After a summer marked by a global health crisis, social upheaval, and a devastating economic downturn, the stakes of an American presidential election have never been higher. And with early voting well under way and election day coming up in less than two weeks, Donald Trump has ramped up his campaigning efforts using two distinctly undemocratic strategies: pushing for legislation that actively suppresses voters and using social media to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in voting. Make no mistake about it, these tactics are intentional democratic erosion; the goal of the first approach is to ensure victory while the goal of the latter is to hedge against defeat. Although watching the President engage in multiple anti-democratic behaviors this close to the election might seem more frightening than his usual disregard for democratic norms, these two strategies being used in tandem may actually give us some respite, meaning neither of Trump’s autocratic actions is enough to take down American democracy alone.
Republican lawmakers and justices appointed by Trump have gone into overdrive leading up to the election to push through formal policies that suppress voters. The Trump administration has done this through judicial review and official legislation that limits when ballots can be counted, imposes strict rules on legitimacy of mail-in ballots, and disenfranchises ex-felons in a key swing state ahead of the election. Just this week, the Supreme Court blocked curbside voting in Alabama, which was the safest option for many voters with disabilities and health concerns about voting in person during a pandemic. While politicians on the right try to claim that tightening restraints on who can vote and how they can vote is done in the name of protecting the election from voter fraud, they’re not fooling anyone. The true intention behind these rulings is to silence voter participation that threatens Trump’s chances of re-election. Let’s call it what it is, voter suppression.
In addition to relying on the increasingly politicized courts and partisan struggle over voting rights Trump has gone rogue, using his own social media and presidential platform to spread misinformation about mail-in ballots, stoke conspiracy theories, and flat-out lie to sow distrust in the legitimacy of the election. None of this done through official policy, or even an official government twitter account. Since the pandemic led to a surge in mail-in voting, Trump has been working to undermine trust in vote-by-mail by criticizing election administration and claiming the election is rigged if he does not win. He even went so far as to promise his supporters that “We’re not going to lose this except if they cheat” at campaign rallies. Trump relies on his celebrity status to influence people who have “relatively low political knowledge” but trust the word of the president because of an elite institutional focus which assumes that “if the President says it, it’s news.”
An article written by political science scholars titled The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis put it best when they wrote: Trump “openly derides core institutions of democratic governance: the independent press, the judiciary…the validity of elections, the legitimacy of democratic contestation, and the centrality of facts to political discourse.” These actions are textbook examples of democratic erosion. Trump’s use of the courts at the district, federal, and supreme level to both overturn protections and uphold legislation in his favor, highlights the ever-growing partisan nature of judges, a warning sign of executive aggrandizement. And it’s no accident that Trump has the luxury of relying on a loyal judiciary– he appointed 200 federal judges and 53 appeals court judges, “flipping” the partisan majority of some courts. Additionally, Trump has spent the past four years violating democratic norms by showing no respect for Freedom of the Press, calling the media an enemy to him and the people. This undemocratic behavior primes the public for a fraudulent election, setting supporters up to defend Trump’s refusal to accept election results or a peaceful transfer of power.
None of these actions should be accepted as normal, but Trump’s inability to compromise the election and its public perception, along with the failure to fully disenfranchise his opposition proves that American democracy is not entirely finished. If the president believed he could tilt the playing field enough to win he would not need people to think the election is rigged. Conversely, if Trump’s word was enough to convince voters the election is fraudulent, he would not need to rely on voter suppression tactics that target minority voters who tend to vote Democrat. The dual nature of Trump’s democratic erosion strategy– while terrifying to watch– can be seen as a desperate last-ditch effort to hold onto the presidency. Trump hedges his bets by turning to Republican lawmakers and the courts to uphold barriers to voting, then turning around to tell his base the election is fraudulent.
One could argue that this behavior proves the dangerous extent to which Trump is willing to test the limits of American democracy, however, his strategies have not been entirely successful. Courts in key swing states recently struck down legislation to reject mail-in ballots based on signatures or arrival after election day. And while “nearly half of Republicans and GOP-leaners falsely believe fraud in mail-balloting is a “major problem” in contrast only 25 percent of overall Americans believe this…barely more than 1 in 10 Democrats,”  meaning that Trump’s misinformation does not resonate with the entire country. We shouldn’t get excited so fast though, instead America needs to take this as a warning that we are just barely protected by democratic norms and institutions. Donald Trump is willing to go as far as he deems necessary to win, let’s just hope our democratic foundation doesn’t falter so easily. Lieberman, Robert C., et al. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 17, no. 02, 2018, pp. 470–479., doi:10.1017/s1537592718003286.  Sargent, Greg. “Opinion | Huge Numbers of Republicans Say Mail-Voting Is Fraudulent. That’s Ominous.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/16/huge-numbers-republicans-say-mail-voting-is-fraudulent-thats-ominous/.