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Be Alarmed

Things are probably going to work out okay. But complacency in the defense of democracy is not a virtue.
November 9, 2020
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I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us.

—Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838


I know, I know. Donald Trump is a petulant child, and congressional Republicans are just humoring him. The Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco is an appropriate symbol of his shambolic efforts to contest the election results. The firing of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is a spiteful but basically insignificant gesture on the president’s way out the door.

And Donald Trump can’t steal the election. He’d have to convince state or federal courts of ridiculous arguments. He’d have to flip not one, but three states. And state legislative leaders have shown no interest in the faux-originalist argument that they can ignore the voters of their states (and the laws of their states) and appoint their own slate of electors.

So it’s all annoying; it’s even reprehensible. But it’s not really threatening.

I think that view is probably correct.

Probably.

But.

But what if the demagoguery about election fraud and the sophistry about the prerogatives of state legislatures is repeated over and over for four weeks by Trump and his surrogates, and isn’t refuted by many, if any, prominent conservatives and Republicans?

And what do we make of Mitch McConnell refusing to acknowledge the election results today? And of the two Georgia Republican senators attacking their (Republican) secretary of state, with no basis in fact? And of the Republican governor of Georgia echoing those attacks? And of Attorney General Bill Barr announcing a Justice Department willingness to investigate if there are “allegations” (even, apparently, if no evidence) of election irregularities?

Are we 100 percent certain this doesn’t soften the ground enough so that what seems almost unthinkable now becomes thinkable? Are we 100 percent certain the state legislature in, say, Georgia, won’t start considering things that now seem outside the realm of the possible? And if the unthinkable actually happens in Georgia, are we certain that it could not then happen in Wisconsin? And Pennsylvania?


And are we 100 percent certain that the firing of Defense Secretary Esper is just a matter of spite?

Esper is most notable for having come out and said that the military would not intervene in domestic affairs at the behest of the president. Perhaps the new acting secretary of defense might take a different view.

And maybe there will be more firings. Perhaps CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Chris Wray will be pushed out.

You could talk yourself around to dismissing such moves, too. You could tell yourself they wouldn’t really mean much.

But is it totally outside the realm of the possible that, with more compliant figures in charge of these parts of the government, “information” might be revealed or plots “discovered” that help legitimize not allowing the process to move forward to an Electoral College vote that would yield power to Joe Biden?

It’s probably outside the realm of the possible. Probably 99 percent outside.

But not 100 percent.

If none of this happens—and again, it’s likely not to—those of us who are willing to entertain such concerns will be mocked for alarmism.

Fine. No one will be happier than me if this all proves a false alarm. If it’s just the Keystone Trumps firing up the base and causing mayhem on their way to launching Trump TV—great.

But we need not stand around speculating about alarms and alarm systems. We have agency. If prominent Republicans and influential conservatives take the threat seriously, and speak and act against it, they can harden our institutional and civic defenses against any such threat.

A little alarmism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Complacency in the defense of democracy is no virtue.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.