(Illustration by Joseph McDermott)
Projecting the 78 harrowing days after the election
BY DAVID DAYEN
SEPTEMBER 9, 2020 (prospect.org)
This is a horror story.
Maybe you think that way about the past three years: the corrupt self-dealing, the fusillade of lies and ignorance, the corporate handover of the regulatory state, the authoritarian repression. The oncoming election may provide you with a crack of hope for America to reverse what many consider a grave mistake.
But while Election Day will signal the end of a campaign, it’s not the end of Donald Trump’s term in office.
The 78 days from November 3 to January 20, known as the transition, have kept me awake at night since I started reporting out this article. The coming interregnum is likely to be one of the most politically, economically, and socially fraught periods in American history, one that could set the trajectory for the nation’s future. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can,” Michelle Obama counseled in her Democratic Convention speech. Trust me on that as well; they will, immediately after the election.
We have had a few catastrophic transitions in the past. After the 1860 election, seven states seceded from the union rather than endure under President Abraham Lincoln, who had to sneak into Washington with armed guards for the inaugural to avoid assassination plots. The 1876 election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes wasn’t decided until just a couple of days before the term began, with an election commission flipping three states to Hayes in exchange for his agreement to remove federal troops from the South, ushering in nearly a 100 years of Jim Crow.
Trump’s clamoring about the election will likely be matched with unyielding tactics, both legal and extralegal.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt romped over Herbert Hoover, and then watched banks fail, European debtors default, and the economy deteriorate. Hoover refused to intervene unless Roosevelt gave up on the New Deal and accepted his policies, while threatening to veto key relief measures as the country sank further into depression. Roosevelt also narrowly dodged an assassination attempt during the transition, which killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. The Hoover-Roosevelt transition was so bad that Congress shortened the length of all future transitions by a month and a half.
This post–Election Day interregnum will be much worse.
Several elements of those historic failures exist today: political disunity, economic collapse, the possibility of a razor-thin electoral margin, and corrupt challenges to the results. But none of those other transitions incorporated all of that at once, and a deadly pandemic. And none of them featured someone like Donald Trump. Whether he wins, loses, or just decides that he’s won, the whole nation must prepare to navigate treacherous territory this winter.
Democrats have rightly preoccupied themselves with what will happen before November 3, not just by persuading voters but by making sure they can overcome barriers to participation: the slowdown of the mail, Trump’s threats to place 50,000 poll watchers (and even law enforcement) at the polls, and the extra costs of running a safe election in a pandemic. Layer that on top of the usual voter-suppression tactics and just casting a ballot may feel like surmounting an obstacle course.
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Even if everyone who wants to cast a ballot in the election can—an optimistic scenario—the battle then moves to counting. In 2018, 40 percent of all votes were cast either early or through mail-in balloting. The percentage in 2020 will be substantially higher, due to the pandemic. Mail-in ballots in particular simply take longer to sort, verify, and move through the system; in some states, officials cannot even open those ballots until after the election concludes. Primary elections in New York City, conducted mostly by mail, took well over a month to complete, and that slow count may be an ominous harbinger for November.
A collection of over 100 political veterans from the policy and campaign worlds got together in June for a “tabletop exercise” assembled by the Transition Integrity Project (TIP). Participants were handed various election scenarios and asked to role-play actors in the system (the Trump and Biden campaigns, Republican and Democratic elected officials, career government employees, the media) and game out their response. One of the primary findings of the exercise was the expectation of an extended counting process.
“We’re probably not going to know the election results, and people should just go to sleep” on election night, said Adam Jentleson, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and public affairs director at Democracy Forward, who participated in the simulation. “But that goes against everything the media sets up.” The holographic maps and slew of panelists push broadcasters toward announcing a definitive result. Somebody will be ahead once dawn breaks—but he may not be the ultimate victor.Expand
Surveys show that more Democrats plan to vote by mail than Republicans. No matter the true outcome, you can expect Trump to declare victory, but especially if he leads on election night and then falls behind. Losing an early lead with late-arriving mail ballots feeds into Trump’s stated contention that the only way he can be defeated is if the election is rigged against him. (Some Democrats have encouraged early voting to prevent this scenario.)
