If President Donald Trump loses the election on Nov. 3, what are our chances of a peaceful, dignified transfer of power of the sort that has generally characterized our republic from its beginning?
Let’s face it: The country is not in a good mood. And a country this cranky is going to be hard pressed to put aside its partisanship long enough to perform the essential democratic ritual, the willing concession of power by one party to another following a national election.
Whatever you thought of President Barack Obama, he deserves credit for a remarkable act of statesmanship on Jan. 20, 2017, when he and Michelle graciously welcomed Donald Trump and Melania to the White House. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow, but he swallowed it, for the good of the republic.
Could Donald Trump do the same? It’s hard to imagine, but it might be possible.
Still, we have cause for concern. Trump has not readily accepted the norms that undergird our nation, and he equivocates when he is asked if he will commit to abiding by the result of the election. He regularly sows seeds of doubt in advance of the election, already arguing that it is “rigged” and that millions of illegitimate ballots will be cast for his opponent.
Further, it’s easy to overstate the congenial ease with which presidential power has always passed from one administration to the next. A few presidents have so begrudged the loss of the office that they have refused to attend the inauguration of their successors.
And the ultimate exception to our history of peaceful relinquishment of power is probably Abraham Lincoln, whose election in 1860 was the proximate cause of the Civil War.
Some alarmists have even suggested that the partisan divide is so deep in our country that a second civil war is possible. If this sounds unduly pessimistic, search the term “boogaloo” for a sobering description of a fringe movement that collects the disgruntled of all stripes into a loosely organized band that is less committed to any particular ideology than to the attractions of chaos and weaponry.
In fact, many of the boogaloos fantasize about the glories of a second civil war, in which ideology won’t be nearly as important as the opportunity, at long last, to put their AR-15s to their intended use.
Frankly, I’m not sure how worried we should be about fringe players like the boogaloos. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much of a fuse to set off a bomb as volatile as the one that our country has become in recent years.
Anger, frustration, discontent, grievance, economic disruption, conspiracy and fear make for a dangerous mix in a country whose population is much better armed than it was in 1861 and whose citizens have been systematically inured by media and by reality to violence and bloodshed.
Thus I’m less concerned about the boogaloos than I am about the masses of ordinary citizens who are angry, well-armed and itching for a fight. Last week in the small town in south Texas where I grew up, as the City Council met to discuss what to do with the Confederate monument that has stood in the town square since 1912, a troop of ordinary citizens showed up to defend the monument with semi-automatic weapons.
And when I talk to committed Trump supporters, in person or via e-mail, it’s disquieting to note how often they remind me that they are well-armed. It happened twice last week. Somehow this feels more like a threat than pure information.
A second Civil War? Let’s hope not. But we should take seriously the possibility of a Civil War Lite, during which the Trump administration departs, but not without some level of bloodshed.
Trump, of course, could defuse a great deal of our current volatility by committing to our most essential democratic norm, the peaceful transfer of power. He doesn’t appear likely to do that. Brace yourself.