In November of 2020, after a long, drawn out election, it was announced that former Vice President Joe Biden (D) had won the presidential election, beating out his opponent Former President Donald Trump (R). Even before the election took place, President Trump declared that the election would have to be rigged for him to lose. Therefore, it was no surprise when he tweeted about the election saying “I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION” (Freking 2020).
Promptly after the end of the election, Trump started on his campaign to reverse President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Even after his Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security assured him that no fraud had occurred during the election, he had his lawyers file numerous lawsuits to overturn the election. Along with the lawsuits, President Trump “made repeated allegations of election fraud in news and social media, organized protests, and tried to convince state legislatures to take action” (Cummings 2021).
Although Former President Trump’s attempts at overturning the election result have ultimately been a failure, we should be worried about what these actions may mean for our democracy. Refusing to give up power is a trait of authoritarian leaders. While everything Trump did in his attempt to overturn the election was legal, his actions went directly against the idea of institutional forbearance. For those unfamiliar with the concept of institutional forbearance, Levitsky and Ziblatt define institutional forbearance in their book, How Democracies Die, as “the action of restraining a legal right” (Levitsky 2019). Donald Trump did not restrain his legal right when he filed 62 lawsuits in both state and federal courts to overturn the election.
According to many political science scholars, including Levitsky and Ziblatt, institutional forbearance and mutual toleration are two norms that are vital to maintaining a healthy democracy. Unfortunetly, the absence of either of these principles could mean that our democracy is moving towards authoritarianism, and we are currently experiencing an absence of both (Levitsky 2019).
Donald Trump had the support of the majority of the country when he won the presidential election in 2016, and he is still supported by many American citizens (Election 2016). This support was showcased in the insurrection that took place at the White House on January 6, 2021. The insurrection was a result of Trump losing the election. This incident was prompted by Former President Trump himself and is another example of this leader going against the values of democracy. It should be a warning sign that a good amount of American people still put their hope in this leader, as it is a sign that our democracy is indeed eroding.
Refusal to lose an election is a clear trait of not only authoritarian leaders, but populist ones as well. Populism expert Cas Mudde defines populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’” (Mudde 2004). Populist leaders cliam that they represent the people (Mueller 2016). These leaders often refuse to give up power while still maintaining the support of the people. Most recently, populism has shown up on the radical right and has been closely related to the idea of authoritarianism. If Trump truly was a populist leader, the United States should be worried about its future as a democracy, as democratic erosion may be more deep-rooted than it seems.
If citizens of the United States willingly put leaders with authoritarian and populist traits into power and refuse to let a new leader take the office, this is demonstrative of a much bigger issue. Support for these types of leaders typically rises when people are genuinely unhappy with or feel betrayed by their democracy. If enough Americans truly feel this way, authoritarianism could take rise in the United States.
Trump’s attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s win is just one example of democratic erosion in the United States. While it may not be as fast or apparent as it is in countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, it is something that every citizen of the United States should be concerned about.