No less than Rutherford B. Hayes or George W. Bush, Donald Trump took office in January 2017 with his legitimacy hanging by a thread.
Having decisively lost the popular vote in 1876, Hayes claimed the White House following a serious of dubious and disputed recounts that prompted a constitutional crisis barely a decade after the Civil War; a special congressional committee ultimately voted along party lines to install "Rutherfraud," apparently as part of a deal to end Reconstruction.
Bush, another popular-vote loser, won the Electoral College in 2000 thanks to a 537-vote squeaker in Florida, where his brother Jeb was governor. This election – a debacle of hanging chads and butterfly ballots and a racist purge of the state's voter rolls – nearly provoked another constitutional crisis; it ended when the Supreme Court squelched a statewide recount.
These were not shining moments for democracy.
Neither was Trump's election in 2016. He won 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His narrow Electoral College victory rested on hitting a royal flush in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. He was aided in key swing states by Republican efforts to suppress Black turnout. He had still more help from a politically obtuse FBI director who announced a last-minute reinvestigation into Clinton's email scandals. And, of course, Trump benefited from a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation designed to help him win, which he didn't exactly discourage – and later tried to cover up. Trump needed a perfect storm to get elected.
This year, headed into the fall down double digits in polls, with the country reeling from a deadly pandemic and a bruising recession, he needs another.
His solution? Manufacture his own constitutional crisis.
Win or tear the country apart trying.
No matter what happens between now and Election Day, if Trump swears the oath on Jan. 20, 2021, he will be an illegitimate president. And the United States will be, for lack of a better word, fucked.
Admittedly, a statement like that should probably accompany a topic less banal than mail delivery.
In any other administration, you could dismiss the uproar over the election-season evisceration of the U.S. Postal Service as a low-grade conspiracy theory. But nothing in the last four years suggests Trump warrants the benefit of the doubt, especially when his lackeys' inexplicable decisions align so perfectly with his personal agenda.
The political strategy hardly requires mental gymnastics.
In a pandemic, people avoid long lines. During elections, Democratic precincts in urban and minority areas tend to have long lines – and that's an issue to discuss another day – a problem that will be exacerbated by an inability to find poll workers. Force people in urban areas to risk their lives to vote, and you decrease Democratic turnout.
Unless they vote by mail, that is.
Indeed, polling shows that those who plan to vote by mail overwhelmingly back Joe Biden. So Republicans have begun an all-out assault on mail voting, falsely alleging that it is prone to fraud, suing to stop states from expanding access to mail-in ballots, and pointing to expected mail delays as evidence that the Postal Service won't be able to handle a surge of ballots.
That last part is less a prediction than a promise – or perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With the election just over two months away, Trump's postmaster general, GOP megadonor Louis DeJoy, drastically reduced overtime, stopped guaranteeing on-time delivery, eliminated 10 percent of USPS mail-sorting machines and removed veteran employees as part of a hasty overhaul. In late July, the USPS told 46 states that it could not guarantee that mail-in ballots would arrive in time to be counted. Nearly 180 million people can vote by mail; imagine if millions of ballots arrive too late to be counted.
DeJoy says the USPS needs to save money, although his savings will amount to a rounding error in the federal budget. But last week, Trump, unable to help himself, said the quiet part out loud. He opposes a $25 billion bailout sought by the USPS and $3.6 billion in emergency election funding for states because, as he told the Fox Business Channel, "They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don't get those two items, that means you can't have universal mail-in voting, because they're not equipped to have it."
The president of the United States – who, just a few months ago, got impeached after trying to coerce a foreign nation to invent an investigation into his political rival – said on live television that he is sabotaging the Postal Service to keep people from voting and their votes from being counted.
Trump's brazen admission woke Democrats from their slumber. Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the House back to Washington to vote on a bill to force the USPS to reverse its service cuts, and Democrats demanded that DeJoy testify before a congressional committee later this month.
The administration quickly backflipped, with the USPS pledging to stop removing mailboxes and sorting machines, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows saying the president "is not going to interfere with anybody casting their votes in a legitimate way, whether it's the post office or anything else."
But at this point, Trump has already tainted the election in a way no president has ever even attempted. Just because he got caught doesn't mean he'll stop trying – whether it's disrupting the mail or dispatching paramilitary goons to "Democrat cities" or claiming fraud and refusing to concede. As November nears, the more desperate – and dangerous – he'll become. He's told us that nothing is out of bounds. We should believe him.
Even if destroying the mail system is the only thing he does to subvert the election, it's enough. He has crossed the Rubicon. No functioning democracy can abide an autocrat who uses the levers of government to disenfranchise millions of citizens for his political gain. Any democracy that does will be neither functioning nor much of a democracy for long.