Trump and the Republicans have tested out this strategy. They fumed at how late-arriving ballots flipped outcomes in the 2018 Arizona Senate race and several House seats in California. In Florida, Trump stated that election night totals must be honored, as Democrats made up ground in the late vote in campaigns for Senate and governor. (The Republicans ultimately won both races.) Last year, Kentucky’s Republican governor Matt Bevin cited unidentified “irregularities” in voting, after he lost a close election to Democrat Andy Beshear. Bevin called for a recanvass, which showed no changes, and he finally conceded, but not before Kentucky’s Senate president intimated that the legislature could decide the race.
These near misses and eventual concessions did not involve Trump’s own re-election. In November, Trump’s clamoring will likely be matched with unyielding tactics, both legal and extralegal. As Brittany Gibson has detailed in these pages, Republican lawyers are already contesting rules for tallying mail-in ballots, including when they must arrive at election offices and whether they require a witness signature. The Republican National Committee has earmarked $20 million for this fight, and that’s likely just the beginning.
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At first, it will look familiar. We saw Republicans working to toss out provisional and late absentee ballots, and Democrats demanding their inclusion, in the 2000 election fight in Florida. That got plenty nasty, with young Republican operatives staging “Brooks Brothers riots” to prevent vote-counting and practically every ballot being questioned in a pitched battle.
With Trump at the helm, it could become more “confrontational and unmoored to truth,” said Rick Hasen, election law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine. Attorney General Bill Barr did not shut down the possibility raised in congressional testimony that the Justice Department would step in and demand that ballot-counting stop. Right-wing media would amplify rhetoric about a stolen election. And this may not play out in just one state, but several with close margins.
The scenarios quickly get more extreme. Trump has alleged that any election with high levels of mail-in votes is fraudulent and cannot be trusted. “Rather than just litigate, what if Trump tries to convince a Republican legislature to take back their power under the Constitution to appoint electors directly?” Hasen explained. “They would be canceling the election for president and picking the president themselves.”
This is theoretically constitutional, in that each state has the power to choose electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” In Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court confirmed that state legislatures can legally determine electors themselves, rather than via a vote of the people. Florida’s legislature made preparations to do this, in fact, though the ruling rendered it unnecessary. Does anyone believe that Trump couldn’t convince Republican state legislators to act on his behalf and overturn the election process?
It’s not clear whether governors could veto a legislature wresting control of electors. But Arizona and Florida, two key battleground states, are controlled by Republicans at all levels, so there wouldn’t necessarily be a check on this activity. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, Republicans control the legislature but Democrats hold the governor’s mansion; there, you could see competing slates of electors, one from each branch of government. (This happened in 1876, with the Hayes-Tilden election leading to separate slates in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.)
Public outcry would be intense. “We’re talking about an intentional effort to use retroactive voter suppression and overturn a democratic result,” said Norm Eisen, a Brookings Institution fellow who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in the impeachment process. Progressive activist groups are already preparing for the possibility of mass street protests, using an umbrella group called Protect the Results. Trump supporters would likely take to the streets as well. Many of the TIP scenarios ended in general strikes and riots. Of course, at least until January 20, Trump would be in control of military forces confronting protesters, as we’ve already seen.
Underlying this tumult are some deadlines. Per the Federal Election Commission, states must report results by December 8. Electors cast their votes in the Electoral College on December 14. The incoming 117th Congress certifies the election on January 6. In a protracted fight, some or even all of those deadlines could be missed.
State courts or the Supreme Court could get involved at any step along the way, with the Supremes foreclosing challenges before states must report on December 8. But in 2000, the Court was able to do that with one ruling, ending ballot-counting in Florida. There could be several states embroiled in litigation, with different challenges in each. The calendar becomes a factor.
In addition, a resolution depends on the Supreme Court retaining authority among all participants. Al Gore’s acceptance of the ruling in Bush v. Gore ultimately resolved that dispute. In one tabletop scenario, Democrats refused to accept a Trump Electoral College win if he lost the popular vote by millions, pushing to overturn certified results in states with Democratic governors. The person in the simulation making that call was John Podesta, former Bill Clinton chief of staff, Barack Obama counselor, and Hillary Clinton campaign chair. “I’m a little bit more on the lefty side of things,” said Adam Jentleson. “I don’t think people were too surprised that me and my team would contest the election. It had a lot of impact that Podesta would do the same thing.”Expand
The result of all of this is that, on January 6, there may not be a winner to certify, either because of disputed electors or different chambers of Congress accepting different slates. If no candidate definitively has 270 electoral votes, we move to a process not seen in American politics, except for the Corrupt Bargain of 1824 and the fifth season of Veep: a presidential election decided in the House of Representatives. Each state would get one vote for president; under the current partisan makeup, Republicans control 26 state delegations and Democrats 23, with one tied (Pennsylvania).
