We live in an age of hyperactivist journalism and supercompressed news cycles, one in which eager leakers inside the Trump administration are primed to run to the nearest reporter every time they hear something they don’t like. So the cynical reader can be forgiven a little skepticism when a story about an event that is said to have happened nearly two years ago surfaces two months before a presidential election.
We have no way of knowing if President Trump said those cruel things on his trip to France in 2018 about military veterans who died at war, as four anonymous sources told the Atlantic. Given some of the cruel things the president has uttered before, it’s surely possible, though reporting did once require a slightly higher evidentiary standard than “it’s the kind of thing he would say, so it must be true.”
But the timing is certainly interesting, The revelation came the day before the first ballots were sent to voters, at a moment when Democrats, including Joe Biden, have been putting it about that the military might be needed to forcibly eject Mr. Trump from the White House were he to refuse to accept the result of the election.
Chances are this rhetorical extremism is just that. The specter of tanks on the White House lawn is for now just another of the devices Democrats are using to scare people into voting in large numbers for Mr. Biden.
But the level of distrust in the political process is higher than ever. With mail-in voting expected at record levels, and practiced mostly by supporters of the Democrats, the chances are good that Mr. Trump will lead after votes submitted in person are counted the night of Nov. 3, only to have the win seized from him as the postal votes are counted over the next few days. It’s a slim hope that this gets resolved in a rerun of the meticulously litigated Bush v. Gore (2000).
There’s a larger crisis of legitimacy that haunts this election and beyond. Democracy rests on the fragile foundation of consent—primarily the consent of the losers to the outcome of an election. If the losers feel that they have been cheated, that the winners have played by a set of rules that have redefined politics in their own narrow interest, the losers may withhold their consent. The fragile foundations are eroded further.
It’s this, rather than specific concerns about mail-in ballots or voter suppression, that is the largest threat to postelection America. To a large number of the president’s supporters, Mr. Trump’s defeat in November would represent the political validation of a yearslong extraconstitutional effort to discredit, delegitimize and ultimately destroy him.
Many of those voters may come to think that the long campaign of protest accompanied often by street violence and intimidation succeeded in persuading enough voters to heed the warning by Mr. Biden that the unrest will continue unless Mr Trump is defeated.
They may believe that state governments and mayors politically opposed to the president have in many places manipulated a public-health crisis for their own political ends: enforcing lockdowns that suppress economic activity in the hope of weakening the president’s support and creating the impression that only a vote for Mr. Biden would alleviate the suffering.
Looking further back over this presidency, they may conclude that the law-enforcement arm of the federal government was used to target Mr. Trump and his team in an unfounded investigation that consumed the first 2½ years of his administration and forced the removal and conviction of some of his key political allies.
They may suspect that influential figures in the permanent bureaucracy, the intelligence community and the military undermined the president at critical times, selectively leaking information designed to weaken his position and thwart his policy initiatives.
They will surely find that an almost monolithically one-sided press, which has abandoned even the pretense of objectivity, participated eagerly in all this, often backed by leaders of ever more powerful technology companies.
This is no ordinary case of a healthy pluralism at work in a vibrant democracy. Four years ago a resistance to the democratically elected president was founded. Embraced by some of the most powerful figures in civil society and government, who simply refused to consent to the election result, it has done its job. The risk in this election is that it may have spawned ever more resentful and determined successors.
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