By introducing the threat of violence through his refusal to condemn violent Alt-Right groups such as the Proud Boys, Donald Trump is undermining a fundamental norm behind the US electoral system: the promise of a peaceful transfer of power from one candidate to the next. The system of norms in the US has been challenged before at times throughout the US’ political history. However, the threat of violent intervention in the election is a new escalation of political strategy that has the potential to undermine the fabric of America’s democratic system and to blow the door open for future politicians with autocratic tendencies to utilize even more extreme measures to ensure political victory.
It is perhaps insultingly obvious to state that hyperbole has surrounded the Trump Administration and the presidency of Donald Trump. Indeed, one only needs to look at Op-Eds throughout the media to see this common reaction to the Trump presidency, especially as we draw ever closer to the 2020 election. However, all of this fire and fury about Donald Trump’s failings—the content of which is beyond the scope of this post—in fact acts as a smokescreen, obscuring the far more insidious longer-term effects of Donald Trump’s presidency. Donald Trump has consistently disregarded the norms of American politics as he seeks to undermine the legitimacy of both his rivals and of the elections in which he participates . However, one action stands above the rest in terms of damage to the American political system: Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn Alt-Right supremacist groups. This refusal has introduced the specter of violence into the 2020 election and has acted to both ratchet up inter-party tension going up to the election and undermine perhaps the most important norm in the US political system.
Before we observe Trump’s connection to these Alt-Right groups, we must first understand why the breaking of norms is detrimental to democracy. Democratic norms are different than laws; they are not hard-and-fast rules that are legislated by the state. Instead, they are shared, informal understandings that govern behavior in a system . In the American system, norms provide a set of expectations that citizens can rely on when confronted with the often-divisive political debate with which they are confronted as they watch Washington. In an atmosphere where politicians obey norms, the public can expect mutual respect between parties in regard to lawmaking . This norm serves to enforce the legitimacy of the legislature and to control partisanship in Washington—two vital features of a healthy democracy. Norms are the unwritten consents and compromises that allow democracy to function smoothy.
Of course, being informal understandings, norms have been broken before; Nixon and the Watergate scandal being a prolific example. However, these norm-breakers have tended to be punished by other political actors after the fact . What has set Donald Trump apart so far is that he has managed to escape consequences. Trump has had an almost cavalier disregard for political norms so far in his presidential career. He has attempted to undermine the legitimacy of both elections and political opponents; the quote “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary from Rigging This Election!”  from Donald Trump’s own campaign website in 2016 springs to mind. He has attempted to capture ‘referee’ agencies (agencies with the authority to punish wrongdoing by public individuals)  through pressure on high-ranking individuals in these agencies. Indeed, the recent tension between FBI director Christopher Wray and the Trump administration as pressure was placed on him to disclose information that could damage Joe Biden’s presidential bid is a clear example of an attempt to use a ‘referee’ organization for political gain.
Beyond the apparent lack of consequences for his norm-breaking, what further escalates Trump’s actions from those of previous presidents is his apparent willingness to associate himself with violent groups such as the Proud Boys. These Alt-Right groups have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to use violence to advance their political agenda—an agenda they see as aligned with Trump against the Democratic Party. Coupled with his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event that he loses the 2020 election, Trump appears to be willing to use violence to resist the peaceful transfer of power—perhaps the most fundamental norm to the healthy functioning of democracy. Democracy is, after all, a set of procedures and rules for managing conflict by institutionalized means ; the entire purpose is to prevent political violence as individuals pass power to each other. The breaking of this norm creates extraordinary levels of partisanship; suddenly, with violence on the cards, political parties have even less of an incentive to work together and to collaborate. Instead, they become partisanized and even more willing to only vote for the candidate that matches their political agenda . After all, if the other side is unwilling to compromise to the point that they are willing to threaten violence, is it really worth hoping that you may be able to find consensus? Once partisanship gets to a point such as this, norms begin to break down faster as both legislators and individuals find themselves more willing to support candidates who share their policy agendas and who are willing to break norms to win.
While it is doubtful that Donald Trump himself will manage to become an American authoritarian, the introduction of the threat of violence into the 2020 US election has created a precipice point. The next President, if they care about the health of the US’ democracy, must find a way to begin to defuse tensions between the two sides of the political aisle. If not, the current trend may very well continue, and we could see political races going forward featuring candidates who are more autocratic and less willing to repair the damage that has already been caused. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Robert Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, Thomas Pepinsky, Kenneth Roberts and Richard Valelly, “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics (October 2018): 1-10.  Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and theRobustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review (2020): 392-409.
Excellent post, I really enjoyed reading it. Trump’s relationship with Alt-Right groups and his refusal to denounce them is really quite a daunting topic and I remember it being the biggest thing that stuck out to me after the first presidential debate. I remember the day after I saw on Twitter many Trump supporters trying to excuse the president’s actions saying that “he had denounced alt-right groups in the past”. Regardless of whether or not this is true the simple fact is that Trump’s actions and behavior are serving to rile up these groups of people and he has become a sort of rallying point for them. The transition of power you brought up is also another important topic. The way the country is so politically divided right now I think we are going to see serious opposition towards either result of the election, and Trump not promising a peaceful transition of power is only increasing this threat. With both of these issues you discussed it is clear that Trump is adding fuel to an already raging fire and increasing tensions between the two political parties.