The current Republican advantage gives the party an incentive to dispute results and have friendly legislatures refuse to submit electors in states Biden needs to put him over the top. “If I’m the Trump team, my goal would be to deny 270,” said Jentleson. But the outcome of the 2020 House races could shift the landscape; one Democratic pickup in Florida and a shift to the Democrats in Pennsylvania would create a tie, and utter chaos.
Even if a contested election ends in Biden’s favor, Trump could in theory refuse to leave the White House, or invoke some dubious “emergency action,” as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn theorized, to stay in power. The timelines are constitutionally clear—the term of office ends on January 20, and the president would move from the commander in chief to an unauthorized houseguest as the clock struck 12 noon—but that would be uncharted territory for the nation, and a crisis not seen since the union broke apart in the winter of 1860-1861.
Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell when he served as secretary of state, participated in the tabletop exercises. “We found out the Constitution has so many holes in it, it’s pitiful,” said Wilkerson, now a professor at William & Mary. “The only things that patched the holes over time were precedent, protocol, and decency. We have discovered in this White House that ethical behavior is utterly absent.”
Even with an overwhelming Biden victory that Trump would be forced to accept, he would retain immense power to undermine the transition, the 11 weeks between the election and the inauguration. Trump will retain full control of the executive branch for this period, and his cooperation will be crucial to a peaceful transfer of power. U.S. history offers plenty of examples of tolerable handovers. Barack Obama’s transition team was inside agencies within two days of his election victory. President Eisenhower briefed John F. Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs invasion preparations during the transition.
But Trump critics strongly suspect his attention won’t be focused on putting Biden in a position to succeed. “I can’t imagine them cooperating at all,” said Mike Lux, a veteran of both the Clinton and Obama transitions. “Trump has violated pretty much every unwritten norm out there.”
Some legal requirements mitigate this possibility. The Presidential Transition Act requires that appointees set up transition teams in the White House and the General Services Administration, which Trump has accomplished. Before a May 3 deadline, career officials, not political appointees, were put in charge of transition planning at each federal agency.
During the 2000 election, the Clinton administration did not allow George W. Bush’s team security clearances or office space until the outcome was decided. Wilkerson contended that these barriers had real-world impacts. “No one picked up on the fact that there were people with their hair burning on al-Qaeda,” he said. After amendments to the Transition Act, it’s now law that, by September 1, Biden’s transition team gets office space, equipment, and security clearances for designated officials.
“The people below Trump are doing a good job and approaching it responsibly,” said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service. But Marchick remembers the 2016 transition from Obama to Trump. Then, too, the Trump team had a well-designed plan, devised by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and run by his former chief of staff Rich Bagger. “And then what happened, Trump threw it out,” Marchick recalled. Trump fired Christie and showed a reluctance to have staffers attend agency transition meetings.
The same thing could happen in reverse in 2020. If Biden wins, he and Trump must sign a memorandum of understanding after the election, giving the new team access to documents and entry into federal agencies. Trump could refuse to endorse the agreement. National-security teams are supposed to brief their Biden counterparts; that could be canceled. Memos from agency heads to their counterparts could go unsent. Processing for approximately 4,000 incoming political appointments, including over 1,000 needing Senate confirmation, could be delayed. “If you come in to talk to the Cabinet officer, he won’t talk to you,” said Wilkerson. “You want to know the policy for Iran, the plan for taxes, there’s nothing there. It’s like if someone left you in the West Wing and said, ‘Welcome to the circus, dude.’”
The Biden team, likely to be one of the most prepared to enter government in history, with a vice president just four years removed from the executive branch, could weather a lot of this. (Ted Kaufman, the transition chair, co-authored the law that improved presidential transitions.) With only 50 Senate votes needed to confirm executive branch appointees, opportunities for quickly advancing his Cabinet selections exist if Democrats regain control. But there’s a more troublesome possibility in the transition dysfunction. Trump, said Mike Lux, “will be so bitter having just lost the election, he will do everything in his power to sabotage things.”
The veil of ignorance could allow Trump and his top officials to “burrow” political appointees into career service positions, keeping them in place after the transition. “They will contaminate the administration throughout unless you ferret them out,” said Wilkerson. “They will implement the previous administration’s policies in your administration.”
