Before the 2020 US election last Tuesday, I fretted that, “American institutions may not be strong enough to cope” with a presidential candidate who tramples on democratic norms, and who may refuse to concede defeat.
The contest has played out as expected: Joe Biden has been declared president-elect and beaten Donald Trump to 270 electoral college votes. The incumbent has spent the past few days tweeting unevidenced claims of electoral fraud and has thus far refused to concede; his campaign has filed multiple lawsuits contesting counts in multiple key states.
Yet the parameters of an orderly transition of power appear to be coming into focus regardless. Biden has begun assembling his transition team and assuming the posture of president-elect, even without a concession from Trump. Crucially, the spell has been broken. Trump may continue to attempt to undermine the election’s legitimacy but, at present, such efforts seem unlikely to suceed in overturning the result.
Are US institutions in fact robust enough to cope with a losing candidate who will not concede defeat?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because the past week has so far approximately resembled the aftermath of any other US election. After a drawn-out results process, Biden has been declared the victor and many Republicans have bowed to the inevitable. Talk among much of the Republican ranks is now about fighting two runoff elections in Georgia that will likely determine control of the Senate, and about opposing Biden’s agenda post-inauguration – in other words, the normal turmoil that follows any party’s defeat has begun.
Yet it is difficult to shake the feeling that things could have gone very differently (and could yet do so), were it not for the Trump White House responding to mounting evidence of its loss with the same incompetence that has characterised the president’s period in office.
[See also: The making of Kamala Harris]
First, as tallies narrowed in key states, the Trump campaign couldn’t decide if it wanted votes to continue to be counted so as to get them over the line in Arizona, or rather if it wanted counts to be stopped, so as to prevent Biden widening his lead over Trump in Michigan. His supporters called for both simultaneously, making it clear that their alleged concerns over voter fraud were the thinnest of pretexts for their real objective: keeping Trump in office.
As defeat loomed, Trump began fighting back via his favoured medium: his thumbs. He tweeted unfounded claims that tens of thousands of ballots had been cast illegally and that he had won the election. His team booked out a Philadelphia garden centre for a press conference at which they repeated their claim that the election was being stolen from the president.
The Trump campaign’s plan for undermining the election was so bare-bones it could have fit in a tweet: claim the election was stolen and hope that will be enough to keep you in office. None of this is exactly Watergate-level planning. One reason so many people appear to have been wrong about this election being an existential threat to American democracy is that we placed too much faith in Trump’s competence.
How different could things have been with an incumbent whose plan was more comprehensive? Who used the full might of the executive office of the most powerful government in human history to his partisan advantage? Who organised paramilitaries to stoke violence on polling day and intimidate his opponent’s electors, dissuading them from casting their votes? Who put pressure on friendly states to refuse to certify unfavourable results, potentially setting up a virtually unprecedented confrontation in the electoral college?
Trump’s now-infamous call to the Proud Boys militia group to, “Stand back and stand by” was heeded. There was little violence on election day, and certainly no widespread, organised paramilitary activity that threatened the outcome. Counters were criticised but continued to do their work.
None of this is to downplay the damage Trump has already caused to the democratic system by refusing to concede defeat, nor to deny how harmful the coming lame-duck period could be. Yet equally, little of the nightmare scenario predicted has yet come to pass.
Trump’s response to the election illustrates that he is more committed to power than to democracy. But he approached delegitimising an election with the same attention to detail he showed in government. Endorsed by 48 per cent of the electorate, Trumpism is not going anywhere. If it reappears with a more competent champion, American democracy may not be so lucky a second time.