David Brooks: What will you do if Trump doesn’t leave?

President Donald Trump talks with reporters at Andrews Air Force Base after attending a campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On the evening of Nov. 3, Americans settle nervously in front of their screens to await elections results. In the early hours Donald Trump seems to be having an excellent night. Counting the votes cast at polling places, Trump is winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those states don’t even begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, yet Trump quickly declares victory. So do many other Republican candidates. The media complains that it’s premature, but Trumpworld is ecstatic.

Democrats know that as many as 40% of the ballots are mail-in and still being counted, and those votes are likely to be overwhelmingly for Joe Biden, but they can’t control the emotions of that night. It’s a gut punch.

As the mail-in ballots are tallied, the Trump leads erode. But the situation is genuinely unclear. Trump is on the warpath, raging about fraud.

Within weeks there are lawsuits and challenges everywhere. It’s like Florida in 2000, but the chaos is happening in many states at once. Ballots are getting tossed because of problems with signatures, or not getting tossed, amid national frenzy.

Trump says he won’t let Democrats steal the election and declares himself reelected. It’s an outrage, but as when he used the White House for a campaign prop during his convention, who’s going to stop him?

A certain kind of Republican takes to the streets to enforce Trump’s version of events. According to research done by Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, 50% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Nearly as many believe, that “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”

The left is in the streets, too. On the fringe of the left there are those who want to overthrow the racist, cisgendered, patriarchal neoliberal oligarchy. This is their chance at mayhem, too, and they seize it with sometimes violent passion.

But a new force looms into view. For the whole Trump era a certain sort of conservative has been cowering from the Trump onslaught. Certain sorts of moderates and liberals have also been keeping their heads down, so they won’t get bitten off by the woke mobs. But now the very existence of the Republic is at stake.

It turns out, amid the existential crisis, there really is a group of sober people who are militant about America, who can see reality unblinkered by the lens of partisanship and who are finally compelled to organize.

They understand that, like so many American tragedies, this is largely about race. It’s about the transition from a certain kind of white-dominated America to a diverse America — and the people who will do anything to stop it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once argued that sin is buried so deep in the human soul that sweet words are insufficient to get people to give up their unjust power. “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency,” he wrote, “man faces the ever-present possibility of a swift relapse not merely to animalism, but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice.”

But the realist militants who walk in King’s shadow also know that it is the U.S. Constitution that keeps us from slipping into chaos, along with all the norms and values built around it over the centuries. They know, too, that this crisis is not just about race, but also the greatness of American institutions, so scorned and derided of late, so neglected and abused.

If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy, that isolates those who would undo it.

Two themes would have to feature in such civic action. The first is ardent patriotism. The country survives such a crisis only if most people’s love of nation overwhelms the partisan fury that will threaten to envelop us.

The second is the preservation of constitutional order. Through epic acts of self-discipline, the nonviolent civil rights marchers in the 1960s forced their foes to reveal that if there were to be any violence and anarchy, it would come from the foes. That’s how the movement captured the moral high ground and won the mind of the nation.

The process of mobilizing for an accurate election outcome, before it is too late, would be a struggle to preserve the order of our civic structure against the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption. It may be how we rediscover our nation again.

It’s time to start thinking about what you would do.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.