Further acts of sabotage range from petty office pranks—messing with computers or phones—to far more consequential options. Trump could authorize bombings or guerrilla actions abroad before the inauguration, similar to George H.W. Bush sending Marines to Somalia in December 1992. He could turn in a final census report early, cementing congressional apportionment data in a way that could undercount communities of color. He could just destroy evidence that might be used in future investigations against him. And he could issue executive orders and change agency regulations, which could all be reversed, but would take time and effort early in Biden’s term.Expand
“Anything that’s done by rule requires rulemaking to change it,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. “Given how active the Trump administration has been with regulations, it’s going to take a lot more action to reverse that.”
The goals would be twofold. First, ideologues would strive to finish Trump’s term with as many conservative triumphs as possible. Second, as Trump views practically everything as zero-sum, entangling the early Biden term with hardships would give credence to his likely postinaugural message of a “failing” new administration.
An uncooperative transition would of course come at the worst possible time. The economy remains severely depressed from the fallout of the pandemic and the continued inability to allow large numbers of people to congregate. There remains no agreement on another coronavirus relief package, and Trump’s executive actions are already proving next to meaningless. Even if a deal is reached, most of the relief in the current bills extends only to December, leaving weeks with Trump as president and no fiscal support for the economy in place. The combination of economic pain, an uncertain election, and public-health challenges could roil markets, while mass evictions and foreclosures ensue.
Like Hoover, Trump could threaten to veto any economic relief in the 11-week stretch, or even potentially shut down the government if no long-term budget agreement emerges. Governing of any kind would grind to a halt. In one sense, this would suit Democrats just fine; they don’t want to see Mitch McConnell’s Senate filling every judicial vacancy, or having a say in coronavirus legislation, if the chamber will switch to Democrats on January 3. “The goal for Democrats should be to do as little as possible in the lame-duck session,” said Adam Jentleson.
But Trump isn’t likely to have a governing impulse, anyway. He is instead overwhelmingly likely to focus the transition on self-enrichment and self-preservation.
What if the lame-duck Trump administration signs government procurement contracts that give preferential treatment to his own properties? What if Trump makes deals with other countries along the same lines for their U.S. visits, or alters foreign policy in exchange for emoluments? What if he directed emergency coronavirus relief funds to Trump hotels on the barest of pretenses? What if he set a price for doling out pardons or regulatory relief? The Trump Organization has already billed the government $900,000 for travel and lodging during his presidency; imagine Trump moving to Mar-a-Lago for the transition to transfer more public dollars over to his business. “The kinds of naked looting which he’s done more slowly he could do now more aggressively,” Eisen mused. “Trump has demonstrated over and over again, it’s not America first, it’s Trump first.”
“At 11:45 a.m. on Inauguration Day, you can have Trump pardon Pence, and then resign, and Pence pardons Trump.”
That leads to the unique power presidents have availed themselves of habitually at the end of their terms: the pardon. Trump could pardon anyone and everyone involved in nefarious schemes throughout the course of his presidency: Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, whomever. One scenario in the tabletop simulation involved Trump pardoning Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden’s son Hunter, just to create suspicion around their wrongdoing.
Whether Trump can pardon himself is constitutionally unclear, as it’s never been tried before. What would be legal is a bizarre scenario laid out by Erwin Chemerinsky. “At 11:45 a.m. on Inauguration Day, you can have Trump pardon Pence, and then resign, and Pence pardons Trump,” he said. “There is no limit on the pardon power in the Constitution.” This would not protect Trump or his cronies from state legal action. But Trump could make a final deal with the incoming president: He will only peacefully accept election results and leave quietly if Biden and congressional Democrats agree to end all investigations and encourage state prosecutors to act accordingly. If there’s legal immunity available, Trump is exactly the type of person inclined to take it.
In other words, even in the relatively calm scenario of a standard transition, we could see kleptocracy and impunity on an accelerated scale. Said Wilkerson: “Those 78 days worry me as much as the days before.”
And that’s before you get to the virus that will have killed over 200,000 Americans by Election Day.Expand
The pandemic could loom larger as the leaves begin to fall and a chill hits the air. Experts have always warned of a resurgence in autumn and winter. Viral spread is more favorable both in lower temperatures and in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, which cooler weather forces people into. Case counts and deaths finally started to fall toward the end of August, but remain stubbornly high, and the return to schools and campuses could keep infections elevated in the coming months. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has already warned of “the worst fall in U.S. public health history.” That augurs an even worse winter.
On top of that, the normal epidemic we always face at this time of year looms: influenza. Last year’s flu season, based on early estimates, led to as many as 56 million cases, 740,000 hospitalizations, and 62,000 deaths. Flu season starts right around the election, and during the potential transition.
