“The World’s Oldest Democracy” Now Lies Between Life and Death

, by Christian Gibbons

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

“The World's Oldest Democracy” Now Lies Between Life and Death
U.S. President Donald Trump waves to the crowd during his 2017 inauguration parade. Credit: US Air Force.

The following is an English-language version of an article that was originally published on October 26th in Le Taurillon. It has been slightly updated to reflect things that have happened since that time.

This past September, an article published in Le Taurillon compared the foreign policies of the two candidates to the Presidency of the United States. Above all else, it struck a contrast. On the one hand, a victory for Donald Trump would mean a victory for his selfish, isolationist “America First” doctrine, which has already caused many a problem for the European Union. On the other hand, under Trump’s opponent Joe Biden, America would return at least partially to an approach anchored in multilateral cooperation. The author of this article nevertheless emphasized that a return to the golden days of Euro-American partnership is unlikely even in the latter case. Where transatlantic relations are concerned, normality can no longer be said to exist.

This is a smart analysis. Yet even still, this type of comparison hardly touches upon the other potential consequences of the upcoming American presidential election. Now that Election Day has arrived, leaders in the European Union would do well to consider these consequences. The United States, long a giant of international politics, is in a process of profound transformation—and so is the world that it helped to shape. But now, at the end of a year that has already sorely tested American society, there are many who fear that this colossal hegemon may very well fall to pieces. At the very least, this is the sentiment that prevails on this side of the Atlantic: a sentiment of underlying fear.

Beyond normality, beyond the law

To understand why, it is necessary to put several recent events in this country under the magnifying glass. The first such event was the publication of another article in September, this time in the online edition of The Atlantic Magazine, a venerable American publication devoted to cultural and political analysis. The article, called “The Election That Could Break America”, was originally supposed to appear two months later, after the end of the election in November. But the editors, who quickly perceived the immense importance of the article, decided instead that it would be better to publish it in advance.

Why? The author of the piece, the renowned American journalist Barton Gellman, put forth a very simple argument: the United States is probably not ready for the chaos that this election may unleash. Gellman began his article by predicting that Donald Trump will never accept the results of the election unless it was clear that he had won it (a fear that was justified by the president the very same day). He also extensively detailed which strategies which the President and his allies were willing to use in order to guarantee this victory – which ranged from massive voter suppression, to a mountain of litigation in the aftermath of the election, to a plan to directly appoint Trump-loyal electors to the Electoral College so as to gain the upper hand in the most important and heavily contested states (the “battleground states”). Until the publication of Gellman’s article, the American public had been entirely unaware of this last plan. Unsurprisingly, it generated a great deal of discussion on social media, among the press, and on TV.

Yet despite the fact that the majority of these strategies are massively anti-democratic, Gellman noted, they are not completely illegal according to American law. On the contrary – a clause permitting the direct appointment of electors is hidden in an obscure corner of the American constitution, and the Republican Party has long exploited court rulings and statutory law to prevent people from voting [1].

For Gellman, then, the problems with this election go deeper than just the troubling behavior of an increasingly authoritarian president. This is why he made a stirring case for examining how and why America’s political system is so vulnerable to the President’s depredations. Although it’s true that this system has its own norms and rules, and that Trump has broken them with astonishing regularity, Gellman claimed that this does not entirely suffice to explain how things might go so terribly wrong in November.

In effect, in order to make it through this election in one piece, the United States must somehow find a way to surmount two enormous problems. The first problem, which Gellman spent the better part of his article discussing, is that there are problems that Trump and his party can create that only political power, and not the law, can solve.

In his article, Gellman warned that if Biden did not crush Trump in the voting booth, the election would almost certainly become a contested election. And given the circumstances, this would most likely entail not only one, but several constitutional crises. In one of the many scenarios that could follow (helpfully mapped out by the non-partisan Transition Integrity Project), as many as three different people could end up claiming to be President (including Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the head of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi). At the heart of this controversy would be the millions and millions of mail-in votes that COVID-19 has made more important than ever.

Mail-in votes tend to arrive later than votes that are cast in person. For this reason, they require more time to process and count. It is therefore highly probable that they won’t be completely tabulated until a couple of weeks after Election Day (November 3rd). In past elections where mail-in votes have played an important role, this slow counting has often created a brief illusion of victory for Republican candidates (a “red mirage”), followed by a tardy wave of votes in favor of Democratic candidates (a “blue shift”). Trump knows this. This is why he has railed against this method of voting so frequently in the past few months. Trump has repeatedly referred to mail-in voting as an illegitimate “scheme” orchestrated by his political opponents, and has accused Democrats of seeking to use this “massive electoral fraud” to shift the election in favor of Biden. It matters little that many studies have shown that his declarations are false: as soon as Trump begins to harbor doubts about the election results, Gellman and many other observers believe that he will use the pretext of electoral fraud as the basis for his claim to the presidency. By trying to undermine the legitimacy of what is normally an uncontroversial part of the country’s electoral process, Trump is creating the preconditions for his own victory.

But if the winner of the election remains unclear once Election Day has ended, the United States will only have a period of two months at its disposal to resolve any subsequent crises. In his article, Gellman argued forcefully that not even the United States’ robust legal system will be able to get the country out of this kind of mess. But what would remain after all legal options have been exhausted?

