Interview

‘The Tea Leaves Suggest That if He Doesn’t Cheat, He’s Going to Lose’

The presidential historian Timothy Naftali notes there’s no historical precedent for delaying an election, even in the middle of major wars, but Trump’s Republican Party is all about holding on to power.

Empty envelopes of opened vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary are stacked on a table at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020.
Empty envelopes of opened vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary are stacked on a table at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. Jason Redmond/AFP

On Thursday morning, minutes after news broke of the worst quarterly economic collapse in U.S. history, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested delaying this year’s election.

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” he tweeted.

Trump has repeatedly railed against mail-in ballots—which is how he casts his votes—as an illegitimate form of voting, even though five states vote exclusively by mail and another 29 plus the District of Columbia allow no-excuse absentee ballots. (Which are, of course, sent by mail.) In the last presidential election, one-quarter of all votes cast were by mail. There is zero evidence that mail-in voting leads to increased voter fraud.

Trump doesn’t have the authority to delay the election—only Congress could do that, and even many Republican stalwarts in the House and the Senate were quick to shoot down Trump’s suggestion on Thursday. But after almost four years of Trump, the idea that something can’t happen just because it has never been tried or might be illegal doesn’t reassure everyone.

To put Trump’s suggestion in context, Foreign Policy spoke with Timothy Naftali, a presidential scholar at New York University. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FP: Is there any precedent for Trump’s suggestion to delay the election?

Timothy Naftali: No. I think the way to frame this is to look at how the United States managed elections in the Civil War and in World War II: In 1864 and 1944, the United States had elections. In both cases, especially the Civil War, the country was convulsed. In World War II, that country was in the middle of a national emergency. And even so, the election happened as it was supposed to on the day it was supposed to.

There was no call for delay. Remember, no one but a man who lacks any historical knowledge or any commitment to the Constitution is calling for this. We have to keep in mind what’s going on here. There’s no national call to delay the election. There are no local or state leaders of any number who are suggesting that the presidential election cannot be held as required in November. There is only one man with a Twitter finger.

This is a distraction by a man who is facing a massive political rejection. There’s no grounding or history for what he’s suggesting. And that’s why serious people in the last couple of hours responded by saying that this can’t happen.

FP: If we look at not just Trump but the whole of the Republican Party, would you put this suggestion within the wider trends of the Republican Party or solely as a Trump phenomenon?

TN: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think there’s a radical element on the American right that has sought to undermine democratic norms to hold on to power as a minority position in this country. And Donald Trump reflects that, but he didn’t create that; he has benefited from it. The election of Donald Trump is a perfect storm of all of these various phenomena that we’ve seen in the last 20 years but especially since the Tea Party movement gained traction.

The irony of this moment is that the argument of Trumpists was that we needed a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution. And it is that which will save us from a presidential delay of a presidential election because the Constitution makes clear it’s up to the Congress to decide when we vote for the president. It’s not up to the president to decide. So if you follow this strict constructionist approach, Trump is done on this issue, but I don’t think there’s any consistency in the Trump worldview, other than presenting power for Trump himself and access to power for his family.

And so there’s now a struggle for the future of the Republican Party. I mean, will it be renamed the party of Trump? Should it be carrying [Abraham] Lincoln’s banner anymore? It’s up to Republicans to determine that, but what we have seen on the right is systematic. We see on the right, as demographics have shifted in this country, and as public opinion has shifted on cultural and social issues, there have been those on the right who tried to use and find every institution and lever of power available to prevent democracy from being expressed in this country.

FP: I suppose the question is whether this is the Republican Party that tried and failed to repeal Obamacare or the party that managed to deprive Merrick Garland of a Supreme Court seat.

TN: Well, I think that we’re not talking about an organization. I don’t think there’s a central strategic core to this organization because there’s no logical consistency to the ideas that Republicans have professed as an institution in the last 10 years. They went from being pro-free trade and pro-balanced budgets to protectionists and not seeming to care about the budget. They’ve been all over the map on immigration. They’ve been strict constructionists, but then many of them supported the use of the national emergency power to fund the wall [along the border with Mexico].

I don’t see any logical consistency among professed Republican ideas in the last decade. The consistency is the desire for power and the desire to use whatever instruments are available to suppress the vote, to limit democracy, and to stay in office. And Trump is what seemed to be the perfect instrument. And Trump, of course, was very happy to have these ideas and tactics floating about because he likes to win.

I’m not sure he ever really understood what it meant to be president. I’m not sure he still understands it, because he doesn’t seek a national mandate, but he loves winning. And he also doesn’t mind cheating. And he’s found people in the Republican Party who don’t mind cheating either.

And so [Thursday’s] tweet is hoping to find a way to cheat, but the Constitution gives the power to Congress and Congress is divided, and there’s no way the House would approve this. And, listening to some of the GOP reactions, I’m not sure that the Senate would approve shifting the date. So he’s desperately looking for a way to cheat to avoid defeat in November. I’m not saying what’s going to happen, but the tea leaves suggest that if he doesn’t cheat, he’s going to lose.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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