential” threat.  As Frank Lutz summarized, “If you are a believer in climate change, reelecting Trump is literally the end of the world.” In an article called the “Climate Consequences Election,” Nathan Iyer reflects widespread progressive sentiment in writing, “Over the past four years, generations of career civil servants and scientists who have spent a lifetime fighting for environmental protections have watched their life’s work get pissed on by climate deniers gleefully burning their agencies (and our nation) to the ground.”

And in a talk about the fires in California, Joe Biden argued that if Donald Trump “gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating, and more deadly”adding, with “four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?”

Whether or not, in fact, President Trump would move us much closer to the brink of environmental disaster, a large group of people in the nation now believe it. And that’s worth paying attention to as the election nears. 

6. The reason conservatives keep winning is that they are cheating. They are retaining and increasing their power unfairly and dishonestly.  The rapidity with which this particular view has taken hold on the political left is remarkable. With a shock of President Trump’s election that’s never really faded, the lead-up to the next one has involved heightened attention to voting and efforts on the right to preserve (what some call) “ballot integrity” and (others call) “voter suppression.”

Voting manipulation is something that many progressives now see as “widespread”—and happening everywhere Republicans hold power in the country (something conservatives dispute as conspiracy).  

More broadly, scholar Benjamin Park accuses religious groups supporting Trump of being “ dedicated to parroting undemocratic positions that privilege the interests of the few over the rights of the many”using power as “the privileged class using undemocratic measures to overrule the opinions of the majority.”

This particular narrative has been punctuated (and underlined and bolded) by the heated debates around Supreme Court appointments, both now and in the recent past. For instance, reflecting the consensus view on the left, Gail Collins writes about “Mitch McConnell’s totally undemocratic refusal to bring Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland up for a vote.” The anger about this previous incident remains raw, with each new appointment more salt in the wound.  Upon hearing news of Justice Ginsburg’s death, scholar Reza Aslan tweeted, “If they even TRY to replace RGB, we burn the entire [expletive] thing down.” 

Paul Waldman described the recent Amy Coney Barret hearing to replace Justice Ginsburg as a “disgusting spectacle of GOP dishonesty.” Another commentator said, “Trump and Republicans have broken with tradition and perverted the Constitution to stack the Courts.”And E.J. Dionne went so far as to say “the GOP is lying its way toward expanding the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.”

Whether or not, in fact, these perceptions accurately mirror the intent and actions of Republicans (I don’t believe they do – and my colleague Christopher Cunninham has highlighted one key perspective almost entirely missing from public discussion), the relevant point here is that a large group of people in the nation now believe it. 

These perceptions are real and widespread:  Republicans are lying to us. They are cheating. And they are breaking the rules. 

Of course, rule-breakers, cheaters, and liars need not be tolerated. Indeed, these convictions predispose a uniquely militant response to ongoing happenings politicallywith increasing references to the 6-3 Republican Supreme Court and the ongoing Republican majority in the Senate as a kind of “permanent minority Republican coup.” After describing conservative power in the Senate to increase their Supreme Court majority as an effort to “entrench minority rule,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich writes, “There is no reason to accept the structure of our democracy when it repeatedly empowers a ruthless minority to impose its will over the majority.”

Where does this all lead?  And what does it all mean?

Cumulative consequences.  If it’s true that a sizable subset of Americans now believe that Republicans are retaining power dishonestly and illegitimately, and largely due to racism endemic in the party (and the country as a whole from its birth). And if they also believe the fate of democracy, America’s health, and the planet as a whole hinges on regaining the White House, what does that mean for the ability of progressives to accept defeat? (Which is 13% according to FiveThirtyEight Forecasts; 30% according to betting markets and a remarkable 56% according to Gallup polls of who the American public guesses will win).  

It means they won’t accept it.  Many just won’t.  

And really, how could they? (if they believe all the foregoing)

Both sides bear moral responsibility for creating conditions of deep discontent and seething animosity

The combined force of all these perceptions above was evident in a recent New York Times feature that began with this introductory commentary:

The Trump presidency has brought American democracy to the breaking point. The president has encouraged violent extremists; deployed law enforcement and other public institutions as weapons against rivals; and undermined the integrity of elections through false claims of fraud, attacks on mail-in voting and an apparent unwillingness to accept defeat. In this, he has been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has fallen into the grips of white nationalism. The Republican base and its white Christian core, facing a loss of its dominant status in society, has radicalized, encouraging party leaders to engage in voter suppression, steal a Supreme Court seat in 2016 and tolerate the president’s lawless behavior [emphasis my own].

Rampant cheating.  Endemic racism.  And democracy on the brink.

How could anyone willingly go along with four more years of that?

Yes, of course—some on the left would accept the results, however heartbroken they may be.  But the combination of these six narratives above, in my view, make the political left extremely volatile right now. Metropolitan police forces are preparing for violent protests after the election.  Ask yourself this:  if President Trump were re-elected and that happened, how would the larger Democratic Party respond?  

Would they urgently raise their voices to help quell the violence?  Or would they say little and perhaps even rationalize some of the aggression, as progressive thought leaders have so often this summer?  

This is a good time to point out that deep skepticism many feel about these messages above is why some believe a second Trump victory is coming. That is, it’s precisely these  widely held narratives that so many others find exaggerated and repugnant.  So, as the president pushes back on climate and COVID alarmism, and the damning messages about American history and racial equity, many (perhaps more than we know) are planning to vote for him.  

Whatever happens, though, it’s clearly not just such rhetoric on the leftor corrosive comments on the right that are responsible.  It’s the interaction between the two.  Both sides bear moral responsibility for creating conditions of deep discontent and seething animosity . . . as it were, ready to erupt. 

What would it take to trigger the volcano?  

A Biden loss.  Returning to Shadi Hamid, where we began, he proposes: 

A loss by Joe Biden under these circumstances is the worst case not because Trump will destroy America (he can’t), but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy.… In presidential elections, once is a fluke; twice is a pattern. I struggle to imagine how, beyond utter shock, millions of Democrats will process a Trump victory. A loss for Biden, after having been the clear favorite all summer, would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change—at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high.

He goes on to point out that “A certain kind of cognitive dissonance—the gap between what is and what should be—can fuel revolutionary sentiment.”  “In such situations,” he continues, “acting outside the political process, including through non-peaceful means, becomes more attractive, not necessarily out of hope but out of despair.”

Despair.  Fury.  Rage.  

And all that entails.  That’s what many of us predict a Trump victory would bring America.  

Whether that is the “inevitable backlash of the evil leftists” or the “justified indignation of a people being taken advantage of” would be another point of gaping disagreement.  

None of us would want the violence.  All of us would be horrified by it.  

But it would find us all the same. As Joseph Jimmy Sankaituah has written in a stirring warning to America from Liberia, “Violent conflict can creep up on you, like the darkness of night arriving in gradual shades. The creeping menace can desensitize you until the hour is too late.”

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