During the 12 years that followed the adoption of the Constitution, the two men who served as president were the nominally independent but Federalist-inclined George Washington, followed by his vice president, Federalist John Adams. During these administrations, an opposing party — the Democratic-Republicans — solidified under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 

In 1800, the Democratic-Republicans fielded Jefferson as their standard-bearer to oppose President Adams. The 1800 presidential campaign was a notorious mudsling — perhaps one of the dirtiest presidential elections our republic has seen — and resulted in Jefferson’s victory over the incumbent Adams. The eyes of Americans, and the world, fell upon the capital. Would Adams and his Federalist allies cede their power? 

Adams and Jefferson, at this time, had a bitter personal rivalry, and it was matched by the political chasm between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. But on March 4, 1801, Jefferson was inaugurated as the third president of the United States without delay.

The 1800 presidential election is sometimes referred to as the “Revolution of 1800.” It is called this because it was the first time that power exchanged hands between parties at the national level, and crucially, it exchanged hands peacefully. The Federalists knew they had lost, and they respected the democratic process. It proved that the American Revolution’s republican drive — to this point untested — was realizable. The American experiment could work. 

220 years and 20 such exchanges later, it appears that tradition could be in danger. 

President Trump has, on many occasions now, insinuated that the presidential election will be fraught with voter fraud from mail-in ballots. He has repeatedly claimed “the ballots are out of control,” called the ballots a “scam” and accused Democrats of harboring this knowledge. 

The president has even flirted with rejecting the electoral outcome should Joe Biden win on Nov. 3. When asked point blank during a White House press briefing in late September whether he’d commit to a peaceful transition of power, Trump gave an astounding answer: “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens.”

There is a right way, and only one right way, for a sitting U.S. president to respond to that question. “Of course, I am committed to a peaceful transition of power, just as every president before me. That’s the bedrock of American democracy. What a ridiculous question.”

Unfortunately for our nation’s proud republican legacy, that an American president may not concede defeat and voluntarily give up his power is a legitimate concern in 2020. Since 1800, with the exception of the outbreak of the Civil War, our government has always accepted election results and willingly transferred power when defeated by an opposing party. Trump’s repeated failure to respect this legacy ought to shock and disgust every American.

The vast majority of what comes out of Trump’s mouth is bluster and nonsense. There is a real and frightening possibility, however, that he truly means what he’s saying here. But how would Trump’s rejection of a Biden victory theoretically work? And more importantly, could he actually pull it off?

Trump is already laying the groundwork for this sort of power grab. He’s started by discrediting mail-in voting, suggesting that it will lead to voter fraud of massive proportions (even though mail-in voting is one of the safest ways to vote right now.) We know that Biden voters are more likely than Trump voters to use mail-in voting for the upcoming general election. Trump knows this too, and should he lose, will likely use it to fuel the narrative that many mail-in votes were fraudulent. As such, Trump’s pre-planned narrative appears to be that a hypothetical Biden victory, the product of mail-in fraud, will be illegitimate. 

So, how exactly would Trump go about stealing the election? The answer is tied to our terribly flawed mechanism of electing presidents: the electoral college. According to the Constitution, individual state legislatures are charged with appointing electors to the electoral college. Historically, the winner of the popular vote in each state receives that state’s electoral votes. But — and this is the big but — state legislatures still reserve the right to select their own electors, regardless of the popular vote outcome. 

So, if Trump screams on Nov. 4 that rampant voter fraud cost him the popular vote in key battleground states, it could potentially be followed by a recommendation that state legislatures appoint pro-Trump electors, so as to deliver the “correct” electoral result. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — blue-leaning states that could deliver the decisive electoral votes for a Biden victory — both the State Houses and Senates are controlled by Republicans. If they “determine” that Biden won through fraudulent mail-in votes and decide to “correct” the situation themselves, there’s a real scenario where they try to bypass election day results and deliver their electors to Donald Trump.

What is most disturbing about all of this is that massive voter fraud is absolute fiction. The apocalyptic scenario (already being peddled by Republican soothsayers) of rampant mail-in fraud tainting the election in Biden’s favor is a design to mar a fair Trump loss. Don’t take my word for it. Take Ellen Weintraub’s word for it: As the commissioner of the Federal Election Commission said, “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.”

That’s all this is. A conspiracy theory, peddled by Trump and promoted by Republicans, aimed at preemptively discrediting a legitimate Biden victory and stealing the election. At the end of the day, Trump and his minions don’t give a damn about our democracy. These folks are willing to lie — and in doing so, soil the democratic tradition America has had since 1800 — if it means keeping power. There’s a word for that: treason.

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu

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