Jurisprudence

What if It All Goes Wrong?

We’ve learned a lot since 2016. We’re still not prepared for the worst-case scenarios.

Donald Trump speaking at the RNC in front of American flags. In the bottom-right corner, one hand with one finger raised and one hand with two fingers raised to illustrate the number 12, as in 12 more years of Trump.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images.

We are almost four years into the Trump presidency. That means we are only a few dozen days from another federal election. And unlike the media conversation that swirled around the 2016 contest by that fall—around Hillary Clinton’s emails, James Comey’s investigations, and Donald Trump’s made-for-TV diversions—it’s clear that this time, we are much more aware of the stakes. The upcoming election will raise a host of existential questions that go far beyond who will win. Instead this election is about the future of the American experiment with democracy itself: Will the vote be free and fair? What might a weaponized Justice Department do to affect and even undermine the election? Can the Republican-led Senate affirmatively work to sabotage the Democratic candidate? Will foreign interference be both tolerated and effective? And yet we in the press are still struggling not only with key questions about the very future of the American democratic experience, but also with whether and how to ask these questions publicly in the first place.

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We should know better by now. It is abundantly clear that a lot of us in media failed to anticipate or even ask questions of this sort in the run-up to the 2016 election. In fairness, how could we have known what was to come? But also, we’ve now spent four years marinating in this soup. It is perfectly apparent that those who fretted early and often about the prospect of creeping authoritarianism and tyranny—the Tim Snyders and the Masha Gessens and the Sarah Kendziors—were tut-tutted as hysterics for a long time, right up until the things they predicted actually began to come true. Somehow, even as it becomes manifest that the media may have underreacted to the threats Trump and Trumpism posed to the basic guardrails of democracy in 2016—his ongoing threats to the courts, a free press, the right to protest, to separation of powers and to an independent Justice Department—the impulse is to err on the side of underreaction yet again. This is partly a function of an inherently conservative press corps, yes, but it is also considered a rational strategy: Why would we draw attention to low-probability disaster scenarios that would have the effect of panicking readers or undermining their trust in the institutions that protect democracy, especially if it’s clear that so many of Trump’s most unhinged ideas—like arming poll watchers or canceling the election altogether—are simply attempts to distract from the fact that he is losing and knows it?

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The result is that whenever a potential catastrophic idea is spoken aloud, there is a strange counterreaction that holds that the imperative is to stop spreading it, reporting on it, or discussing it, for fear of making it real. This makes the Trump disaster planning debate a distant cousin to the yearslong Trump “distraction” debate. Because rather than dealing directly with the matter at hand, it has us triangulating against the good of the polity, fighting among ourselves yet again about what the press should be covering, and how, and why. Whatever ultimately happens, this predictable intramural argument allows us to blame the media for doing something that was always, in fact, just called “journalism.” We keep shooting the messengers in an attempt to choke off the message.

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One version of the current election disaster-gaming that is looming ever larger: What happens if Donald Trump loses in November but refuses to leave office? That is, what if, by any reasonable standard, Trump loses the election, once all the votes that should be counted have been counted and once any court challenges that might be brought have been decided, but then he simply claims that he didn’t really lose, or that the votes can’t be trusted, or that the process was fraudulent, and so he won’t go? My friend Joshua Geltzer floated this scenario over a year ago on CNN. I asked him how people responded at the time. “One big reaction to my article was the same one that’s come to define the Trump era: ‘He wouldn’t really do that, would he?’ ” Geltzer said. “But then I’d start ticking off all of the times many of us had said that about Trump before, only to see him do the unthinkable.”

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I interviewed Geltzer about that same article last fall, when it was still seen as akin to science fiction, and also a reckless topic of speculation. Yet this summer, stories speculating about Trump refusing to accept defeat appear almost daily. That means that one of two things had happened in the interim: Either Geltzer floating the idea in 2019 caused it to take hold in the public imagination, or an idea that seemed “off the wall” and implausible in 2019 was in fact perfectly plausible, then and now, and we just failed to reckon with it because we were afraid of it.

