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Darkness has fallen on American democracy

With Donald Trump claiming to have won the US election even before all the votes had been counted, an extraordinary contest has left the republic more divided than ever.

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There have been many points in living memory when the American republic has been put to the test. In the wake of the Great Depression from 1929 the country’s fabric threatened to tear apart and it was speculated that it could follow Italy (and later Germany) down the road to fascism. In 1968 economic crisis, protests and assassinations gripped the country. In 1974 the Watergate scandal threatened to engulf America’s system of government. And in 2000 the nation waited anxiously as both presidential candidates claimed to have won Florida and thus the White House.

In each case the republic was able to right itself and, albeit imperfectly, move forward. In his inauguration speech in January 2009, Barack Obama spoke of past moments of “gathering clouds and raging storms”, but also of times when “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents”.

Over the four years of his presidency Donald Trump has ridden roughshod over the norms of American democracy, and he did so again when he claimed to have won the 2019 election before all votes had been counted. The largely spineless Republican majority in the Senate has made America’s upper house a poor check on his excesses. One third of all Supreme Court judges have now been appointed by Trump (and the president has repeatedly treated judges as political partisans rather than impartial arbiters).

[see also: A fractured United States]

The campaign was a travesty, with the president and his supporters pre-emptively attempting, through bluster and legal cases, to declare victory and that some postal votes are illegitimate; this in an election in which, thanks to the pandemic, a probably Democrat-leaning majority of ballots were cast early or by post. It has been transparent throughout that Trump would only accept a clear win as fair: “If we win, if we win on Tuesday, or thank you very much, Supreme Court, shortly thereafter…” he said at a rally on 31 October.

The president’s goals appeared to be two-fold: to attempt to annihilate Joe Biden’s lead through legal challenges or, failing that, put the result in question to the extent that large numbers of Americans consider a Biden win illegitimate. Trump and his political allies would then have a bogus grievance narrative to propel them politically (and, knowing Trump, commercially) through the next four years.

What next? The counting in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania is likely to continue to the end of election week; we can expect Biden’s vote share to rise as it does. Then the next milestones are dictated by the constitution. All states must appoint their electoral college voters by 8 December; conventionally they do so in line with the presidential election result in the state, though formally it is entirely up to the state. The electors then meet in the state capitals on 14 December to cast their votes for the presidential candidate chosen by their state. On 6 January, Congress is due to meet, certify the electoral college votes and declare a winner; and Trump’s current presidential term is due to end by noon on 20 January, the presumed inauguration day.

In that time Trump and his supporters might do several things in pursuit of their goals. They may try to halt counts. And it is already clear that they will try to use their army of lawyers across the marginal states to render every Biden vote possible in these states illegitimate through the courts.

Expect lots of arguments about illegitimate postal marks, recounts, missing ballots and the like. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court and the overtly partisan character of some of Trump’s appointees may well play a role, in cases referred up to it from the states. Even if Biden’s lead is unassailable, such theatrics will create doubt and provide the scenery for Trump’s cries of fraud.

[see also: US presidential election 2020: map Trump’s and Biden’s remaining paths to victory]

What we know is that however favourable the yet-to-be-counted votes are to Biden, and however far ahead the Democratic candidate is in the electoral college, Trump will continue to insist that he is the rightful winner and refuse to concede. This is not just a product of his mendacious and self-pitying character but also raw personal interest; when Trump ceases to become president he will lose legal immunity and suddenly face the creditors and lawsuits awaiting him. So even a scenario in which it is clear that he has lost beyond hope of legal overturn and senior Republicans are prevailing on him to go, it is far from certain that Trump will do so willingly.