This creates several problems simultaneously. Given the similar symptoms, it’s harder to distinguish between diagnoses of the flu and COVID-19, each of which have different treatments and practices. “If you walk into the ER with flu, you’re put aside,” said Gregg Gonsalves, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. “But with COVID, you’ve got to get people into isolation.” Misdiagnosis, therefore, could increase spread. Meanwhile, hospitals already strain to find enough intensive-care beds for flu patients every year; added to coronavirus patients, systems could be overwhelmed.
There are some signs of hope. The same social-distancing measures and mask usage that mitigate the spread of coronavirus also tamp down flu infections. Countries in the southern hemisphere, where winter has commenced, report practically no flu cases this year, and sharply declining numbers for other respiratory ailments like pneumonia. But most of these countries never had out-of-control COVID-19 infections like the United States, which shows that social distancing only goes so far here. And those same precautions may also prevent people from getting flu shots, making communities more vulnerable.
The CDC has purchased millions of additional doses of the flu vaccine and handed out funding to states to carry out stronger interventions. Health officials have urged Americans to get shots as soon as they’re available, to minimize a double epidemic. “Getting vaccinated early will protect you earlier and take pressure off the system,” said Jim Blumenstock of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), a coalition of chief health officers. “That’s the campaign we’re messaging now, get it early.”
But the flu shot isn’t the vaccine Americans are anticipating; they’re waiting on a vaccine for coronavirus.
When we will have that is anyone’s guess. Right now, several experimental vaccines have advanced, and the Trump administration has prepurchased hundreds of millions of doses from six different manufacturers. The initiative, known as Operation Warp Speed, has accelerated vaccine production by absorbing the development costs. But skeptics of a speedy resolution have warned of a Trump “October surprise,” where he announces a vaccine breakthrough prior to the election. In his Republican Convention acceptance speech, Trump promised that his administration will “produce a vaccine BEFORE the end of the year, or maybe even sooner!”
The plausible fear is that Trump, seeking electoral advantage, would rush a vaccine to market before its efficacy and safety are confirmed, distorting the scientific evidence and overruling or intimidating experts. “Everything is in place to do it right,” said Gonsalves. “The only thing wrong is if the president interferes with the approval process.”
For his part, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn has said definitively that efficacy would not be sacrificed for speed. But already there are reports that the White House has pressured the FDA for an October rollout. The FDA could potentially issue an emergency use authorization for a vaccine before trials conclude, as the Financial Times has reported could be in the works for a U.K. option developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. Claire Hannan of the Association of Immunization Managers, a coalition of state and territorial directors, said that her organization has “been told to be ready in October.”
In the past few months, two therapies, anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma, have been given emergency use authorizations. Hydroxychloroquine ultimately proved less than useful and even harmful. The plasma authorization came right after Trump angrily tweeted that the “deep state” was delaying treatment approval to destroy his re-election chances. The FDA has denied political influence, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion. If this scenario is repeated with the vaccine, Trump would be putting not only individual recipients at potential risk, but the entire immunization process.
The reality is that you can only accelerate vaccine development so much, particularly at the critical Phase 3 trial stage, which several manufacturers are currently engaged in. “The trials currently planned are for 30,000 people,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s vaccine education center and part of a vaccine group at the National Institutes of Health and the FDA. Offit explained that those people must be recruited and split into vaccine and placebo groups. All of the vaccines in trial require two shots spaced out as much as a month apart. Then you have to wait a couple of weeks for immunity to kick in, and observe for symptoms. Until there are a sufficient number of visible COVID cases from the sample, the data isn’t useful. “There would have to be a clear efficacy signal,” he said. Trump may not be keen to wait.
Meanwhile, just announcing the vaccine sets off what will be the largest logistical project in the history of mankind. Billions of doses would need to be manufactured and distributed worldwide, and all of the elements for production—active ingredients and chemicals, sand to make glass vials, syringes, far-flung materials like horseshoe crab blood and shark livers and something called a “vaccinia capping enzyme”—are required in large quantities. Officials will need to decide what populations get the vaccine first, how to get multiple vaccines from multiple manufacturers delivered safely nationwide under the extremely cold temperatures needed for storage, whether health care provider locations need to be supplemented with pop-up vaccine clinics, how to protect workers administering the vaccine when the disease is still contagious, how to differentiate COVID vaccine shots and flu shots that could be needed simultaneously, how to reach vulnerable people without a doctor or insurance who need the vaccine, how to ensure that hundreds of millions of people getting one dose come back for the second, and how to track inventory and delivery so there isn’t vaccine wasting away on a shelf.
