The shape of Donald Trump’s impending coup could not be clearer. The Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh telegraphed it in a ruling this week on postal ballots. The state of Wisconsin requires ballots to be delivered by polling day in order to be counted; a court extended the time period by six days, but the Supreme Court upheld the original rules.
Kavanaugh, a conservative hand-picked by Trump, published an opinion extending far beyond the legal issue of states vs courts. Most states, he said, want to impose election day as the deadline to “avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election”.
In a democracy, as a dissenting liberal judge pointed out, postal votes do not “flip” the result: they help determine it. And in a democracy, the executive does not work overtime to shut down the postal boxes and sorting machines needed for people to cast their ballot. In a democracy, people wishing to vote early do not need to queue around the block for an entire day.
But voter suppression has become a way of life for many on the US right. In addition to the routine challengers facing black and Hispanic voters at the polling booths, there are signs that Trump will deploy “observers”, armed where possible, to intimidate voters on the day. Any incidents that ensue would compress voting hours even further.
“Chaos and suspicions of impropriety” are, in fact, the core of Trump’s plan for the evening of 3 November. That’s why he has continually questioned the validity of postal voting. Now, the final part of the strategy is under way: Trump has begun to tweet delusionally about a “red wave”, a narrative that disinformation sites are running with, as are their habitual amplifiers.
The script for election day has become clear: long lines and incidents at the polling stations; disputes over the count; legal moves to force the results to be declared without counting postal votes; and an early declaration of victory by Trump – even in the face of actual results, which will be challenged in the courts. Since large numbers of his supporters believe some or all of the QAnon conspiracy theory, they will have no problem swallowing the lie that “there was a GOP surge but the ballots were tampered with”. Every dispute will end up at the Supreme Court and, as of this week, it is stacked 6-3 in favour of conservatives.
If Trump wins, that’s the effective end of US democracy. If you find that unthinkable, remember that, though the country has been a constitutional republic since 1776, it’s only truly been a democracy since 1965 (as the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out).
In March of that year, amid street battles in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B Johnson rushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress, outlawing the voter suppression that had made the South effectively a one-party state. Over the years the Supreme Court has chipped away at its provisions, and black people have been disenfranchised in numerous ways, but it is the right to vote, say Levitsky and Ziblatt, that democratised the republic.
Trump’s election, and his determination to make the US an “illiberal” democracy, has triggered outrage among liberal political philosophers and legal scholars. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die, is one of numerous attempts to analyse the problem and propose solutions. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy and Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq’s How to Save a Democracy have also been influential.
Their common assumption is that the democratic decay of the US, and other advanced countries, is a dysfunction. They see capitalism as a machine for producing liberal democracies, so there must be a glitch somewhere in the machine that needs fixing.
Mounk’s proposed fix is to redistribute wealth; to defend universal rights and multi-ethnic concepts of citizenship; to regulate social media and educate people about disinformation; to restore some of the rights of states in the face of the neoliberal treaties that have removed them; and to “temper inequality”.
The law professors Ginsburg and Huq reject the idea of major constitutional change, proposing instead a series of “subconstitutional” tweaks – edging democracies towards the parliamentary model and reducing presidential powers, strengthening the judiciary and adopting international treaties on human rights in order to bind the executive.
Levitsky and Ziblatt identify the erosion of “norms” as the source of the breakdown. The norm is for politicians to clink tankards together at the country club and for institutions to treat citizens with forbearance. Once ruling parties start treating their political opponents as illegitimate, they say, the norm of mutual tolerance evaporates and men such as Trump can start rigging the game. Their solution is to restore the behavioural norms of the elite during the pre-Trump era: politicians should treat rivals as legitimate contenders for power, and always under-utilise the power of the institutions they control.
Faced with this flurry of liberal prescriptions for behavioural and constitutional change, one is left asking: how? Redistribute wealth? Every power-grab by authoritarian nationalists in the past five years was designed specifically to prevent wealth redistribution. Micro-level tweaks to the constitution? The authoritarian right has become expert at manipulating constitutional law to entrench its power: Trump’s appointment of 200-plus right-wing judges being one example; the 2016 judicial “coup” that toppled Dilma Rousseff as president in Brazil another; Poland’s outright ban on abortion another.
As for a return to the norms of consensus and forbearance, these were only “normal” because neoliberalism had eviscerated party politics of all content, reducing it, in the era of Blair and Clinton, to a choice between flavours of free-market economics, not fundamentals.
What’s striking about the “defence of democracy” literature emanating from academia and liberal journalism is its failure to acknowledge the systemic roots of the current crisis. Trump is in power because the neoliberal model of capitalism failed and the socially progressive wing of the elite failed to think of an alternative to it. They spent a decade attacking the left, suppressing protest movements and dismissing the revolts of minorities. The crisis of the neoliberal economic model in 2008 produced a crisis of ideology and identity in the West – what I’ve called “a crisis of the neoliberal self” – and the tech and media monopolies realised they could make billions by weaponising the anger, manufacturing a wave of hate speech and disinformation that has, during the Covid-19 pandemic, reached its crescendo.
What’s also striking is liberals’ aversion to struggle. Ginsburg and Huq reject the idea of a new US constitutional convention, preferring instead tweaks to the selection process for federal judges, checks on executive power and the strengthening of electoral law. Levitsky and Ziblatt caution against violent protest. Mounk, meanwhile, is the scourge of all populisms. It’s as if, though knowing liberal democracy was created through struggle, these authors find the actuality of struggle too risky. US liberalism, in this time of acute crisis, has become a production line for good ideas about what to do once the crisis goes away.
Yet on one thing the liberals are right. Left populism – if that’s what the Bernie Sanders movement was – has, for now, failed. Across the Western world, the anti-capitalist left finds itself in alliance with a confused and weakened liberalism and the remnants of social democracy, in a struggle to defend democracy against a rising authoritarian right.
That should be no surprise, as it is exactly the situation we were in the last time there was a financial crash followed by the break-up of the global order. As in the 1930s, the challenge for the left is to become democracy’s most effective defenders.
In the days following 3 November in the US, that is likely to mean taking to the streets – but in a way designed to muffle the provocations of the militias and thugs in MAGA hats. The astroturfed riot designed to prevent the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election will seem like a children’s party compared to what the right has in store. Court-mandated deadlines, plus Republican activists rushing the doors of counting stations, is a tried-and-tested way of rigging the result.
If, through strong, determined and peaceful united action, the progressive majority of American voters can force Trump to relinquish the White House, it is then that the left should push for radical and immediate constitutional change. Rebalancing the Supreme Court by expanding it; democratising the electoral college; and restoring the anti-suppression principles of the Voting Rights Act could inoculate the US against a repeat of the Trump presidency.
But Trumpism won’t go away. There will be a four-year campaign of far-right resistance to a Biden presidency. The rule of law, eroded badly under Trump, will come under threat from militias, online hate campaigns and far-right groups. Police departments will become a political battleground, just as they were in interwar Europe.
The American left has to fight this fight, not the one it imagined fighting during Occupy and the Sanders campaigns. The route to a left government in the US lies through the defence of the distinctly unradical administration of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.