The Republican party is actively enabling Trump to disregard the rules of our democracy by pushing a supreme court nominee hastily through the confirmation process during an ongoing election, and by explicitly stating that a full supreme court will be absolutely necessary to determining the outcome and legitimacy of the election. The president has spent weeks using media appearances to discredit the election infrastructure and process in order to sow deep suspicion among his supporters of the accuracy of the eventual vote count. This is only the most recent example, though arguably the most blatant and severe, of Trump’s systematic destruction of democratic norms and legitimacy in the United States.
Political scientist Juan Jose Linz characterizes democratic legitimacy as a combination of adherence to the rules of democracy by those in power, and “trust on the part of the citizenry in the government’s commitment to upholding these rules” (Linz 1978). If we accept this characterization, it’s clear to see that democratic legitimacy is hitting a particularly low point in the United States ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Not only has the incumbent president drastically eroded the norms of how a president conducts themselves during an election cycle through his authoritarian rhetoric, but he’s also made numerous blatant attempts to sow distrust in independent American institutions that could potentially influence the outcome of this unprecedented election, like the United States Postal Service, official ballot counting, and even the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
Trump has not eroded public confidence in the upcoming election quietly and subliminally; he has done so loudly and proudly. At every opportunity he states that it’s likely already too late for the results of this election to be determined fairly and accurately, insinuating his belief that the only way he will be declared the winner is through some process other than counting every ballot – mailed, or cast in person. In the upcoming election, democrats are much more likely to vote via mail-in ballot and conservatives in person, because of the polarized, and somehow political, beliefs about the danger of COVID-19 infection. This demonstrates how Trump’s targeted attacks on the security of mail-in ballots is a flagrant attempt to suppress votes from democrats. If Trump’s team truly felt confident in the size of his voting base, they would have no reason to attack the security of mail-in ballots or claim that the election will be wrought with empirically nonexistent voter fraud. There would be no reason for him to refuse to explicitly commit to a peaceful transition of power and to accept the results of the election. This is a serious escalation, as no sitting US president has ever stated, let alone repeated, that they may not accept the results of the election if they lose.
Political Scientist Nancy Bermeo describes strategic election manipulation, a major form of democratic backsliding, as “a range of actions aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.” It typically involves an incumbent using the power of their office to sway the vote in their favor, and may not even involve any illegal action. It is orchestrated in such a way that it doesn’t appear corrupt or fraudulent on the surface, especially to his supporters. Trump’s administration, and Trump himself, have engaged in a massive campaign of strategic manipulation by defunding and publicly vilifying the US Postal service and the longstanding tradition of mail-in voting, calling for his supporters to independently monitor polling stations for suspected “voter fraud” (an act many assert amounts to voter intimidation), and continuously making inflammatory statements about the integrity of the election while citing no legitimate evidence. None of these actions may be illegal, but they are a clear attempt to manipulate and subvert the confidence of the voting population in the outcome of the election.
Now, with the recent death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Republicans are attempting to implement an election back-up plan of sorts by filling the empty Supreme Court seat hastily with a loyal conservative, Judge Amy Coney-Barett. This move could potentially impact the outcome of the election in the event that confidence in the final result is so eroded that there are widespread recounts, which is likely. In the event that recounts can not be unequivocally called, the Supreme Court could play a role in deciding how that process would continue. There are already a number of election-related cases working their way up through the federal courts system. Trump and his team have continuously stated over the last few weeks that heading into a contentious election with an incomplete court could create a constitutional crisis where we would be in a deadlock and would be unable to call the election at all. Interestingly, this was not mentioned as a possibility by anyone on Trump’s team when there was an incomplete court heading into the 2016 election, following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Obviously, this is because Republicans had more to gain by stalling the confirmation of then-president Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland than they felt they would risk by going into the 2016 election with an even number of justices.
In order to determine if Trump disdains the democratic process, and desires the powers of an autocrat, one only has to listen to his own words. Political Scientists Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt provide a number of questions to ask of a leader’s actions to determine his level of authoritarian behavior. In reading them, I was struck by just how many confirmed that democratic backsliding has already begun here in the United States:
“Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections?”
Yes. President Trump and his administration have engaged in a widespread campaign of misinformation regarding voter fraud and the integrity of the election process. He has stated multiple times that the election may never be accurately decided.
“Do they claim that their rivals are an existential threat and opposed to the existing constitutional order?”
Yes. President Trump has continuously made extremely inflammatory and outlandish statements about Joe Biden, arguably one of the most moderate men in US Politics. Time and time again he tells crowds of his supporters that a Biden presidency would result in the destruction of the suburbs, violent crime, defunded police, disappearing jobs, a loyalty to China, and other extreme and unfounded claims.
“Have they ever tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it?”
Yes. There have been countless instances of this over the last 4 years, but you don’t really need to look any further back than the most recent presidential debate. On national television, the sitting US president refused to explicitly condemn white supremacy, and denounce radical white nationalist groups who vehemently support him.
This where we are. Not even the most experienced political minds in our country feel equipped to predict what will occur in the US over the next few months. In my opinion, the only way that it doesn’t descend into unprecedented chaos is if there is a landslide win for one candidate. That scenario doesn’t seem likely to anyone, so I am positive that we are in store for a precedent-setting election. I hope that our democracy is strong enough to survive it.