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3 September 2020

US democracy in peril: Don’t underestimate the Trump Factor

The greatest threat to American norms in this presidential election is the president himself.  

By Emily Tamkin

There are people who note – and they are right to do so – that the problems facing the United States did not start with Donald Trump; that he is a by-product of bad faith right-wing media, celebrity culture and years of Republicans calling people out to battle in the culture war. But though what is currently happening to the country is larger than the president, he is also the person now positioned to do the nation most harm. That is true if he loses in November; it is even truer if he wins.

Trump has already begun sowing seeds of doubt around this election’s legitimacy. He’s pushed the baseless theory that mail-in votes will lead to widespread fraud, and some in his circle are reportedly exploring the option of trying to curb such voting by executive action.

There is also widespread concern that he is trying to sabotage the US postal service, which many Americans will need to safely use to be able to vote in November. The new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, appointed by a board of governors selected by the president, is a major Republican party donor. And in an interview with Fox Business Network, Trump himself implied that he wanted to prevent the post office from functioning properly because of the Democrats’ support for mail-in votes: “Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said, adding: “But if they don’t get those two items that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped.”

These are attacks on the logistics of voting, but they also undermine the validity of this election. The same can be said for a tweet that Trump sent out late last month which suggested the vote be delayed. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA,” the president tweeted. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

[See also: What would happen if Trump refused defeat?]

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The president can’t actually delay the election, but he is already compromising it by using his powerful position to predict it will be inaccurate and fraudulent – and he will almost certainly continue doing so on election night.

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In all likelihood, the result will not be called on 3 November, and will instead require a wait for votes to come in and be counted. But this is not what Americans are used to, and Trump will likely take this time to try to convince anyone who will listen that the game is rigged against him. (He has done something similar before, in 2016, when he claimed he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal votes. There was no evidence to support this claim.)

When I interviewed Lawrence Douglas, US legal scholar and author of Will He Go?, he drew a distinction between Trump admitting and accepting defeat. If Trump loses, he will, eventually, leave. But he could do so in a way that leaves American democracy  its belief in elections and the peaceful and legitimate transfer of power “in a weak and imperilled state”, Douglas feared.

[See also: Trump’s degradation of US intelligence is another victory in his war against facts]

And that is if Trump loses. If he wins, he’ll be in a position to spend four more years chipping away at the postal service, and working with his administration to dictate which Americans are able to exercise their legal right to vote.

Nor are those the only rights that Trump has worked to curtail while in office. There’s also the right to protest, which has been met with federal agents reportedly throwing people in vans; there’s the right to seek asylum, which this administration has tried to block; and there’s the right to free press, which this administration has threatened with libel.

The United States’ hypocritical position on civil and voting rights, immigration, and the freedoms of assembly and the press did not begin with Trump. But he’s the one who is, at present, best positioned to expand that hypocrisy; if he wins in November, he’ll be even better placed to do so.