This week saw a revival of concern about Trump “refusing to leave office” if he loses the election. The concern is based on a series of articles, starting with a piece in the Atlantic by Barton Gellman, and Trump’s own refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. In the past, I’ve attacked the notion that Trump has the fortitude required to simply stay put. I’ve also negated the idea that Trump will stage a coup. I’ve based my analysis on that fact that Trump is a dull-witted, lazy man with little follow-through and some very real restraints such as the military’s lack of support for Trump (an essential need for him to engineer a coup). None of that has changed.
What else hasn’t changed is my belief that Trump is not the winning strongman he thinks he is, that he puff ‘n bluffs his way through life, and that he lashes out like a defensive child. I have also pointed out that, while Trump might act the child, as president he is so powerful that he should be thought of as a child with a gun. The man is dangerous. He also has his enablers and helpers – William Barr, Stephen Miller, Chad Wolf, Mike Pompeo, Mitch McConnell, and so on – who will do the work for him. But, remember, it is Trump that calls the shots and Trump being Trump he is always vulnerable.
Trump’s vulnerability is that of the bully. The bully thrives on illusion. The bully does not invest in boxing lessons and weight-training. He spends his time convincing us that he is all-powerful, lying that he knows the secret art of Kiai and is deadly. He uses his aura to split the playground. There are those who gravitate towards the bully, eager to live in his power. These people become his lieutenants, junior bullies and bully protégés. And, then there’s the rest of us, those who walk warily in the presence of the bully and his crew.
All of us have lived with bullies. We suffered through them in grade school and beyond. We know the game. We also know that there comes the time when the bully picks on the wrong kid and gets his ass whipped or that eventually the kids in the playground find their collective energy and stand up to the bully. Stripped of the tough-guy veneer, the bully cannot use fear as intimidation. When this happens, the bully puffs bigger and threats become more outrageous and unreal. The bully’s lieutenants frantically work to prop up the myth, for their power is reliant on that of their boss. They hurriedly look for angles and technicalities that they can play, anything to keep the bully alive. This is where we are at with Trump.
Trump is vulnerable and he knows it. His rhetoric has become harsher and more authoritarian. He and his lieutenants desperately try to do whatever they can to undermine the election. Because they have no physical recourse to stop or postpone the election, ban vote-by-mail/absentee voting, eliminate ballot drop-boxes, call off vote counting, and tons of other things that they complain about, they use their words.
When Trump talks about postponing the election, he leans into “because it will be fraudulent.” Trump and his people degrade vote-by-mail as a scam, when there is no evidence of widespread fraud. They claim that drop-boxes are insecure, same thing with US Post, but they provide no evidence. They say that the vote count ends on election day, which it doesn’t and they know it. All these words are designed to rally his supporters and intimidate us.
In 1981, New Jersey Republicans sent out “poll watcher” to prevent “voter fraud.” There was a problem, not only did New Jersey not have widespread voter fraud at the ballot box, the Republican “poll watchers” were not watching polls (which is legal); They were intimidating voters (which is illegal). They got caught and the Republican Party had to sign a federal consent decree that required them to go to a judge before they launched any more “poll watching” operations. The judge would determine if the GOP was out to “poll watch” without trying to intimidate.
Even with the decree, Republicans still sent “poll watchers” out to intimidate voters. They got popped in Ohio in the 2004 elections and again in Texas in 2012. Still, in 2018, the courts lifted the decree. Now Republicans are free to carryout their “poll watching,” without supervision, something that the party immediate jumped on.
Over the past year, the Republican Party has been saying that they are recruiting “50,000 poll watchers” for the 2020 election. Fifty-thousand people sounds like a lot, and it is…if the number is firm and all the people are sent to a small number of cities. But is the number real and where are these watchers being dispatched, too?
Let’s be clear that I have no inside knowledge about this operation, nor does anyone in the press. Let’s also be clear that it is pro forma for Trump and his party to over-inflate and fudge numbers. From the inauguration to rally attendance to PPE’s, we have seen hinky numbers over and again. So, when the GOP says they are recruiting 50,000 people, I am inclined to cut that in half. So, let’s be generous and go with 30,000, still a worrisome number.
It would be crazy to send “poll watchers” to Mississippi or California, states where the vote is pretty much locked in for Trump or Biden. Instead the “watchers” will go to battleground states, which now includes Arizona, Texas, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Iowa, as well as the usual – Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That is twelve states, and, though the last four might very well be Biden’s, let’s say that all twelve are up for grabs.
Thirty-thousand poll watchers evenly divided over 12 states is 2,500 per state. While the GOP will shift some “watchers” from here to there, and they will probably ignore solidly blue cities, we are not talking about a lot of people.
The strength of the GOP’s “poll watching” operation is not in the numbers. The strength is in the threat, which is what intimidation is. I show up puffed up and “ready to fight.” I bring a few buddies. You see us, get scared and run. The key to voter intimidation is not the “poll watchers,” it is how we react to the threat and their presence.