It turns out that there’s something even harder than providing answers to terrifying and destabilizing election-related questions—and there are answers, even if there are no guarantees, as my colleague Jeremy Stahl has laid out in a recent piece. But what’s proving far harder is not necessarily answering these questions in print, but figuring out how to ask them in the first place. Because the questions themselves are terrifying and destabilizing, just like Trump’s initial victory was. Because Donald Trump, president of the United States, continues to stymie the rational mind. He continues to suggest, or sometimes even promise, that he’ll do something outrageous—even unfathomable. And then we’re trapped. Do we explain why he can’t do it, shouldn’t do it, legally couldn’t do it, even if he means to do it anyway? Or do we refuse to dignify his crackpot suggestion, thus normalizing his crackpot suggestion? And if we choose that latter course, what happens when he goes ahead and does it? Because sometimes he really does the crazy thing nobody believed he might do, until he does them. And no, floating those ideas in the media does not cause them to happen.

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These scenarios have plagued us for years, but they get much more complicated when they become lashed to the outcomes of the election itself. And today the question we in the media must confront isn’t precisely what if Trump won’t leave? What we must confront is how do we ask the question now that informs readers of the remote but increasing possibility that he won’t leave, while also not doing anything to make his refusal to leave more likely? And in my own career in media, nothing has prepared me for the mental taffy-pull that sort of question raises. Because we are not being asked to report or analyze the disaster scenarios, but rather to massage them enough to cause a perfectly calibrated forward-looking ratio of public alarm to public awareness.

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Perhaps we can agree here that the operative fear isn’t that when the media discusses a terrifying possibility, it gives Donald Trump ideas. I think we can stipulate that whatever crazy chaos he disgorges up onto the world doesn’t emerge from any rational calculus about what progressive journalists or disaster gamers are fretting about. Perhaps we might also agree that had the media done a little more disaster planning in the 2016 election contest, the Trump campaign might have been taken as a more serious, existential threat to democratic norms and protections.

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But the question remains: Does reporting on all the terrible scenarios that might play out lead people to either check out, panic, normalize, or disbelieve the press? And if it does, how else do we prepare our readers for what may come? On the first day of the Republican National Convention, Trump, promising the crowd that Democrats were rigging the election, had them chanting “four more years.” Delighted, he urged attendees instead to cheer for “12 more years.” Which is either a joke, a promise, a threat, or a trial balloon, but the question remains: Should it be reported, and how?

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One possibility is to remind readers that Trump can hollow out and corrupt institutions without destroying them altogether, and that while Attorney General Bill Barr or Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin may be burning the midnight oil in their efforts to break the Justice Department or the post office, those institutions contain career employees who are faithful to the mission to this day. Which means we can worry about institutional damage without giving up on institutions themselves. We can also remind our readers that the country has been through destructive cycles before and survived them. History can be a useful guide to remember that not everything that shocks us today is without precedent. Finally, we can use journalism to remind our readers of things that are being done, that can be done, that are done daily, in the weeks between now and the election, to stave off any sense of hopelessness or fatalism. (That’s actually what Geltzer was doing with his 2019 argument in the first place.)

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The media cannot avoid frightening, unconstitutional, or disempowering ideas this election cycle. It is our job to do quite the opposite: to help clarify what may come, even if it strikes us as unlikely or disturbing, and even if it’s later dismissed as a “joke.” Just as we have explored Trump’s worst fanciful suggestions—about physically abusing criminal defendants, changing the legal protections for journalists, or doing away with birthright citizenship—we should also explore the dark and scary ones, about refusing to accept defeat or encouraging supporters to reject the election results. Does it make us all complicit in the daily mayhem of Schrödinger’s chaos election? Of course it does. But is it smarter than covering our eyes and ears and hoping none of it is coming, as too many of us did in covering the 2016 contest? Um, yes. Because wishing that away didn’t keep it from coming true.

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