Of course, the fact that Trump ultimately prevailed in a clean and constitutionally legitimate Electoral College victory then doesn’t invalidate alarm about Trump’s willingness to wreak havoc now. Not even victory prevented him from alleging that mass voter fraud had been conducted against him in 2016; he’s absolutely certain to publicly challenge the results of this year’s election no matter who ultimately wins. And the concerns that Trump and sympathetic Republicans might actively work to stymie or obstruct the full counting of votes this time around are well justified. But we also shouldn’t neglect the possibility that Donald Trump might win the election just as he did in 2016—by the time the counts are done, he comes out genuinely ahead in the states he needs to win the Electoral College again. What happens then?
For the past several months, a number of articles on what awaits us in November have referenced war games conducted by the Transition Integrity Project, a kind of pop-up think tank on the election. It counts over 100 academics, political operatives, government officials, and pundits as members, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, former Democratic National Committee Acting Chair Donna Brazile, Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol, and Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager John Podesta. After Trump refused to commit to conceding during that last debate in 2016, Podesta condemned him, saying Trump’s remarks had been “a tremendous mistake.” During the Transition Integrity Project’s simulation of this election in June, Podesta played a Joe Biden who’d won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, just as Clinton did. He refused to concede.
“In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned,” The New York Times’ Ben Smith wrote last month. “The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.” A report from the group describes what happened in more detail—California, Oregon, and Washington threatened to secede, yes, but in order to extract a set of concessions from Trump and Republicans. “With advice from President Obama,” it reads, “the Biden Campaign submitted a proposal to 1) Give statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico; 2) Divide California into five states to more accurately represent its population in the Senate; 3) Require Supreme Court justices to retire at 70; and 4) Eliminate the Electoral College, to ensure that the candidate who wins to the popular vote becomes President.”
This is practically surrealism. Joe Biden and Democratic states are not going to threaten the break up of the United States this November, and those who participated in the scenario knew it. Secession was proposed because secession was, evidently, the only means they could conceive of for extracting structural concessions from Republicans after a Trump victory; it’s the kind of idea one puts out and teases out when there are no others left. There’s something inescapably risible about this: The notion that major political figures who’ve done absolutely nothing whatsoever over the last four years to advance the cause of eliminating the Electoral College would, in a strategy session just months before the election, finally address the Electoral College as a problem by imagining, in a deranged game of make-believe, the Democratic nominee bravely instigating an epic constitutional crisis on the behalf of reforms he’s publicly criticized and opposed.