What might remain, according to Gellman, is force plain and simple. The only precedent for such a situation comes from the unfortunate presidential election of 1877, when the tense atmosphere of a nation still healing from civil war reverberated with threats of military force. This is hardly encouraging; and yet, as Gellman emphasized, if America’s “political institutions fail to produce a legitimate president, and if Trump maintains the stalemate into the new year, the chaos candidate and the commander in chief will be one and the same”.

To arms, citizens

It’s impossible to know with any certainty whether Trump is really willing to take advantage of violence in order to remain in power. But it is sadly a question that is becoming more and more important for many Americans. Whatever his other failings, Trump did not seem to hesitate much when he ordered soldiers to disperse protesters from the front of the White House this past summer. It is also indisputable that the President has often equivocated when asked to explain his support for white supremacists and right-wing militias.

These kinds of groups have long existed in the United States; yet Trump’s presidency has done much to embolden them. During a televised “debate” with Biden at the beginning of October, Trump even ordered one such group to “stand back and stand by” in case of left-wing interference in the election. Yet even setting aside this uncommonly martial rhetoric, right-wing militias have truly taken off these past few months, and they’re now more dangerous than ever. Some of them, such as the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Boys, have become known for their conviction that a second American civil war is imminent – or that one is already underway .

They aren’t alone, either. This is, in fact, the second great problem ailing America: this country is more and more polarised, its ideologies are more and more radical-, and its population is more and more willing to accept violence. According to a recent survey, two in three voters believe that the United States is approaching a second civil war. This might appear outlandish and improbable, particularly in light of the now long-past civil unrest of the 60s and 70s. Yet what is even more perturbing is the fact that one in three voters also believe that violence may be a legitimate means of achieving their preferred party’s objectives, and that one American in five is willing to support violence if the presidential candidate that they support appears to lose the election.

The proportion of Americans who share these sentiments has grown in recent years – but it reached a peak this summer, when the murder of George Floyd, the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the beginning of an historic recession left the U.S. in total disarray. In addition to prompting debate about whether America could now be considered a “failed state”, these and other events have left experts wondering aloud whether the country might also see a wave of concentrated political violence. In June, the New York-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) issued a warning to this effect, classifying the U.S. alongside Syria, Iraq, and Sudan as locations where there was a large risk of atrocities being committed against civilians.

According to the aforementioned poll, close to half of voters doubt that this election will be free and fair, and more than half fear that the election will end in acts of partisan violence. It is hardly surprising, then, that the phrase “coup d’état” has already pervaded American society. The Democrats and their supporters believe that Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, and that his re-election (if it indeed occurs) could only ever be illegitimate. Republicans, for their part, believe exactly the same about Biden. Fed by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, many on the right are now raising the specter of a “colored revolution” led by Biden and a cabal of anti-American “radical leftists” and agents of the “deep state”.

This is, for example, the opinion of Michael Anton, a former national security official for the Trump administration who achieved notoriety for writing the now-infamous “Flight 93 Election” essay in the Claremont Review of Books. In a September article for The American Mind, another publication associated with the conservative Claremont Institute, Anton accused Democrats and other government elites of resorting to a program of regime change that they had long used in Eastern Europe – and are “currently using in Belarus”. That same month, The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that studies online extremism, noted that Anton’s article had been extensively shared among online hate groups before making its way into mainstream outlets like The Federalist and Fox News. Members of these groups speculated about upcoming “massacres” and “purges”, with one YouTube commenter reportedly urging others to “get your weapons and ammo ready”.

The fact remains that even if Trump leaves the White House, even if a peaceful transition of power occurs, it is far from certain that things will remain peaceful If the results of the election are not completely accepted, the resentment that this might create among a part of America’s population could have pernicious (and even explosive) long-term consequences. Around 25% of Americans voted for Trump in 2016. What would happen in the next few years if a similar percentage remained convinced that the new president of the country had come to power in a coup d’état?

An uncertain future awaits

All of these questions are equally as pertinent for European political leaders as they are for American voters (and it should be noted as well that the Kremlin is very interested in the fracturing of its old adversary). Just as normality no longer exists in Europe’s relationship with America, normality does not exist in this election. Pretending otherwise is risky.

Certainly, no one truly knows to what extent this election will transform the U.S. – even today, on Election Day, we can only ever really guess at its consequences. There have also already been some hopeful signs. In late August, General Mark Milley, a senior officer within the U.S. Department of Defense, affirmed that the military would play no role in determining the results of the election. This election has also already seen record-breaking turnout, which places some practical limits on vote manipulation and voter suppression. And dozens of civil society groups have also come together to help ensure that these votes are counted fairly. Finally, much of what may follow will depend on elected politicians, who can enable or hinder Trump according to their allegiances.

But one thing is for certain: a country that feels increasingly at war with itself cannot so easily claim the mantle of the “leader of the free world”, as the America of old once did. Tonight, the West may very well cross the Rubicon – and Europeans should reflect seriously on what might await them on the other side.

1. The strategy of voter suppression, like that of gerrymandering, has been used to guarantee Republican minority rule in a number of places throughout the United States: as of this writing, more than a fifth of Americans are represented by Republicans who have not won election with a majority of votes.

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