Last week, President Donald Trump was voted out of office by an American populace ready to replace him. This rightly seems like a signal that the majority of Americans are ready to move past Trump’s populist claims and fear mongering tactics. Yet Trump remains enabled by members of his party unwilling to acknowledge election outcomes. The Senate Republicans lying in wait to respond to the election results have a duty to their constituents to preserve American democracy by signaling their faith in the democratic process.
Donald Trump has been discussed by many as a populist figure. His actions are consistent with Jan-Werner Mueller’s definition of a populist, one who claims that “they and they alone represent the people” and that “all other political competitors are essentially illegitimate” . From the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Trump began building this narrative into an argument: that as the true representative of “the people” the only way his competitor could win Presidential office was through an illegitimate election. Trump used his Twitter account to push this narrative, tweeting on May 26, 2020 that, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” and encouraging his base to monitor poll workers, stating at a rally in North Carolina, “watch all the stealing and thieving and robbing [poll workers] do.” In short, Donald Trump’s attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election were well documented and extremely public. However, many voices were noticeably silent–those of Republicans in power across America.
If anything was to be learned from the Trump Presidency, it might be that democracies are not to be taken for granted, even in countries like the United States with a long history of peaceful transitions of power. According to scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, there are two traditions imperative to preserving democracy. The first is mutual toleration, the agreement between politicians to recognize each other as legitimate competitors,  stepped on by Trump in his campaign to denounce election results before poll workers started counting ballots. The second is institutional forbearance, a willingness to avoid actions that are not explicitly outlawed, but violate the spirit of democracy . While encouraging his base to watch poll workers and protest election results is not explicitly illegal, it is an action in clear violation of the spirit of the Constitution.Yet, although Donald Trump’s actions throughout his tenure in office eroded both of these principles, he wasn’t the only one. High-ranking members of the Republican Party have leaned into Trump’s techniques, threatening the future recovery of America’s democratic institutions. Among them are Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who refused to concede Joe Biden’s win; and, perhaps more shockingly, long-time Senator Lindsey Graham, who suggested that the Secretary of State of Georgia throw out legal ballots.
Democracy cannot survive unless there is a commitment to the two principles outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt. It is obvious that Donald Trump has no such commitment. But more concerningly, it seems that these two high-ranking Republican Senators have no such commitment either. Donald Trump’s efforts to paint the 2020 election as illegitimate is a clear example of what legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls “constitutional hardball,” or, “a form of institutional combat aimed at permanently defeating one’s partisan rivals–and not caring whether the democratic game continues.”  This type of game cannot be played forever; in fact, “politics without guardrails” have led to the dissolutions of democratic governments from England to Chile . By matching Trump’s rhetoric–or refusing to counter it–Senators Graham, McConnell, and their silent Republican colleagues seem to have no regard to preserve or restore the traditions central to American democracy. Refusing to acknowledge the results of a election experts consider to have no evidence of voter fraud, and suggesting that illegal election activity occur are troubling examples of constitutional hardball being played by two long-term members of the American Legislature who will remain there for the next four years.
Soon, President Trump will be removed from office. But the Senators mimicking his patterns of behavior will remain. There is no guarantee that American democracy will survive forever, and if mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance continue to be eaten away, the democratic tradition remains in danger. Hopefully, the words and actions of both the Democratic members of Congress, and Senator Graham and McConnell’s more democratically committed Republican colleagues will help the United States reestablish the two norms of democracy moving forward.
- Jan-Werner Mueller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 101.
- Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 102.
- Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 106.
- Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 109.
- Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 113.
Hi Sophia, this was a very interesting read! I also share your concern over the Republican Party’s refusal to condemn many of Trump’s undemocratic actions. It appears as though polarization has driven many in the GOP to embrace staunch partisan loyalty, even in the face of a president with authoritarian tendencies such as Trump. Your post made me think of my concerns for democracy in that, while the American people have repudiated Trump, they seem to have handed the Republicans their stamp of approval, helping them gain seats in the House and maintain their hold on State Legislatures. This worries me, as the GOP has often enabled Trump and his many ways of contributing to democratic erosion in this country. It appears that voters have not punished this complicity at the ballot box. If a candidate like Senator Graham can advocate for throwing out votes that do not support his party and still remain in office without any push-back or condemnation, I believe this places our democracy in a risky position.
Something else this post made me think of was the next presidential election. As you mentioned, “politics without guardrails” cannot go on forever; if the Republican Party is willing to support would-be authoritarians like Trump, do you believe that the GOP could run a candidate even more dangerous to democracy than Trump in 2024? Finally, do you believe it is possible for the norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance to return, or have we become too polarized? I personally am not particularly optimistic; I believe the GOP is the source of many of the norm violations we have been seeing, and I do not think they will simply abandon this behavior now that Trump has been voted out. I hope I am wrong, though!
Sophia, this is an excellent and insightful piece touching on a dangerous development. Democracy depends on mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance, and while much of the Republican party has either backed President Trump’s claims or at least let them play out, a few years ago (before Trump won the election in 2016) party elites did seem more willing to condemn Trump. I wonder if these “men behind Trump” will turn on him after the inauguration, especially given that a comparison of presidential and downballot results demonstrates that Trump isn’t popular, even though Republican congressional candidates performed quite well. It could be that Trump was a unicorn of sorts and nobody else with similar authoritarian inclinations will be able to successfully capture the Republican (or Democratic) imagination as he did. Perhaps the party will attempt to rehabilitate its image and restore faith in democracy. I do not have high expectations, however, and I wonder what the long-term effects of this lame-duck presidency will be. If faith in our democracy erodes — especially, as polling has reflected, along partisan lines — real damage could be dealt to the legitimacy of electoral results across the board.
Tolerance is difficult when you see the opposition as illegitimate, and Müeller’s concerns are certainly being echoed by contemporary American events. But painting the opposition as illegitimate as a means of whipping up votes to deliver electoral victories is a dangerous strategy, one the Republicans might be inclined to use (or Democrats to try) in the future. While Trump lost, he turned out 74 million voters. It would be difficult for Republicans to walk away from the electoral potential that latent Trump vote can provide. If decrying the opposition as illegitimate becomes a bona fide campaign strategy going forward, as it seems to have become already (with Trump, with birtherism, and to some extent with the Russia investigation), this cycle will only worsen. Partisanship will deepen. Institutional forbearance could become an electoral albatross, which may push elites who otherwise would abide by democratic norms to let them erode and slide away. Time will tell.