From not conceding the election to calling the election “the greatest fraud in the history of our country” Donald Trump has seemingly gone out of his way to attack the norms and institutions that protect our democracy. When reflecting on what’s happening in the self proclaimed greatest democracy on earth, naturally the question arises: is this normal? Like most things in 2020, the answer is a resounding no.
When investigating the ways dangerous demagogues weaponize communication, Jennifer Mercieca utilizes a framework developed by political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt to understand what makes a leader unaccountable and authoritarian. She argues that these leaders “(1) rejected or showed a weak commitment to democratic rules; (2) denied the legitimacy of political opponents; (3) tolerated or encouraged violence; and (4) were ready to curtail the civil liberties of opponents and the media.” While Trump’s actions may not ~feel~ democratic, this framework highlights just how dangerous his actions have been. And in true Donald Trump fashion he wasted no time breaking all four of these rules in less than seven days surrounding election day.
November 3, 2020 – Election Day
On the night of November 3rd as votes were still being counted President Trump was convinced that he was about to win reelection. Florida had been called for him and it appeared that Biden was trailing in many battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina. However, due to the potential difficulties accessing the poll either in person or via mail, several states extended their vote count deadlines to accommodate votes that may come in after election night. While this is very much within the purview of our democratic process (as a means to ensure each vote is counted), the President had different ideas about what was going down.
Trump Tweeted “The Supreme Court decision on voting in Pennsylvania is a VERY dangerous one. It will allow rampant and unchecked cheating and will undermine our entire systems of laws. It will also induce violence in the streets. Something must be done!” While concerns about fraud are valid, it is very important to be critical of his language. By baselessly declaring that this decision will “induce violence in the streets” he tacitly approved the use of violence and broke Levitsky and Ziblatt’s rule number three. Reminiscent of when Trump refused to denounce white supremacists after Charlottesville, the lack of action by the executive to out of hand dismiss violence sets a dangerous precedent in which people feel empowered to commit acts of violence and may ultimately result in violent unrest – a tool of an authoritarian leader.
November 5, 2020 – Two Days After Election Day
Two days after election day the results were still very much up in the air. More blue ballots were coming in by mail and more and more important states looked like they would go to Joe Biden, but major states like Nevada, George, North Caroline, and Pennsylvania were still too close to call. While the blue shift was coming in to boost Biden’s numbers it appeared as though Trump was on the offensive to dismiss both the votes and his competitor.
In a speech delivered at the White House Trump declared, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us … We will not allow the corruption to steal such an important election.” While a Trump victory was far from what the Associated Press of any other news outlet had called at the time, it appears as though Trump was no longer attacking Joe Biden on policy – or even personal points. Instead Trump was attacking the legitimacy of Biden as a candidate by claiming Biden is “corrupt” and attempting to “steal” the election from him.
Another one of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s rules broken. Under rule number two, a time tested technique of unaccountable authoritarian leaders is to dismiss the legitimacy of their competition rather than trying to win on policy or other democratic metrics. By dismissing the Biden campaign as corrupt election thieves, Trump is subtly degrading the norm of mutual toleration. And that’s two rules in only three days.
November 7, 2020 – Four Days After Election Day
Four days after the election the margins in many states are becoming slimmer and President Trump’s lead is dwindling on a day in which we would later find the election to be called for Biden. But before the vote tallies are in, President trump still appears to be leading in several key states. His message to the country: stop the count!.
Before the internet began its onslaught of “stop the count!” memes, President Trump had a very serious mission in mind: file suits in battleground states to get them to stop counting votes in areas where Trump was leading. Thinly veiled under the guise of stopping the count of illegally cast votes Trump was attempting to discount votes that had not been counted yet for fear that they would be for Biden. While it makes sense for him to want to do that, it violates one of the most central parts of our democracy: the principle that every vote counts. This easily constitutes a violation of rule number one in which it is very clear that President Trump is disregarding the tenet that every vote should be counted by quite literally demanding that votes stop being counted. Fortunately for sesame street fans, our favorite dracula character is unaffected, but this may comes at the expense of our democracy.
November 8, 2020 – Five Days After Election Day
At this point in time the cat is out of the bag, Joe Biden has been declared the next President of the United States. Or as Trump staffers would phrase it, the media has called the election for Joe Biden. In a not-so-shocking turn of events, Donald Trump disagrees with the #FakeNewsMedia and declares that he in fact “won this election, by a lot!”
While Donald Trump is no stranger to calling the media fake news this accusation comes at a critical time in the election in which news outlets are the primary way millions of American’s are receiving their election news. In this specific attack on the media, Trump staffers were found to have published a fake newspaper cover from the 2000 election in order to claim that the media had incorrectly called the results of this election in order to discredit them. Trump’s crusade against the media and this attack specifically are some of the easiest ways to see how he violates rule number four.
By dismissing the credibility and validity of the media across the board in order to stop the spread of information, Trump is using one of the oldest tricks in the authoritarian book. Even though this is far from nationalizing Fox news or executing CNN journalists, publicly discrediting the media at such a pivotal moment is a threat to our democracy as it draws into question the ability for citizens to obtain information from sources other than the leader. I’m sure Trump’s good friends Putin and Kim Jong Un are familiar with this practice.
Overall, this election revealed many things to us: how important the postal service is, that it’s possible to hold your breath for five entire days while awaiting results, and most importantly how seemingly subtle actions are really authoritarian practices disguised to take power in a democracy. Mercieca herself writes that those who violate the four rules are similar to the likes of “leaders like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini”. While Trump’s actions are certainly of much smaller magnitude than those authoritarian leaders, it should not be without question that tolerating this level of anti-democratic behavior by our executive is certainly worthy of scrutiny before we are set down a very dark path – and once it begins there’s no ‘stopping the count’ to end the damage.:Jennifer Mercieca, “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication,” 2019 Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 270.
Hi Kyleb, I really enjoyed reading your post. I think you make a lot of important points, and one that stood out to me was the realization that at a certain point after the election, “Trump was no longer attacking Joe Biden on policy” or personal grounds – “instead Trump was attacking [Biden’s] legitimacy.” This truly represents the gravity of the situation since while typical political jousting is healthy for democracy, delegitimizing the democratic system and process plants seeds of distrust in the minds of citizens who are not thrilled by an election outcome; this has political implications for years to come.
I also thought that the conclusion of your post was apt and chilling: “this election revealed many things to us…most importantly how seemingly subtle actions are really authoritarian practices disguised to take power in a democracy.” This is in fact one of the key points that I am taking away from this course. From our readings, discussions, and roundtables, it has become clear that democracies do not collapse overnight: rather, as the title of this course suggests, they erode over time. It is therefore important to pay attention to current events and to raise concern when lines are crossed, but it becomes unsettlingly easy to ignore small democratic regressions when they occur increasingly frequently.
Overall, your points can be well-summarized by Jessica Mercieca’s overarching argument that ‘heroic demagogues’ can be separated from ‘dangerous demagogues’ by “whether or not the demagogue allows themselves to be held accountable for their words and actions.” Unfortunately it has become clear that a lot of these accountability expectations were based on precedent, many of which have been broken during this current administration. Given this reality, do you think there is there a feasible path forward to build a stronger democracy in the United States?