In normal times, we might regard any vote as ethical. To participate in an election is to dignify oneself as a citizen with a voice, and to express with others the interests and values that guide the future of our land. But these are not normal times.
This is clear from the perspective of the candidates. During a normal campaign, both candidates take for granted that they will walk free after the election. One will be in the Oval Office; the other will go home. This year is different. One candidate, Donald Trump, knows that, should he not remain in power, he will descend into poverty, go to prison, or both. He can hold the ongoing criminal investigations at bay as long as he is president, but not thereafter. Trump owes hundreds of millions of dollars to his creditors and has no visible means to pay them back. As president, he can expect his creditors to wait; as a private citizen, he cannot.
If someone can maintain wealth and freedom only by holding onto power, that person will fight to hold onto power. Behind the ideologies and the propaganda, this is the core history of tyranny: government becomes the bodyguard of a gangster. Modern authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin have much to say about why they must remain in power, but the real issue is that they wish to die wealthy and in their own beds rather than poor and in prison. In authoritarian countries, the anxiety of the tyrant can be allayed by a promise not to prosecute the leader and his family, and to leave their bank accounts in peace. Because the rule of law still (more or less) prevails in the United States, no one can offer Trump such a deal. He is therefore in a fight for his life; from his point of view, he needs to spend the rest of it in the White House. His predicament might not be obvious to Americans, but people in authoritarian countries see it right away.
It is also unusual, in an American presidential campaign, for one of the candidates to admit defeat. Trump has a fine political mind, and he can read polls and the national mood as well as anyone. For months now, he has been signaling that he cannot beat Joe Biden in an election. When he tried to summon the armed forces to aid him in June, it was the gesture of a man who needed unusual forms of help. When he tweeted in July that elections should be delayed, he revealed that he did not think he could win them. Undermining the United States Postal Service, asking his supporters to vote twice, and saying that he will not accept the results: all of these are ways of saying that he expects to lose. His campaign has ignored swing voters, and the Republican National Convention made no attempt to reach the undecided. In the first presidential debate, Trump tried, as he has done for months, to delegitimize the election as such.
If we take Trump at his word and begin with the premise that he cannot win the election, then his actions make sense. The plan is not to win the popular (or even the electoral) vote, but rather to stay in power in some other way. We don’t even really have to guess about this, since Trump has spelled it out himself: he will declare victory regardless of what happens, expect state governments to act contrary to vote counts, claim fraud from postal ballots, court chaos from white nationalists (and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security), and expect the Supreme Court to install him. In general, the idea behind these scenarios is to create as much chaos as possible, and then fall back upon personal ruthlessness and an artificial state of emergency to stay in power. If Trump creates a constitutional crisis while his supporters commit acts of violence, the Supreme Court might be intimidated.
In this transition from democracy to authoritarianism, otherwise known as a coup d’état, the actual number of people who vote for Trump matters less than it would in an ordinary election. In this scenario, it matters more how angry they are, and how willing some of them are to endorse extraordinary actions by Trump, or to take such actions themselves. Because he is treating election day as the occasion for a coup, Trump has good reason not to soften his message to reach more voters. In doing so he would risk losing some of the emotion he needs when he tries to stay in power by non-democratic means. He only has to stay within about ten points of Joe Biden to avoid the demoralization that arises when even core supporters realize they have been deceived by their leader and overwhelmed by their fellow citizens at the polls.
It is unusual for a plan for a coup d’état to be broadcast so clearly. Yet there is a political logic here, one with deep moral implications. By telling Americans in advance that he intends to stay in power regardless of the vote count, Trump is implicating his supporters in the action as it unfolds. He is giving them notice that they are siding with someone who intends to work hard to see that votes are not counted. He is making them understand that they are participants in the unravelling of American democracy. They might not want to face this reality squarely, which would be a normal reaction. This is a lesson of modern tyranny: authoritarianism need not be a conscious project of those embraced by it. They need only sleepwalk through the roles assigned to them. When democracy lies in the dust, they will find rationalizations for what they have done, and will support the authoritarian regime that follows, because they are already involved. No argument from emotions or interests can stop that process. The degradation is ethical, and so the question is about ethics.
What, then, is the moral meaning of a vote for Donald Trump on November 3? To vote for Trump is to traduce the meaning of voting, which is a normal part of the transition to authoritarianism. Because the collective effect of votes for Trump is to create background plausibility for a coup, each vote for Trump is participation in a plot to end the American republic. It is to vote for a future in which voting does not matter. It is a choice by Americans to no longer make choices as Americans. It transforms individuals with interests and values into elements of a spectacle that legitimates an authoritarian regime change. If Trump stays in power, elections will continue to take place, but they will be meaningless. Soon we will not bother to speak of fraud, because voting will be a joke.
In that dark scenario, the joke is on the Trump voter, because a vote for Trump is a vote for spiritual self-annihilation. If Trump stays in power in 2021, a Trump voter will enjoy the quick hit of “winning,” a spasm of joy that distracts from a profound moral loss. It is no victory to vote for never voting again, to beg for voicelessness. It is submission. Joe Biden is not a perfect candidate, but he is a candidate who supports democracy: the American dignity of representing oneself, and the American aspiration to see our values and interests prevail in our government. If our democracy dies, a Biden voter will be able to say to herself that she did the right thing, did what was possible, did not give in. A Biden voter can speak proudly about America’s past as a democracy, will preserve the moral resources to resist authoritarianism, and might at some later point contribute to a resurrection of the republic.
In a moral sense, a Trump voter has much more to lose than a Biden voter, for the stakes in November are not only about what the candidates would do in office, but about who we will be afterward as individuals. The Trump voter is risking something precious: his or her standing as an American to be counted, as a person to be reckoned with. To vote for Trump is to cast away that standing; it is to become, as the president likes to say, a “sucker” and a “loser.” To vote for Trump is to give away something that rightly belongs to others, their future in a democracy, and to lose something of yourself that you can never recover, the dignity of a citizen of our republic.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.