US Election 2020: Is American democracy too polarised to survive?
26 November 2020
Opinion: Donald Trump's power won’t prove authoritarian enough to compel the other branches and levels of government to undermine the election, writes Associate Professor Tim Kuhner.
Despite Trump’s record number of judicial appointments and a million-dollar reward for evidence of voter fraud, his legal claims have fallen flat.
Prior to 3 November, 2020, 35 percent of Republican voters believed the election was going to be unfair. President Donald Trump had told them so.
In July, he claimed, “2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” At a Wisconsin campaign event in August, Trump warned his supporters that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged”.
These statements coincide with hundreds of others that Trump has made since losing the popular vote (by nearly three million votes) to Hillary Clinton. That four-year campaign culminated in Trump’s announcement, at 2am on November 4, 2020, that he intended to remain in office regardless of the vote: “This is a fraud on the American public,” he stated. “Frankly, we did win this election [and] we want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list.”
With these words, Trump attempted to stop state election officials from counting lawfully cast ballots within the existing deadlines.
After all the major news networks had called the election for Biden, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the world:“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
By that same time, the percentage of Republicans questioning the fairness of the vote had doubled. According to a Politico/Morning Consult Poll, 70 percent of Republican voters deny that Biden and Harris won a “free and fair election”. That figure dovetails with polls indicating that the percentage of conservatives who trust the mainstream media declined to 13 percent during Trump’s first term.
Historian Edward Luttwak defines a coup d’état as “a special form of politics that requires guns as an aid to persuasion”. However, Luttwak adds that coups usually fail if those guns have to be used. When it comes to an illegal seizure of political power, despots aim for a swift and bloodless takeover. That requires strong ideological support at grass-roots level. The goal, after all, isn’t to run the country through an oppressive apparatus of generals, jails, torture chambers, captive judges, congressional co-conspirators, and secret police.
Rather, it’s to reshape worldviews in the leader’s favour, thus enabling a smooth takeover, a more exalted and profitable period of rule and, at all times, a lower risk of failure.
Trump’s refusal to concede may be a theatrical mechanism designed to generate greater ideological support. Perhaps he has already succeeded in laying the foundation for a second term starting not in 2021, but in 2025.
At the date of writing, it seems Trump’s power won’t prove authoritarian enough to compel the other branches and levels of government to undermine the election.
Despite Trump’s record number of judicial appointments and a million-dollar reward for evidence of voter fraud, his legal claims have fallen flat. Despite pressure from the President, it’s unlikely that state authorities will give Trump electoral votes that Biden earned. The same goes for the possibility that US attorneys would manufacture evidence of widespread voter fraud and that courts would credit that evidence under duress. Although they wouldn’t necessarily have had to use them, Trump and his co-conspirators probably would have needed guns to accomplish such things.
But what if Trump never really expected to pull off a coup d’état? What if his primary objective all along has been to stage a coup de théâtre? First and foremost, Trump’s refusal to concede may be a theatrical mechanism designed to generate greater ideological support.
Although he will likely fail to defy the vote and seize a second term in 2021, Trump has apparently convinced the majority of Republican voters that Biden’s victory is fraudulent. Only 5 percent of Republican members of the House, 10 percent of Republican senators, and 25 percent of Republican governors have recognised his status as President-elect. Which is to say, perhaps Trump has already succeeded in laying the foundation for a second term starting not in 2021, but in 2025.
What better way to prepare for the 2024 presidential race than by deeming Biden’s presidency illegitimate, undermining any possibility of bipartisan cooperation, and ensuring that America will be ungovernable?
That poisonous strategy was visible not just in Trump’s pre-election claims about voter fraud, but also in his pre-election claims about Biden himself. At the Republican National Convention, Trump labelled Biden “a Trojan horse for socialism” and the leader of a “radical movement” that would “destroy … the American way of life.”
Days earlier, conservative activist Charlie Kirk had pronounced Trump “the defender of Western civilisation” who would “protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life” and ensure that “America remains the greatest country to ever exist in the history of the world”.
Both speakers set the stage for an election that would be fought to the end.
Kirk: “This election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love.”
Trump: “This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”
Those were the bookends of the Republican Party’s appeal to voters. And voters responded. Trump received 73.9 million votes – 11 million more than he received in 2016 and the second-greatest showing in American presidential history, behind Biden’s 80 million votes.
Can a citizenry that disagrees on basic facts, core values, and the legitimacy of an election ever function as a political community? Can there be democracy among enemies? Trump has lost the election, but he may yet win the war. Nobody should envy Biden come January.
Associate Professor Timothy Kuhner (Faculty of Law) is the author of several books about political integrity. His latest is Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come (Stanford University Press).
The views in this article reflect personal opinion and are not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.