All bullies thrive by seeking the path of least resistance. The first move is always to telegraph their “intent.” Whispers start, the lieutenants chatter, the bully says he is coming – all this in hopes that the bully arrives with no conflict. The closer the bully gets to making his arrival, the louder the trumpeting gets. If that doesn’t work, a little chaos is attempted. A few lieutenants show up to access the situation and perhaps mouth off. If they are bold, they push to see if someone pushes back. Rarely, does the bully set out not knowing if there will be resistance to his presence.
The existence of bullies and the success of intimidation does not rest with the bully or intimidator. The key to bullying and intimidation is how the targets react. Bullies cannot exist without us believing them to be powerful. Intimidation does not work if we refuse to be intimidated. From day one of the Trump administration, this has been my message: We are much more powerful than we realize, but to feel our power, we must reject fear and stand up and fight.
When I write about “worry” it is not to say “Do not worry.” It is impossible to refuse to worry; however, it is very much possible to not get caught in a cycle of worry or an anxiety-feedback loop. We can avoid being trapped in worry like the proverbial “deer in the headlights.” We can feel concern and let go of it. We can feel concern, identify the root of the concern and act on it. My message is feel, identify, and act.
When I write that Trump is lazy and lacks follow-through, I am not saying “Relax, he won’t do anything” – that would be foolish and suicidal. I point out Trump’s weaknesses to demystify him, to destroy his bully aura, and to show that he is vulnerable. I tear him down as I try to build our confidence. I want to smash the bully.
In grade school, I was one of the smaller kids in my class. While I saved myself from many ass-kicking by playing class clown, I still had to deal with bullies, particular one kid who was held back a grade and a pair of twins, who were not much bigger than I but acted as one. The held-back kid tended to rule through fear. The twins terrorized us through intimidation and they were good at it.
The twins would wade into a crowd of happy children and single out one kid, usually the fattest one. Ratty twin would attack, while his weaselly brother would scowl at the other kids, preventing them from interfering. This happened nearly once a week during 5th and 6th grade.
One day, the twins sicked themselves on a kid and a girl named Linda Wills decided to stop them. Kids in my class looked up to Linda because she was a good athlete and nice to everyone. That niceness allowed her to her stepping between the ratty twin and his victim. Linda’s athleticism allowed her to deck the ratty twin and then his weaselly brother.
The minute the twins hit the ground; their bully spell was broken. Fear traveled from our eyes into the eyes of the twins. They saw that we were not afraid and ran, the whole playground chasing them to the back fence, which they scaled as fast as any kid ever climbed a fence. After that day, when the school bell rang, they were first out the door, immediately in sprint. They knew that they no longer held power over us.
The lessons we learn on the playground apply to our adult lives. Voter intimidation, as well as the rest of Trump’s threats, are a bit more sophisticated than the twins’ rat & weasel act, but they are built on the same assumption: That when Trump and the Republicans flex – with threats, lies, boasting, crowds, and lawyers –we will be too fearful or lack the confidence to challenge them. They bank on our insecurity and inaction. They push us into worry loops. They do everything they can to convince us that we are powerless and cannot succeed.
What they do not tell is us the truth: That we are the majority and they are the fringe, that they can only rules us through fear and intimidation, and that once we destroy their bully aura and feel our power, they are through. Yes, we will still have to fight and fight hard. They have power right now and will try to snuff us in court. Nothing will come easy or fast. But we have it in us to stand up to the bullies and make them run away.
Go to the polls. Do not let the fear of intimidation scare you away. If you encounter Republican “poll watchers” and they are flexing and interfering, remember that they are breaking the law. They do not have the right to stop you from voting. They cannot demand to see your ballot. While an official poll worker might be able to ask you for your ID, a “poll watcher” cannot. It is illegal for them to do anything to delay your vote. If you are being victimized or see voter intimidation happening, call 9-1-1 and report that a crime is occurring. Then call 1-866-OUR-VOTE and report it.
Trump and his people will try to scotch the vote count, but they cannot do it directly. They will hit the courts. They will try to pressure those who count the vote. They will send party activists and MAGA people to county voting and registrar offices. They will declare immediate victory regardless of the outcome. Do not allow them to bully democracy. Prepare to stand up to them. Contact your local Democratic Party and ask them what they are doing to prepare for this. Contact groups fighting voter suppression and ask what you can do. Here is a list of organizations that fight for voter rights. Check them out. Get engaged.
Talk to your friends. Tell them what is up in a matter of fact way, without inducing fear or panic. Make sure that they know their rights and have the information that you have. Organize your friends so that if we must hit the streets to defend our vote and save our democracy, we show huge numbers. Be prepared to dig in for a long fight. And know that Trump and the GOP are vulnerable. They are not invincible. Our lives are not theirs to define and destroy.