Will a president with authoritarian tendencies actually try to suspend a constitutionally mandated presidential election?
That’s the question Americans asked in the spring and summer of 1970. At the end of the 1960s, a wave of violence—domestic terrorism, urban riots, assassinations and rising crime—set the public on edge. A presidential panel, decrying a national “crisis of violence,” found that 41,000 bombings or bomb threats had occurred in the U.S. in the last 15 months. Richard Nixon—whose abuses of presidential power would ultimately lead to his resignation—struck his critics as so heedless of democratic norms and the rules of fair play that he was capable of attempting almost anything.
Today, people are starting to ask the same questions. The fiasco over Ohio’s scheduled Democratic primary—with the governor and a judge waging an eleventh-hour war over whether it should proceed—and other states’ postponement of their primaries could well be a preview of a looming Constitutional donnybrook over November’s vote. If the coronavirus is still largely unchecked this fall, the crowds necessitated by a presidential election would pose a huge threat to public health. Worst of all, because President Donald Trump has repeatedly shown contempt for the rule of law and the spirit of democracy, it’s not unreasonable to worry that he could try to use the pandemic as a pretext to cancel the election and remain in power.