This will necessitate extreme levels of coordination across multiple manufacturers, federal and state government agencies, tens of thousands of health care providers and vaccine distributors, private- and public-sector shippers and logistics specialists, and even the military, according to the initial planning. The existing infrastructure for federal dispersal of immunizations, known as the Vaccines for Children Program, inoculates a few million children per year; COVID vaccines could increase the scale a hundredfold.
Many of the key decision-makers are career bureaucrats, who serve no matter who is in power. But leadership at the top will play an undeniable role. And the last people you would trust to execute this well would be in a Trump administration consumed with clinging to power post-election. Furthermore, there’s no way vaccine dissemination would be complete by January 20, even if it starts before then. So the Trump team, if he loses, will have to hand off this massive undertaking to Team Biden. Counting on Trump to cooperate on that is dubious. It will be impossible enough with dedicated leadership, let alone from dilettantes.
How the vaccine process plays out from the outset will be critical for the future of public health. Any kind of problem—well-connected individuals able to “jump the line” and get the vaccine first, a breakdown in delivery (like with H1N1, when manufacturing problems caused inadequate initial supply, and then a massive excess of doses), a rushed product that fails to fully work or sickens people, or profiteering among the manufacturers—will sap the public trust needed to pull off something like this. Experts stress the need for open, truthful communication throughout every step of the process, not exactly a Trump administration hallmark.
A busted COVID vaccine rollout would feed into a public conversation already given over to conspiracy theories and distrust of government. Undisclosed side effects or other problems would give significant oxygen to the anti-vaxxer movement. And if people stay away from the vaccine, it’s harder to reach the herd immunity needed to protect the public. “Our national experience with COVID-19 has created a situation of low public trust and high public anxiety,” said Kelly Moore, a former director of the state immunization program at the Tennessee Department of Health, now a professor at Vanderbilt University. Lowering that trust and heightening that anxiety would be disastrous.
A previous October surprise testifies to the potential downside. In February 1976, a novel strain of the swine flu cut through the military outpost at Fort Dix, New Jersey. President Gerald Ford, facing re-election and fearing a pandemic, sprung into action with a vaccination program, which rolled out doses by October. News outlets published pictures of Ford himself getting a shot, and 45 million were vaccinated. But the government used a “live virus” that led to hazardous side effects, with 450 people incurring Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes paralysis. Meanwhile, the swine flu only induced mild effects and quickly died out; the vaccines were delivered, and hundreds were paralyzed, for nothing.
The swine flu debacle gave fuel to skepticism about vaccinations, and made people wary of annual flu shots. The botched vaccine had public-health impacts for decades. That’s what’s at stake with getting the COVID vaccine right, and why putting the decision in the hands of a self-absorbed president, more consumed with poll standing than lifesaving, is so dangerous.
Mitigating the Damage
None of these scenarios have to happen, and knowing about them is the first step to preventing them. “My advice would be to have every worst-case scenario plotted out now,” said Mike Lux. “If you’re doing that at the moment that it’s happening, it’s too late.”
That means Democrats educating the public that the vote simply won’t be completed on election night, and securing the resources to carry on for months. It means promoting early voting to minimize the “blue shift.” It means political leaders bolstering state elections officials’ ability to do their job responsibly. It means recognizing the potential for massive street resistance to the most extreme possibilities. It means Biden transition officials gathering whatever information they can get about government operations if Trump cuts off communication. It means trusting and empowering career public-health officials at the state level to do their job with the utmost transparency.
Still, even the most precise strategizing will overlook some possibilities. Nothing about it is perfectly knowable. And each crisis folds in on itself. Bad turns in the coronavirus fight will make it impossible for the economy to rebound. A political crisis will create economic uncertainty and distract from the virus fight. America’s adversaries have occasionally viewed political transitions as moments of opportunity, as the political leadership turns inward. While the coronavirus isn’t sentient, and America’s adversaries not typically residing inside the White House, you could see the same dynamic at play.
“This could be the 1918 flu meeting the Great Depression meeting a right-wing revolution,” Gonsalves said. “It’ll already be a bad situation this winter even if things go well politically. But if we’re not going to see any leadership, we’re walking into a wall of fire.”
David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The New Republic, HuffPost, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and more.