If he does not, or if the waters have been muddied and results delayed by the legal challenges, as 8 December draws near it is possible that the president will lean on Republican-led state legislatures in states where Biden has won to appoint pro-Trump electors willing to defy the (unconfirmed, or supposedly fraudulent) popular vote. In states with Democratic governors but Republican legislators there could even be rival slates of electors going into the vote on 14 December. The certification on 6 January then lies in the hands of Congress; that the Democrats seemed set to win the Senate and hold the House of Representatives bodes well for Biden in this regard. Should Congress be deadlocked and unable to produce a result, by default Nancy Pelosi, as House speaker, will be inaugurated as acting president on 20 January.

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It could get very dark for American democracy in the coming weeks. Think clashes on the streets, violent threats to legislators and officials, perhaps even talk of the union breaking apart. Trump’s most extreme supporters have repeatedly shown themselves willing to resort to violence; and the president has encouraged them, such as when during the first televised presidential debate he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand by”. Last month the FBI announced the arrests of eight men who had been planning to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan and the subject of Trump’s attacks and Twitter calls to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”.

The republic, then, stands before a test; a test of its constitution, norms and institutions; and most fundamentally of its ability to hold together as a people and polity. It may well prove at least as large or larger than the challenges of 1929, 1968, 1974 or 2000; the largest, even, since the Civil War and the years immediately after.

First of all, it concerns how the US gets through the coming weeks. Can Trump win by throwing out legitimate Biden votes or by decoupling the electoral college from the popular vote? And if not, can Biden project the leadership and authority needed to push Trump’s theatrics towards the margins and lay the groundwork for the transition?

Whether Trump or Biden ultimately becomes president (assuming one of them does), the country will then face a bigger, longer-term challenge. To start with the first of these eventualities: Trump’s first term has damaged American democracy as we know it; it is not an exaggeration to wonder whether a second Trump term, even if he turns out to have won legitimately, could be terminal.

International precedent suggests that illiberal and authoritarian leaders are often far more radical once re-elected than they were in their first terms. The sense of impunity and endorsement, and the familiarity with the levers of power, spurs them to be far more confident and aggressive in gutting institutions, breaking norms and weakening centres of opposition.

That at least has been the case following the re-elections of Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. All provide examples of how democratically elected leaders can in office accumulate dictatorial powers, how the move to autocracy can happen gradually over several years, one rupture at a time. The typical riposte – that America’s checks and balances make its democracy uniquely robust – dissolves on contact with the Republican-controlled Senate’s record of feeble deference towards Trump over his first term.

And if Joe Biden ends up as president? The temptation in such a moment will be to assume that all is once more well. That would be a mistake. The past four years, and particularly the experience of a chaotic election campaign and aftermath, will leave scars. Even if he goes, Trump will continue to claim that the election was stolen. He will remain a large presence in US politics. His more extreme supporters may seek to form some sort of resistance, possibly violent. Many more will simply consider Biden not to be a legitimate president. The Trump wing of the Republican Party may disintegrate, or – at least as likely, or more so – steel itself to obstruct Biden at every step of his presidency and challenge him (or his Democratic successor) for it in 2024. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, and Tucker Carlson, a prominent Fox News host, could all be names to watch. Trumpism is unlikely to leave American politics with the man himself.

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Lines have been crossed in American politics that cannot be uncrossed – even under a president determined, as Biden professes to be, to restore decency and honour to the White House. In state politics as in federal politics Trump has normalised the politicisation of public servants, flagrant lying, corrupt and self-serving behaviour, co-opting of official institutions, and obsessive tribalism and paranoia to a degree unimaginable even in America’s previously imperfect democratic landscape.

Even if Trump goes down as a one-term president who had to be prised out of the White House following election defeat, it will remain the case that those politics took a celebrity huckster to the presidency in the first place and may (had it not been for the pandemic) have kept him there. And his methods may well retain their potency for as long as the underlying causes of Trumpism – the deep inequities and divides in America – persist, renewing widespread anger, disillusionment and polarisation.

Can the United States get through its test? The republic has muddled through past crises when its system threatened to fall apart. It is to be sincerely hoped that it does so again. But to hope should not be the same as to assume. History provides lessons and principles, but it is not an oracle. This time may be different. 

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos