As we edge ever closer to Election Day this November, President Trump is predictably beginning to cast aspersions on the validity of the result. When asked during a White House Briefing whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, Trump obfuscated in his answer: “Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful… there won’t be a transfer, frankly – there’ll be a continuation”. In referring to getting rid of ‘the ballots’, he reaffirmed his unfounded proposition that mail-in ballots will lead to voter-fraud on a mass scale - in Joe Biden and the Democrats’ favour. This admission that Trump will effectively only accept the election result if he wins should be chilling to anyone concerned with the condition of democracy in the US.
Furthermore, his refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power undermines a cornerstone of liberal democracy – with Trump it is often difficult to tell if he is just indulging in ‘strongman’ fantasies, or if he genuinely believes that ‘there won’t be a transfer’ of power. Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been quick to reassure the public that there will, in fact, be a peaceful transfer of power. However, the Republican (or GOP) establishment doesn’t speak for Trump’s base. During the 2016 election, a large part of Trump’s appeal was his supposed separation from the political establishment and his disregard for political norms and niceties. In an age where trust in the establishment is at rock-bottom, it is unsurprising that many Trump supporters will refuse to accept an election result that they don’t like, dispensing it as ‘Fake News’ and being corrupt.
Trump has consistently been sowing the seeds of doubt in the election result. In particular, he has focused on the ‘tremendous potential for voter fraud’ that mail-in voting could represent. This behaviour of propagating pre-emptive excuses for electoral loss mirrors similar assertions made by Trump in the lead up to the last Presidential election, where he suggested that the election would have had to have been ‘rigged’ if he didn’t win. These claims have been found to be baseless – studies conducted after the 2016 election found no states reported indications of widespread fraud. Attacks on the legitimacy of the outcome of elections are massively damaging to the health of democracy; they suggest that Trump may refuse to concede if he loses, as he will dispute the validity of the result. The ensuing constitutional crisis would only serve to further divide the nation along hyper-partisan lines.
In the context of country-wide riots and heightened political tension, a contested election could light a tinderbox of political violence. In the wake of the 2016 election, there were several protests - most notably in Oakland, California, which became violent and saw large-scale property damage – even without the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton, contesting the result. With Trump stoking the flames of political tribalism, widespread rioting and violence seems very plausible. In spreading conspiracy theories about the election being ‘rigged’, Trump is knowingly conditioning his base to refuse to accept a result that doesn’t see him serve another four years. While Trump hasn’t directly incited violence, his large and almost fanatical base not only listen to his rhetoric, but also infer what they believe he wants them to do. This election has been cast in apocalyptic terms – with both sides claiming that liberty hangs in the balance, fascism on one side, communism on the other. During such radical times, people will act in radical ways. Particularly worrying, should Trump lose, would be the 79 days between Election Day and Inauguration Day in January. During this time, Trump will still be in power, still have the same platform from which to rouse his supporters, and most likely, still emphasise the supposed voter fraud that he would believe had prevented his re-election. Both right-wing and left-wing extremist groups could be motivated to action, probably violent, throughout this period.
It is important to reiterate that the election result isn’t certain – Trump could win. However, Trump and his team know the polling doesn’t look good – the economy is in recession, his handling of COVID-19 has been slow and confused, and outside of a large tax-cut and Mitch McConnell’s indefatigable appointment of federal judges, he lacks any significant policy achievements. This all suggests a Biden victory. What is worrying is that it appears Trump is making excuses, possibly in an attempt to maintain his own ego and air of infallibility, that suggest that the very foundations of American democracy are rotten, that the election may be illegitimate, and is therefore threatening to undermine a basic tenet of liberal democracy. In doing so, he is riling up tribalism and increasing the possibility of widespread political violence. The rise of populism in America has seen almost a cult of personality form around Trump. When analysing Trump’s actions, it is massively important to understand that – as a populist – his supporters need to be scrutinised too. Will Trump go peacefully? We must hope, but it doesn’t look hopeful.
Image: Flickr / Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour