There’s an essential starting point for grasping the crisis engulfing US politics

In the 50s the head of CIA counterintelligence James Angleton said Russian stratagems were like “a wilderness of mirrors”. The same phrase captures the maze of the US constitutional and electoral system, a wilderness of mirrors that can warp, even falsify, the choice of voters on November 3.

This system was not intended as a democracy but as republic. This is an essential starting point for grasping the US crisis.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin said in 1787 when constituents asked what the founding fathers at Philadelphia had agreed on. One designed, he could have added, to use a creation called the electoral college to thwart popular rule.

As a result, even if Biden leads Trump by 4 million votes, according to statistician Nate Silver, the electoral college could still be a toss-up. It’s a device not found in any other elective presidency.

 Meanwhile, Trump’s party practises voter suppression to discourage voting by minorities. Republican states make it hard for minorities and the young to register. They limit voting machines at booths in poor or black districts to force long queues and waits of hours.

Says Barack Obama, “We really are the only advanced democracy on Earth that systematically and purposely makes it really hard for people to vote.”

Simply inconceivable in any other Western country, this systemic voter suppression rebuts any lingering notion of the US as a democracy, as opposed to a republic with constitutionally entrenched freedom of expression.

The same constitution that indulges such abuses also produced a Supreme Court with the political reach of a third chamber, sitting above Senate and House. Filling the Ginsberg vacancy with Amy Coney Barrett is another chapter in a 50-year project by conservatives to build conservative courts as an anti-majoritarian backstop. It is promising Republicans a majority on the bench, locked in for decades.

Except, with morbid humour beyond reach of any satirist’s pen, the September 26 Rose Garden launch of Barrett’s nomination morphed into a superspreading massacre. As the party elite panted their enthusiasm for the nomination, their excited cross breaths carried a viral load that took down the chair of the Republican National Committee, the campaign manager and, at last count, three senators.

On the face of it, this extinguishes the Senate majority required for the Barrett nomination. Russian agents at the tea urn could not have been more lethal.

With or without Barrett, the Supreme Court will be dragged in to settle a contested result but not perhaps if it gets first flung to Congress. And not just because of a tied electoral college, a possibility recently canvassed. Another way Congress picks the president has been outlined by Lawrence Douglas, a professor from Amherst College and author of the 2020 book Will He Go?.

His scenario is that at midnight Biden has a lead in the electoral college vote of, say, 250 to 240 but in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania faces a painfully slow count of mail-in votes. Republicans insist tens of thousands be tossed out because of their date or misplaced initials. In the end, the legislatures in the three states (all Republican) submit to Congress the names of the electors pledged to Trump. But the governors (all Democrats) submit the names of those pledged to Biden.

 Congress has to pick. The election devolves into a battle between the Democratic House and Republican Senate (unless the Democrats win four seats). This would, according to some lawyers, pre-empt further consideration of the election by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile on the streets?

Trump’s repeated failure to endorse a peaceful transfer of power turns an exuberant conman into Munich putschist. Not even Viktor Orban in Hungary or France’s National Rally has nodded to purveyors of street violence.

If Biden wins the popular vote but has the election awarded to Trump by Electoral College or Congress there will likely be protests. Trump will respond by ordering into the streets his shaggy militia of off-duty cops, former military and bikies eager to brandish gun collections, with ammunition stocked up in recent months for this very showdown. “Stand down and stand by.”

Do the Joint Chiefs take orders from an embattled White House to use troops to put down one set of protesters? The relationship between the commander-in-chief and his army is another feature of the system that may be tested in this strangest of elections.

Better for the country is a clear-cut Biden victory. An uncontested outcome, as sweet as a Norman Rockwell cover on The Saturday Evening Post.

 It would leave the Trump forces smouldering. There would be a contest to take leadership of this movement, the populist white nationalist impulse launched with Trump’s 2016 takeover of the Republican Party. It may be between Ivanka and Don jnr, a succession drama in a mob family. Or go to an outsider such as Fox frontman Tucker Carlson, with 4 million viewers.

The winner would storm through the 2024 primaries wearing the sanctified red cap and promising to take the country back, the voters horrified by Biden’s successor: black, and a woman to boot. That would mobilise the base.

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The Hon. Bob Carr is a former Premier of New South Wales (1995–2005), a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (2012–2013) and the former Director of the Australia–China Relations Institute, the University of Technology Sydney (2014–2019).

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