The world is ending. This is the thought that went through the minds of many Americans this past summer. It was a tumultuous period, filled with civil unrest, uncertainty about public health, and financial trouble. Worry was again pushed to the forefront of Americans’ minds in September when the process of voting and the legitimacy of the election were called into question. The facilitation of this worry came from the President of the United States, Donald Trump, as he waged a war on the institution of voting. Donald Trump’s authoritarian and populist behavior, as an attempt to overturn election results, will have a negative and lasting impact at the federal and state level. For all of America’s history, voting has been an important cornerstone in shaping and preserving democracy. The President’s actions during the election season will have lasting effects.
Donald Trump, who was elected on a populist platform in 2016, has been a leading figure in questioning the United States’ voting practices. Trump’s election platform, which has remained unchanged for his reelection bid in 2020, showcased his outstanding use of the media and his outsider status as a businessman instead of a politician. His campaign platform also featured a heavy emphasis on anti-elitist rhetoric, which is a defining feature of populism. Lieberman and his coauthors explain that “President Trump has tried to authenticate his political “outsider” status by flaunting his disdain for the establishment’s norms” (Lieberman et al., 2017, 4). This anti-elitist terminology has led to Trump establishing himself as a ‘trustworthy friend to everyday people’, which has gained him a large following. After he lost the 2020 election, Trump urged his supporters to rally and protest the election results; he has convinced many that he lost the election unfairly. Populist leaders claim that they are the only ones who can properly lead or rule a country, and they strive to establish themselves as the country’s only choice for a leader. This anti-pluralist aspect of populism was examined by Jan Werner Muller, who claimed that pluralism is what American democracy is built on (Muller, 2016, 3). This is a key reason why Donald Trump has created his claims against the institution of voting’s use of wide-spread mail-in ballots.
In 2020 Trump has focused on discrediting the validity of absentee ballots using various social media platforms, a method of communication not previously exhibited by U.S. presidents. Throughout the 2020 election season, the sitting president has tweeted about voting fraud and how he will not accept the election results if he is not voted in for a second term. This article gives a short look at a quote by Donald Trump in which he said if people did not vote there would be no transfer of power, just a continuation of his presidency (Weinberg, 2020). This revealing yet often overlooked quote shows the President’s true populist and authoritarian leanings. Trump is calling the election process into question because he feels that he should remain president for an indefinite amount of time. This behavior should be unacceptable for the President of the United States. By exposing his willingness to facilitate democratic backsliding through his blatant suspicion of the electoral process, the President is setting a bad example for state governments and for individuals.
In Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints, Frances E. Lee argues that a president has little power “over election administration” and that “voting procedures and voter registration, legislative districting, and ballot access are regulated at the state level” (Lee, 2019, 383). Presidents who do not have majority rule, such as Trump, find it difficult to impose nationwide laws because of constitutional checks and balances. This may be true; however, it can be argued that Donald Trump does not need to directly influence legislative processes through lawmaking. He can still cast his authoritarian pall over state and local governments with his suggestive actions and statements. With his attacks on voting, Trump has metaphorically shouted ‘fire!’ in a crowded building that was not on fire. By openly declaring his distrust of America’s election system, Trump has led many of his supporters to believe that the election system is unjust. This article looks at several surveys regarding the level of trust that Americans have in this election; about three-fourths of Republicans do not trust the 2020 election results (Mehta, 2020). Trump has sown skepticism in the voting system, and his actions will have lasting consequences at the federal and state level.
The President’s behavior could lead to permanent damage in state governments because Republican governors are taking cues from Trump and working to make it harder to vote by mail in their states. In Georgia and Texas specifically, Republican governors and state legislators are putting regulations in place that restrict voting access. This article published by FiveThirtyEight gives an in-depth explanation about these restrictions. The author examines how Republicans in Texas filed a lawsuit to prohibit the sending of absentee ballots to registered voters in a Democrat-leaning county. Similar events also happened in several counties in Georgia (Bacon, 2020). These instances in state governments are directly linked to Trump’s continuous condemnations of American voting practices.
In his work on stealth authoritarianism, Ozan O. Varol explains how the term describes a government that seeks to “protect and entrench power” (Varol, 2015, 1678). Authoritarianism happens when leaders place obedience to the government above personal freedom. A stealth authoritarian leader would make it look like they are increasing civil liberties while they are surreptitiously disabling democratic institutions. This phenomenon coincides with the concept of populism, which also includes anti-pluralist and anti-establishment policies. Criticisms of voting and the peaceful transfer of power that are driven by the president’s stealth authoritarianism and populist inclinations will lead to democratic erosion. In 2020, Republican governors are instituting antidemocratic policies including the closing of polling stations. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, made only one polling station available in each county in Texas. As this article by USA Today points out, this controversial act would make it harder for minority groups and groups that historically vote Democrat to cast their ballots (Ellis, 2020). According to this article published by Fox News, Bexar County in Texas was sued because of the lack of polling stations that would negatively impact “voters of color and Spanish-language voters” (Henney, 2020). Even though this article paints the plaintiffs of this court case as progressive liberals, the number of polling stations in Texas have dramatically decreased in high-populated areas. Frances E. Lee brings attention to how authoritarian-leaning Republican leaders “have enacted a variety of “anti-voter fraud” measures that disproportionately burden poor, minority, and Democratic voters” (Lee, 2019, 383).
