On October 1, 1988, Harry Barnes, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Chile, sent an alarming cable to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Chile was four days away from a national referendum that asked whether General Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power in a bloody coup in 1973, should be given a mandate for another eight years. What was unclear was how Pinochet, no adherent to democratic norms, would react if he lost. “Pinochet’s plan is simple,” Barnes wrote in the cable, which was declassified and published years later, through the efforts of George Washington University’s National Security Archive. “A) if the ‘Yes’ is winning, fine: B) If the race is very close rely on fraud and coercion: C) If the ‘No’ is likely to win clearly then use violence and terror to stop the process.” The problem, for the Reagan Administration, was that it looked as if “No” would indeed “win clearly,” which meant that, as Barnes observed, “the third option is the one most likely to be put into effect with probable substantial loss of life.” The U.S. had helped Pinochet come to power and abetted him for years; if he had clearly won the referendum, the Administration’s reaction would likely also have been Option A: “fine.” Perhaps, to its shame, it would also have tolerated Option B. Option C, though, represented more trouble than it wanted.
Elections are powerful things. The message they send is not subtle: someone won, someone lost. In this country, if they are very, very close-close enough for things like “hanging chads” to be a factor, as they were in Florida, in the 2000 Presidential race-you can get wrapped up in a Supreme Court case, with prominent lawyers, such as Theodore Olson and David Boies, on opposing sides. Perhaps, if Donald Trump‘s reëlection bid had really just come down to a county or two somewhere, he might have been able to generate enough uncertainty to sell his version of Option B to his supporters-and maybe even to some swing voters-as a legitimate effort to obtain a recount. In countries without free elections, fraud and coercion regularly do make a difference. But that’s not the country we have, as Trump is learning, and it’s not the election we had. Joe Biden clearly won. There is no respectable way to argue otherwise, which is the main reason that Trump’s version of Option B looks so clownish. (Incompetence is also a factor.) Instead of Olson declaiming on federalism, as he did in 2000, there was a Trump-team press conference in which Rudy Giuliani, once the mayor of New York, looked like a wind-up junta member while another lawyer, Sidney Powell, spun conspiracy theories so wild that even the President’s campaign has dis