Danger for democracy or storm in a teacup
Is the topsy -turvy aftermath of the 2020 US election a danger signal for democracy or the last despairing card being cast by Trump in the political saloon of Washington?
Interest in the US election has been intense in the UK and even overshadowed developing news on the coronavirus pandemic, which has obsessed our thoughts and affected our lifestyles for so many months. This has reached a crescendo in the last week when after an exciting election that seemed to swing in the balance for a while, the clear Biden victory has been contradicted by the refusal of Donald Trump and his political allies to concede.
Trumps techniques in seeding unrest
The current flurry of activities (legal and media) behind the scenes reminds me of those snow globes, where the figures in the scene are obscured by the many “snowflakes” swirling around and only become visible after a time for resettling. Donald Trump has used this tactic of shaking up the system for many years: repeating mantras to reinforce the message and making multiple unsubstantiated statements. It was central to his success in the 2016 election and in the subsequent 4 years of his Presidency. “Make America great again” has been a useful slogan for the Republicans but we are no closer to understanding exactly what is meant by it or how this goal will be reached.
This tactic has been used dangerously in minimising the danger of coronavirus and the widespread occurrence of infection in the US. The President has succeeded in convincing many Americans that wearing a mask is not necessary and indeed a sign of weakness. While on the one hand seeming Presidential, holding a major news conference on coronavirus at the White House with US health officials and commercial concerns on “winning the battle” against coronavirus, he has subsequently on many occasions appeared in in public not wearing a mask, downplaying the severity of the pandemic and maintaining “the battle was won”. The facts are deeply concerning: over 11 million cases, 250,000 deaths, a record 160,000 new cases in a single day on 12th November, and an alarming rate of increase of cases in many States (doubling in under a month). Yet placards against covid measures and refusal to wear face masks still abound.
He has also succeeded in his repeated rhetoric about rigged elections in convincing 75% of voters that fraud occurred, with 40% saying it influenced the outcome of the election – proof that social media has more influence than official reports. This coupled with a barely disguised fanning of the flames is increasing tensions across the nation, with the likelihood of violence. In a move reminiscent of his risk-embracing strategy in October to cheering supporters, when he took a “drive-by” outside the hospital while still being treated for coronavirus, Trump repeated this tactic during the “MiIlion Maga March” on November 14th. Trump supporters from all over the US, including the far-right Proud Boys group, held a rally in support of him and the claims of electoral fraud. On his way to golf, his motorcade happened to drive through the demonstration, with the President giving thumbs up to his supporters in tacit approval.
Why Britons mind about the US election results
First and foremost, the US President is a powerful and influential figure and a nominal world leader. What happens in the US has ripple effects across the pond. However, Donald Trump is not popular nor respected over here, with a 74% negative opinion in a recent YouGov opinion poll. It is partly his bullish assertions and crowd-rousing tactics that strike a discordant note. Like a child in a playground, he hopes that the incessantly stated wish will become true if it is repeated enough times.
A second reason for our fascination with the US election is that it is a unique combination of a race and a drama that plays out over many months. The 2020 election started on 17th February 2017, with Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for a second term, and will end on 20th January 2021 at the Inauguration Ceremony. The race analogy holds up well with runners in the primaries falling at different fences for lack of money or electoral support. Bernie Sanders established an early lead but Joe Biden was the eventual winner with Sanders “pulling up” in early April. The primaries constitute just the first act of a drama played out in many acts: the election campaign, election day, vote counting, the transition period between administrations and finally the Inauguration.
The count drama
The third reason for the massive interest this year was the timing of the counting, which led to a very exciting and tense wait before the final call by the major networks of a 306 to 232 victory, the same margin by which Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 and ironically hailed by Trump as a landslide victory. The Democrats, mindful of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraged postal ballots, (estimates of c. 95 million). The rules on counting these ballots meant there were considerable apparent swings from red to blue in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada as counting proceeded.
For example, on November 5th in Georgia, Trump was leading by 18,540 with 96% of the 4. 9 million votes counted but this turned to a Biden lead of 14,172 after 99% votes had been counted. The apparent swings in Pennsylvania were even more marked: a Trump lead of over 600,000 votes on the morning after Election Day shrunk rapidly as postal votes from the major cities were counted and this lead was whittled down steadily over several days to an eventual Biden win with a majority of 68,712 and a 1% greater share of the votes. It was the Pennsylvania result that led to the news networks calling the election for Biden.
The timing of the count made the election look “knife edge” with a cartoon of Trump threatening the Statue of liberty with a knife “I win or the Dame gets it!”. Also, it provided an opportunity for Trump to challenge the validity of the election and to launch a number of lawsuits in battleground states. As reported in the Washington Post, Trump allies and “ordinary” Republicans then proliferated these allegations of electoral fraud on social media.
Smooth or rough transition of power
The current focus is on Trump’s refusal to concede the election, which though not obligatory is customary; it is part of the process of the almost 3-month long transition process between administrations. Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister 1997–2007) in a recent interview was confident that despite many Republicans repeating the assertion that “the election had been stolen” and other disputes, “the democratic system has rules, which will eventually be implemented”.
Two interesting documents support Blair’s view. The first was a Senate motion, ROM20874, proposed by Joe Manchin, a respected Senator from West Virginia, in September and unanimously approved. The resolution affirmed a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power between outgoing and incoming presidential administrations . In a powerful and impressive speech, Manchin lamented the need to have to reaffirm a commitment to the US constitution and the freedoms “we all take for granted”. He went on “Make no mistake, this is about maintaining this democracy”.
The second was a joint statement from the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council & The Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committee released on November 12th. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history”. “We can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”
Sadly, this ordered transition has not yet occurred. The Biden team have not been given access to classified security briefings, federal agencies and funding needed to ensure a smooth transition of power. The risks that this poses for security and tackling covid have been pointed out by people on all sides of the US political spectrum. There is also the process of converting the votes cast in the election into electoral college votes. The electors meet in December and Congress in January. Only on 6th January 2021 are the electoral votes formally presented before a joint session of Congress, completing a complicated system devised in the early days to provide a compromise between States rights, Congress and the popular vote.
What happens next?
Several theories have been advanced as to what Trump hopes to achieve from this refusal to concede: maintaining a hold on the Republican Party, running for President again in 2024, a need to remain in the limelight or to minimise the danger of lawsuits when he leaves Office. Equally there are many questions as to why prominent Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, continue to support Trump’s stance, regardless of the damage that it is doing to the reputation of the US worldwide.
There is an underlying fear in some quarters that the foundations of American democracy will be at best considerably shaken and at worst badly damaged. In a recent interview Barack Obama talked about issues, like inequality and immigration, where divisions between differing opinions were being amplified by news reporting and by “the spread of misinformation online, where ‘facts don’t matter'”. In the short term, the divisions within the US could severely affect the control of the coronavirus pandemic. In the longer term, a breakdown of trust in the election system and the legitimacy of the Presidency could result in deep fissures within American society.
President-elect Biden in his “acceptance” speech said, “This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America.” His task will be to make it united again.