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America is heading toward an autocracy

Trump has clearly signaled his intention to subvert the November election. Believe him.

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

This is a week that should chill the soul of every American who reveres our democracy. We are sliding toward despotism.

It’s hard to be stunned by President Trump, so numb have we become to his outrages. Yet Wednesday was different. Asked at a news conference if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election, Trump opened a clear window into his thinking.

“Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he began, whereupon he launched into a lying rant about the dangers of mail-in voting: “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”


Pressed again about a peaceful transfer of power, Trump replied: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”

Trump has long made clear he believes mail-in voting favors the Democrats. But these comments went far beyond that. Take him at the clear meaning of his comments, and the president was saying that if you disregard mail-in ballots — the way millions of Americans are voting — he will win.

His comments instantly raised alarms on both sides of the political aisle.

“Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus,” tweeted Utah Senator Mitt Romney. “Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”

“These are the statements of a would-be dictator,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.

In other times, with other presidents, I’d consider that an overreaction. A dozen or more years ago, when frantic liberals e-mailed me to fret that George W. Bush wouldn’t accept the 2004 election results if he lost, or that he’d stage a coup to stay in power after his second term expired, I told them not to worry: Whatever one thought of his politics, whatever mistakes he had made, Bush was a patriotic person, and a member of a well-established family with a tradition of public service. He would never do something like that, I’d reply.


Does any clear-eyed person feel that way about Trump? You can, of course, discount the president’s Wednesday comments as just Trump being Trump. Or Trump trolling the Democrats.

Except that in other comments, the president and his enablers have made it clear they expect the election to be contested — and ultimately to be decided by the US Supreme Court. That, Trump says, is why the Court needs a full complement of justices; in other words, he’s rallying his forces to replace the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the election, in order to have a high court more favorable to his cause in such an eventuality.

Add to that The Atlantic’s chilling new reporting detailing the ways Trump and his henchmen may try to rig the election. Barton Gellman writes that Trump and his team would probably launch challenges to suppress Democratic votes, and then call into doubt the legitimacy of the results. Gellman also reports there have been discussions by the Trump campaign and Republican state legislators and party officials about using the confusion as a pretext to replace electors chosen by voters with those appointed by Republican-controlled state legislatures.


“With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly," Gellman writes. “The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act.”

That could leave us in a national crisis that has no predictable or orderly manner of resolution.

We need a chorus of bipartisan outrage. It’s time for public officials everywhere — and the public itself — to denounce the president’s comments. It’s time for high-minded members of his administration to resign in protest.

What can individual citizens do? Gellman has a recommendation: Vote in person if you can, to reduce the chances of having your ballot delayed, challenged, or discounted for any of the reasons a legion of pettifogging political lawyers might concoct.

Trump has signaled his intentions. It’s up to everyday Americans to save our democracy.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.