This article by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt looks closely at how the debate about voting could impact America now and in the future. The authors report that “Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods” (Levitsky, Ziblatt, 2020). This is the work of a government with authoritarian leanings. Voting is the sacred right of every American, and by blocking certain groups of people from voting, the president strengthens his position of power. The people he has targeted are part of groups that are likely to vote for his opponent. In publicly discouraging voters from using mail-in ballots, Trump has almost given permission for his Republican supporters in state legislatures to close polling stations and reject absentee ballots.
Since 2016, Donald Trump has been working to promote voter disenfranchisement. According to a national civil rights advocacy group, the court found a section of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. This ruling meant that “Texas and other states with history of racial discrimination no longer needed federal pre-clearance when changing election laws — Texas counties have closed at least 403 polling places” (Lutz, 2016). The President’s actions to increase his own power at the national level will have lasting impacts, such as lower voter turnout rates in states and counties.
The term democratic backsliding is used in this paper to describe the processes by which a democracy deteriorates. In her work on democratic backsliding, Nancy Burmeo describes the term as the “state-led debilitation or elimination” of the political institutions that give life to a democratic state or nation (Burmeo, 2016, 5). Since voting is one of the most important democratic institutions, it makes sense that democratic erosion would soon reach it. Donald Trump is facilitating democratic backsliding through his populistic and authoritarian rhetoric. The President’s continuous questioning of mail-in voting and the election results can be understood as part of this undemocratic rhetoric. These aspects, as well as the uncertainty he is causing by refusing to confirm that he will allow a peaceful transfer of power, constitute the President’s worrying plan to try and stay in office, facilitating democratic backsliding. To thoroughly examine this erosion, it is important to look at how authority figures, like the President, have influenced other leaders at state and local levels.
Bacon, Perry. “The Latest On Republican Efforts To Make It Harder To Vote | FiveThirtyEight.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 9 Sept. 2020, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-latest-on-republican-efforts-to-make-it-harder-to-vote/.
Burmeo, N. (2016). On democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5-19.
Ellis, Nicquel Terry, and Rick Jervis. “As Arizona, Texas and Georgia Become Less White, Voter Suppression Could Keep These States from Turning Blue.” USA Today, 12 Oct. 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/12/2020-election-biden-win-arizona-texas-and-georgia/5902421002/.
Henney, Megan. “Texas County Sued by Progressive Groups over Lack of Polling Sites | Fox News.” Fox News, Fox News, 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/texas-county-sued-over-number-of-election-day-polling-sites.
Lee, Frances E. “Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints.” Perspectives on Politics, no. 2, Cambridge University Press (CUP), Sept. 2019, pp. 370–88. Crossref, doi:10.1017/s1537592719002664.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Opinion | End Minority Rule – The New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos, 23 Oct. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/23/opinion/sunday/disenfranchisement-democracy-minority-rule.html?referringSource=articleShare.
Lieberman, Robert, et al. Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States. 2017, pp. 2–25.
Lutz, Elena Mejia. “Report: Texas Has Closed Most Polling Places since Court Ruling | The Texas Tribune.” The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune, 4 Nov. 2016, https://www.texastribune.org/2016/11/04/report-texas-holds-highest-number-polling-place-cl/.
Mehta, Dhrumil. “More Republicans Distrust This Year’s Election Results Than Democrats After 2016 | FiveThirtyEight.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 20 Nov. 2020, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/more-republicans-distrust-this-years-election-results-than-democrats-after-2016/.
Muller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, p. 3.
Varol, Ozan. Stealth Authoritarianism. 2015, p. 1678.
Weinberg, Abigail. “Trump’s ‘Transfer of Power’ Quote Will Grab the Headlines. But His Full Statement Is Way Scarier. – Mother Jones.” Mother Jones, Mother Jones, 3 Sept. 2020, https://www.motherjones.com/2020-elections/2020/09/trumps-transfer-of-power-quote-will-grab-all-the-headlines-but-his-full-statement-is-way-scarier/.
I agree with your analysis that Trump and the Republican party are using stealth authoritarianism. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the role of the impeachment trial in this process? Also, what do you think about the prospect of Democrats passing federal legislation making voting easier at the national level, blocking Republican controlled state legislatures from enacting supressive voting laws?