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IDEAS

An Amherst professor predicted exactly how Trump would try to overturn the election. Now he fears for 2024

Lawrence Douglas says the American electoral system is still vulnerable to subversion.

President Trump telegraphed for months what he was going to do to delegitimize the election.
President Trump telegraphed for months what he was going to do to delegitimize the election.Oliver Contreras/NYT

We’re almost there.

Joe Biden is set to take President Trump’s place in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Democracy, it seems, has held.

But in the run-up to the election, there was real doubt about whether we’d get to this point — whether we’d manage to uphold the centuries-old tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College, raised some of the sharpest warnings about what could go wrong.

A book he published in the spring called “Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020” described how Trump and allies could use misinformation and exploit opaque laws governing the Electoral College to overturn the results.

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The analysis helped inform an influential, panic-inducing article in The Atlantic titled “The Election That Could Break America.” And Douglas’s Q&A with Globe Ideas in October proved to be one of the most-read articles on the newspaper’s website in the weeks before the election.

Douglas predicted that if the president lost the election, he would blame the results on fraud and pressure Republican state lawmakers to overturn the will of the voters.

That’s exactly what Trump did, of course. And his strategy failed. But is our electoral system still vulnerable to subversion?

Ideas caught up with Douglas for a postmortem, via Zoom. The professor sat in the same spot in his home in Sunderland, Mass., as he did during our October chat — with an extra layer of clothing to fend off the winter chill. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Trump failed to overturn the election. Why?

All along, we knew that he was going to refuse to concede in the face of defeat. The question was, how successful could he be in this act of electoral defiance?

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I think a lot of it turned on the election itself. Something that we need to bear in mind is — notwithstanding the conspiracy theories that he’s been circulating basically without rest since Nov. 3 — this was an incredibly well-run election. And I think we’re extremely fortunate that was the case. Had there been bona fide claims of gross mistakes in the counting, or systems that had been hacked into, even if they didn’t have any bearing on the overall outcome of the election — I think any kind of genuine misfires would have given his attacks a lot more traction.

Was there some level of incompetence involved here? Do you think if someone like Ted Cruz were to narrowly lose in 2024, he could do a better job of convincing Republican officials to overturn the results in a close state — or winning challenges to those results in the courts?

I don’t think that better lawyering would have resulted in greater success in the lawsuits that [Trump] brought in numerous states, on numerous occasions. I think the failure of the lawsuits was born of the fact that the election was fair, it was open, it was honest.

And I don’t think we should underestimate the kind of pressure that Trump did bring to bear [on state-level Republican elected officials]. It’s very, very difficult to withstand that kind of pressure — and, you know, my hat’s off to people who did so and now are facing death threats as a result.

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And finally, with regard to the lies that Trump told about the election results — they really did demonstrate a lot of efficacy. Not only do you have tens of millions of Americans apparently buying into these lies, but high-ranking GOP lawmakers were willing not simply to assent to them — they actually peddled them, themselves. Look at some of the statements that came from Kevin McCarthy or Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz.

Even after the storming of the Capitol, you had 150 GOP lawmakers — well more than half the GOP delegation to Congress — still refuse to certify Biden’s electoral victory. That’s an astonishing result.

Is that heartening in a way — that Trump made aggressive and even skillful attempts to undermine the election, and yet democracy prevailed?

Yes, it gives me a very modest degree of confidence. On the other hand, we should bear in mind that when Mitch McConnell emerges as the voice of conscience in the Republican Party, that tells us something about the state of the GOP.

As McConnell very rightly pointed out, the result of the election was affirmed by the people, ratified by the states, upheld by the courts — and still you had the majority of GOP members of Congress voting not to ratify it. And if they had been successful, we would no longer be living in a democratic nation. That’s a very disturbing thing to contemplate.

Trump is poised to leave office. But as you’ve noted, tens of millions of his supporters think the election was rigged. And thousands mobbed the Capitol. What are the long-term consequences?

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My worry is, we’re going to have someone to step in as Trump 2.0, even if Trump is rendered — to use the kind of striking statement that his former Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued — a man without a country.

You already know who they are. I mean, that’s clearly what Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz were jockeying to become [when they opposed the ratification of Biden’s victory both before and after the assault on the Capitol]. I think the jury’s still out as to whether they have suffered any long-term damage or whether this is just a short-term hit to their reputations — and through a combination of savviness and opportunism, they’ll be able to position themselves to claim Trump’s base. I think whoever claims that base becomes the most powerful figure in the party.

And you’re worried about what he’ll do with that base.

Yes, absolutely. It seems that in order to hold on to that base, one basically has to buy into the narrative that Trump peddled, and that Cruz and Hawley aided and abetted. I can’t imagine them suddenly standing before the Republican base and telling them, “You know what? Trump really did lose that election fair and square.” You’ve now created this myth of the stolen election of 2020. And even if they’ve repudiated, say, violent storming of the Capitol as the proper response, they haven’t backed off from the myth.

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So in the end, is our electoral system still vulnerable to a Trump-like figure?

I think it is. I think it is much easier to challenge the results of an election when it turns on these relatively small margins in a handful of swing states than if you’re trying to challenge a defeat by a margin of 7 million votes. It’s very hard to make 7 million votes go away. It’s a lot easier to make 11,000 votes go away.

What do we have to do to safeguard our electoral system?

Well, it’s not just our electoral system. It’s our political system writ large. We need to find ways to control the conspiracism that now propels so much of — I have to say — Republican politics. You need to have curators of information. A democracy can only survive if people make informed choices. And people can only make informed choices if their source of information is reliable. And if their source of information is unreliable, and full of falsehoods and conspiracy theories, then inevitably people are going to make bad decisions and choose demagogues.

That said, I do think abolishing the Electoral College and having a direct popular vote would be a helpful step. I think it would be harder to elect a demagogue with a majority of the popular vote. Not that I necessarily have any faith in the wisdom of majorities, but I’ll put it this way: I think it’s harder to elect a demagogue with 51 percent of the popular vote than it is with 45 percent of the popular vote.

Now we’re watching impeachment proceedings happen again. What do they mean for the future of democracy?

It’s extraordinary to see the armed National Guard in their battle fatigues in the Capitol building as this debate is taking place. We’re way beyond the notion of polarization. We’re talking about people who are basically rejecting democratic governance and the question is: How do we deal with that?


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.