Two days after America’s presidential election is Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating the failed attempt in 1605 to blow up the English House of Lords and assassinate King James I, memorialized by the phrase “gunpowder, treason and plot.”
Rebellious Catholics, headed by Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes, were apprehended hauling 36 barrels of gunpowder into Parliament, where the explosives were to be detonated the next day. Nov. 5 is still celebrated with bonfires throughout Britain.
Given that this election may be the most contentious in American history, the prospect of many, but hopefully far less destructive, Guy Fawkes Days erupting throughout the nation cannot be discounted. No matter who wins, many of the losing side will be angered and outraged with the outcome. Given the intense polarization of society today, easy access to guns and social media and affinities for violence, it is not difficult to imagine “the carnage” of what could happen.
Whether the election is close or not and he loses, President Donald Trump will press charges over fraud, ballot rigging and other electoral malfeasance challenging the election. Recounts will be demanded. Massive numbers of lawsuits and litigation will follow. And both parties will stage huge rallies to influence the final tabulations. Some of those rallies could easily escalate to violence.
In this regard, Trump has several advantages. Historically, Republicans have been better at PR and political perception management dating back to Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks” operation. This was perfected in the 2000 Miami-Dade County Republican effort to halt the recount, allowing George W. Bush to win the presidency by 537 votes in Florida. Trump’s team is even more skilled.
In 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Bush’s favor, one swing vote came from Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed by President George H.W. Bush. Trump has three justices he appointed to the court, giving him potentially a 5-4 or 6-3 advantage. And does anyone think in today’s hyperpartisan politics, the court would decide any case based solely on the law, when laws such as the Electoral College Act of 1887 and Presidential Succession Act of 1947 are highly ambiguous?
Trump might also win if the election were forced to the House of Representatives because of a deadlocked Electoral College. Provided Republicans maintained control of at least 26 state delegations, that simple majority would select the president. The outcry would not only be deafening. It could too easily become violent.
Of course, the election could proceed smoothly, probably the least likely scenario. In all other cases, the looming question is how did America get to this point? The answers are not reassuring.
First, while many Americans consider this country to be a democracy, in fact it is a representative republic. Originally, only the House of Representatives was directly elected and then by white, male landowners. States appointed senators and the Electoral College chose the president. The fundamental reason for the Senate, long since forgotten or ignored, was that states should have the power to balance the federal government. Hence, each state, regardless of size or population, was awarded two senators. Further, not only were political parties unmentioned in the Constitution. They were feared as disruptive “factions” destructive to governing.
Even after women won the right to vote in 1920 and senators were popularly elected, the United States remained a republic. Over the past several decades, senators became more dependent on the party for funding and support than the state each represented. As a result, many senators grew ambivalent about loyalty to the party or, as originally intended, to the state. Party as opposed to state loyalty has contributed to making gridlock almost permanent as politics became more rigid. And to Republicans, Trump is the party. That both parties have moved much further to left and right has affected this dual loyalty.
Meanwhile, the failure of successive governments to govern has frustrated and disenfranchised many in both political parties. Trump understood and exploited this anger. Unfortunately, given his personality and disruptive nature, Trump has widened these divides. And no apparent countervailing force is present to span or narrow these differences.
After the George Floyd murder, violent protests exploded across the nation. These could be trivial compared to what a contested election might produce. And coronavirus and the raging pandemic that are reaching record highs in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have accelerated and aggravated these irreparable differences.
What can be done to pre-empt a worst-case scenario? There is only a single and improbable answer. To prevent a 21st century equivalent of the Nov. 5 gunpowder plot, both campaigns must meet and agree now on a modus operandi for resolving any potential contested election crisis. Should that not happen, welcome back Guy Fawkes.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, “The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age.”