It’s Not Over Until January 20, and It Can Get Worse
“Well can’t you see that this is the last act of a desperate man?”
“We don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V, we’re leaving!”
- Blazing Saddles
Hours after the networks called the election for Joe Biden, I went into Manhattan for the first time in a while. I saw the crowds celebrating. Peacefully.
But I saw something else that stopped me in my tracks. Throughout mid-town, storefront windows were boarded with plywood, a precaution against violence in the streets by Trump supporters if the election turned out just this way. They had been put up the day before Election Day.
Never in American history had businesses foreseen the need to take precautions to protect their businesses from property damage in the event an incumbent president lost. But they had reason to.
This presidency has been defined by the President using incendiary language to signal to his followers that it’s okay to take matters into their own hands.
This has been his pattern from the start of his campaign in 2015, but it has escalated in the last few months. And the pattern predicts that Trump will continue to escalate his rhetoric in his final days, and his followers will respond.
LIBERATE: Second Amendment Remedies
In April, when Trump was trying to prematurely re-open businesses in violation of his own government’s guidelines, he tweeted about the state governors’ mask mandates: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and three minutes later by“LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” But this one included the seemingly irrelevant addition, “and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
The reference to the Second Amendment was both curious and ominous. There was nothing going on in the states that in any way amounted to an attempt to restrict gun rights. But the President blended the issue of mandatory masks with the right to bear arms.
Experts immediately saw the risks in that kind of language. Mary McCord, former acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that this was a call for insurrection. She noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that advocacy that is:
“…inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action loses its First Amendment protections.”
“The president’s tweets — unabashedly using the current crisis to encourage a backlash against lawful and expert-recommended public health measures, falsely claiming a Second Amendment “siege” and calling for insurrection against elected leaders — have no place in our public discourse and enjoy no protection under our Constitution.”
Soon after the President’s tweets, groups of armed militia members, unmasked, entered the Michigan state capitol and confronted masked state police. Some legislators donned bulletproof vests while in the legislative session.
Trump tweeted that these armed men were “very good people,” an echo of his post-Charlottesville comments.
We learned in October that some of those militia members took the “Liberate Michigan” tweets to a different level.
On October 8, federal and Michigan prosecutors arrested and filed charges against 13 people who had conspired to kidnap a number of governors, including Michigan governor Gretchen Witmer in order to subject her to a show trial and then to execute her. Several of those arrested had been among the “very good people” who stormed the state capitol in April following the President’s Liberate tweets.
Governor Witmer specifically called out Trump for inspiring the conspirators:
“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action.”
And then, rather than condemn the plotters, Trump denounced Governor Witmer.
Running Down the Biden Bus
We saw a similar pattern on the Friday before the election.
Trump supporters tweeted that they were waiting for the Biden campaign bus to pass and would then “escort it.” They posted their location. As the bus passed a number of pickup trucks, brandishing Trump 2020 flags and logos, it was surrounded on three sides by the trucks, which seemed to be trying to run the bus off the road. One truck seemed to intentionally ram another near the bus.
Police trying to get to the bus were not able to because the pick-up trucks had blocked access. A witness said that many of the people in the trucks were armed.
The Biden campaign cancelled two of its events that night.
The FBI began investigating the incident, even as Trump defended the trucks. Trump tweeted of the incident, “I LOVE TEXAS!” along with a video of the bus.
He later called the supporters in the convoy “great Americans” and tweeted that “these patriots did nothing wrong.” And he criticized the FBI for investigating the wrong people.
The Monday before election day Trump tweeted that news reports about the FBI investigating the incident were false.
Playing GI Joe
Trump has also been toying with deploying the active-duty military. In June, just before military-garbed police violently cleared the peaceful protest in front of the White House so Trump could get a photo-op holding a bible in front of a church, Trump had been lobbying U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to mobilize the active-duty military to keep order in the streets. He had already called up combat troops with the 82nd Airborne Division to Maryland and Virginia to be ready to deploy into Washington DC.
On a call with President Trump and governors, Secretary Esper said it would be necessary for states to “dominate the battle space” to keep order.
That was too much for former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who finally broke his self-imposed silence.
In a story in The Atlantic, Mattis said, “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate’… Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.
Mattis’ candor prompted other retired three-and-four star officers to do the same. Secretary Esper backed down and agreed that the “dominate the battle space” language was inappropriate.
This event took on renewed relevance this weekend as multiple news reports said that Secretary Esper has prepared a letter of resignation. He is the only cabinet member so far to be said to have done so.
A Peaceful Transfer of Power?
For months, as recently as the first presidential debate, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. Vice President Mike Pence dodged the question when he was asked at the vice presidential debate.
In the meantime, Trump has failed to concede defeat, has falsely claimed that he has won, and continues to tweet, without evidence, that there was massive voter fraud in the election.
On Saturday, he tweeted that he had won by a large margin, causing Twitter to question the accuracy of the tweet.
Trump spent the weekend golfing at his Virginia golf club and rage tweeting about the election.
As his options dwindle and as Biden takes up the mantle of being the next president, Trump is behaving like a cornered animal, and that is dangerous. We have seen time and again that when Trump’s rhetoric escalates, so does the response of some of his followers.
The plywood is still up on New York City storefronts. It may be prudent to keep it there. Trump is perfectly capable of riling his true believers into taking to the streets. It isn’t over until it’s genuinely over. And we still have 70 days to go…