“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Donald Trump boasted in 2016.
Mr. Trump’s 5th Avenue principle is being severely tested. Some 40% of voters have stuck by him even though more than 214,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. It’s one of the world’s highest death rates — due in part to Mr. Trump initially downplaying its dangers, then refusing responsibility for it, promoting quack remedies for it, muzzling government experts on it, pushing states to reopen despite it, and discouraging people from wearing masks.
They’ve stuck by him even after he turned the White House into a hot spot for the virus, even after he caught it himself, and even after he asserted just days ago that it’s less lethal than the flu. A recent nonpartisan study concluded that Mr. Trump’s blatant disinformation has been the largest driver of COVID-19 misinformation in the world.
They’ve stuck by him even as more than 11 million Americans have lost their jobs, 40 million risk eviction from their homes, 14 million have lost health insurance, and almost one out of five Americans with kids at home cannot afford to adequately feed their children.
They’ve stuck by him even though more Americans have sought unemployment benefits this year than voted for him in 2016, even after Mr. Trump cut off talks on economic relief, even as he’s pushing the Supreme Court to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would cause 20 million more to lose health insurance.
Mr. Trump is, in effect, standing in the middle of 5th Avenue, killing Americans. Yet here we are, just a few weeks before the election, and his supporters haven’t budged. The latest polls show him with 40% to 43% of voters, while Joe Biden has a bare majority.
The most egregious test of Mr. Trump’s 5th Avenue principle is still to come, when he tries to kill off American democracy. He’s counting on his supporters to keep him in power even after he loses the popular vote.
He’s ready to claim that mail-in ballots, made necessary by the pandemic, are rife with “fraud like you’ve never seen,” as he asserted during his debate with Joe Biden — although it’s been shown that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud.
Alleging fraud, he’ll likely dispute election results in any Republican-led state that he loses by a small margin — such as Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
Then he’ll rely on the House of Representatives to put him over the top.
“We are going to be counting ballots for the next two years,” Mr. Trump warned at a recent Pennsylvania rally, noting “we have an advantage if we go back to Congress. I think it’s 26 to 22 or something. It’s counted one vote per state. So we actually have an advantage.”
He was referring to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that if state electors deadlock or can’t agree on a president, the decision goes to the House. There, each of the nation’s 50 states gets one vote.
That means small Republican-dominated states such as Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming (each with one House member, who’s a Republican) would have the same clout as large Democratic states like California (with 52 House members, 44 of whom are Democrats).
Mr. Trump does have the advantage right now: 26 state congressional delegations in the House are now controlled by Republicans, and 22 by Democrats. Two — Pennsylvania and Michigan — are essentially tied.
But he won’t necessarily retain that advantage. The decision would be made by lawmakers elected in November, who will be sworn in on Jan. 3 — three days before they’ll convene to decide the winner of the election.
Which is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is focusing on races that could tip the balance of state delegations — not just in Pennsylvania and Michigan but any others within reach.
“It’s sad we have to have to plan this way,” Speaker Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues last month, “but it’s what we must do to ensure the election is not stolen.”
Mr. Trump’s 5th Avenue principle has kept him in power despite levels of deprivation, desperation and death that would have doomed the presidencies of anyone else. But as a former New Yorker, he should know that 5th Avenue ends at the Harlem River at 142nd Street, and the end is near.
Robert B. Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It.”