As we count the days to the U.S. midterm elections, there’s only one question on my mind: Is it time to build a bunker?
I’ve long obsessed over disaster prep. Not just for Vancouver’s promised earthquake, but in case of climate disaster, or social upheaval, or imminent invasion. I fantasize about building the kind of secure, off-the-grid concrete retreat where you could live for a year or a decade, even if the American hordes come pouring across the border with their guns. A nice, solid bunker, suitable for surviving the end of the world.
And now the end of the world may be just around the corner, in the form of America’s midterm elections. After all, this election has only a couple of possible outcomes. A Democratic resurgence could see the Democrats retake the House of Representatives (and possibly also the Senate, though that seems exceedingly unlikely). Or a strong Republican turnout could leave both branches of Congress with Republican majorities, meaning that all three branches of government would now be firmly under Republican control (thanks to the last two Supreme Court appointments).
A solid Republican victory offers the prospect of an emboldened Trump presidency. Yes, I know it’s hard to think of his performance to date as the picture of restraint. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past three years, it’s that you can’t go wrong by assuming that Trump will go from bad to worse. He hits a new low, and then he drops down two floors.
Trump would undoubtedly claim a Republican midterm victory as a vindication of his policies to date, and use that to drive through a fresh wave of assaults on immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, working people, and just about anyone else who isn’t a rich white guy. Definitely bunker time.
But maybe we’ll avert disaster, and see a Democratic resurgence instead. Right now, pundits and pollsters are very busy trying to assess the factors that make that power shift more or less likely: Will Republican voters remain energized by the Kavanagh hearings, and turn out in record numbers? Will last week’s synagogue shooting and pipe bombs alarm moderates or galvanize progressives, thereby propelling Democrats to victory? Will voter suppression — the ever-growing range of tactics that purport to prevent voting fraud, but which actually aim at disenfranchising traditionally Democratic, minority voters — skew the electorate in the Republicans’ favor? Or will the horrors of the Trump administration lead to unprecedented participation among younger voters, who are far more likely to vote Democrat? If the Democrats emerge victorious, the bunker can wait.
But I fear there’s an even more fundamental question, albeit one the pundits are hesitant to voice: Is America still a democracy?
This is the question on which the election, and our collective fate, actually turn; the question that all us would-be bunker-builders need to contemplate. We must ask this question, because we know the election that put Trump in the White House was far from free and fair. There is now abundant evidence that Russian operatives significantly influenced the election result by disseminating misinformation through social media (a.k.a. “fake news”), and strongly suggestive evidence that they did so with either the tacit blessing or active encouragement of Trump’s senior advisors, and quite possibly Trump himself.
Every time we talk about the midterm elections without asking whether America is still a democracy, we push that evidence aside. We implicitly accept Trump as America’s legitimately elected leader, and we frame the midterm elections as the opportunity for American voters to either endorse or repudiate his administration. No bunker needed, because democracy is alive and well.
But American democracy is not well, even if it’s arguably still alive. As America’s closest neighbors and longtime allies, it’s our duty to remind both America and the world, over and over: the 2016 American election was stolen. We need to acknowledge the possibility that the 2018 election could be stolen, too.
We already know that this election has been compromised. Trump’s Justice department has itself charged Russian operatives with electoral interference in this very election. But we’re still proceeding with our seasonal punditry, our earnest voter mobilization efforts, our obsessive polling and prognosticating. We keep on with election business as usual, and minimize our discussion of electoral interference.
We pretend this is just another free and fair election, because the alternative — the very worst-case scenario — is too terrible to contemplate. That worst-case scenario is not a newly emboldened Trump. The worst-case scenario is not a Republican victory — even if it’s a victory delivered by Russian operatives, or voter suppression, or partisan gerrymandering.
The worst possible outcome is a Democratic victory that the President fails to acknowledge, and that today’s Republican-controlled Congress refuses to concede. That’s the scenario that electoral interference makes possible, because it allows Trump and his Republican cronies to point to Russia or China or some other convenient target as the puppeteers behind the election, and to deny the legitimacy of any outcome that blunts their power. It provides the political cover for Trump to take yet another page from the authoritarian playbook, and declare the U.S. elections null and void. It allows him to formally declare the end of American democracy, and the beginning of bunker time.
But things don’t have to get quite that bad to send me scurrying out for cinder blocks. Even if the Democrats win back the House, even if they also win back the Senate, even if Trump concedes both — and gosh, that’s an awful lot of ifs — American democracy is still in danger.
That’s because electoral interference is an existential threat that can’t be retired by a single free and fair election, or even by the peaceful transfer of power. Discussion of foreign interference and fake news may have been relegated to the margins of America’s election coverage, but it’s there, a latent weapon that can be used to question any electoral outcome. There’s enough to stir the pot, if anyone wants to do the stirring.
Unfortunately, stirring the pot is President Trump’s favorite pastime. We have already seen how his hateful rhetoric fuels America’s most suspicious and violent conspiracy theorists. Combine a Democratic victory with the Justice Department’s charges of midterm electoral interference, and you have a whole new arena for his dangerous, inflammatory speculations.
That’s why I won’t sleep easy on November 6, whether the Democrats win or lose. Free and fair elections are the foundation of American democracy; they’re the foundation of peaceful relations between trusting democratic allies. Call those elections into question, and our foundation shifts. Time to get the cinder blocks, and start building that bunker.