More and more news comes out about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to refute and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The results of that election demonstrated President Joe Biden to be the legitimate winner. Many of Trump’s attempts to overturn those election results fall under the purview of stealth authoritarianism: the use of formal and legal means in a democracy for antidemocratic ends.
In stealth authoritarianism (SA), antidemocratic moves taken adhere to formal rules or mechanisms or legal technicalities. The term was coined by Ozan O. Varol in a piece for the Iowa Law Review. While the institutional-democratic tools being used and the individual occurrences are not strictly bad for democracy or its preservation, the result is nonetheless democratic erosion: in the United States’ case, a decline in the quality of democracy. For example, SA can be exercised through judicial review, in which executive power is consolidated through rigging the judicial system. This could mean passing laws that weaken a court’s power to check the regime and or placing individual cronies on the court(s). Another example concerns electoral laws, in which power is consolidated through preventing fair competition through barriers to voting or running for political office.
It might be said that, given Trump’s reputation for abrasiveness and grandstanding, “stealth” authoritarianism (SA) is ironic or unlikely in his case. However, it is precisely those “stealthy” actions and behaviors constituting SA which seem hard to prove antidemocratic, due to their operation through formal avenues, that contribute to democratic erosion alongside overtly antidemocratic operations. Trump’s antidemocratic behavior poses a threat to preservation of democracy in both stealthy and overt ways.
Trump’s most overtly antidemocratic move was he and his allies’ incitement (and planning) of the violent riot overtaking the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. This was during the joint Congressional session for counting the electoral votes, normally a formality, to declare Joe Biden the official victor of the most recent presidential election.
Prior to Trump’s call to action to his supporters to reject and reverse his defeat, however, he and his allies executed a number of antidemocratic moves. These were less overtly antidemocratic because they operated through formal or at least non-illegal avenues. Some were obvious and public, such as Trump’s calls to election officials and extended legal battle to abdicate votes in states where Joe Biden won by relatively narrow margins, such as Arizona and Georgia. Some moves were not revealed until after Trump left office, such as those uncovered by the U.S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. These include two drafted executive orders directing Departments of Defense and Homeland Security officials (military and federal agents, respectively) to seize voting machines.
These routes taken by Trump and his allies constitute stealth authoritarianism through their aim to prevent a legitimate transition of democratic power through formal avenues. Trump spurred an extended legal battle, consisting of several dozens of (failed) lawsuits, to invalidate pro-Biden votes in “battleground states.” These lawsuits asserted fictitious allegations of voter fraud severe enough to prevent Trump from being crowned the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The lawsuits, and Trump and his allies’ rhetoric, declared Biden to be the illegitimate victor.
Another example of an SA move was Trump’s calls to state officials like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to attempt to manipulate the state’s count of electoral votes in his favor. Trump later tried another probable attempt to pressure Arizona’s Maricopa County top election official, Clint Hickman, to do much the same (he instead ignored Trump’s calls given knowledge of Raffensperger’s debacle).
These moves by Trump were not illegal per se but violated democratic norms. On its own, contesting election results is not unprecedented: the 2000 presidential election saw a protracted electoral battle before the Supreme Court settled the issue in George W. Bush’s favor. Al Gore then officially conceded the election to Bush. Trump’s refusal to concede until 13 days before Biden became president (even then, not explicitly) was indeed unprecedented, but did not change Biden entering office because the January 6 Attack was over and done the day before, with the electoral counting process formalizing Biden as the next president that night. Trump’s calls to state election officials, while probably corrupt and/or illegal, may not seem like a big deal because they did not ultimately have an impact on Biden entering office. Trump’s grandstanding lies in the face of an obvious truth, that he lost the presidential election, may only seem to impart consequences for him and his allies, and not anything else.
However, the result of moves like these, which are antidemocratic in nature, is democratic erosion. The modern reason that losers concede to the winners in U.S. presidential elections is to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power. An official or public concession, as well as initiating an orderly transfer of power to the incoming administration, preserves certainty in democratic stability despite the change in power. Trump’s moves are framed by a refusal to admit legitimate defeat (ongoing to this day) and attempt to stay in power. This has contributed to the corrosion of that certainty.
Trump’s efforts that were less prone to the public eye were similarly stealthy in their antidemocratic nature, even if they were less obvious. While Trump’s proclamations that his Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the election results were obvious, the legal maneuvers that Trump and his allies tried to pull to legitimate such a move were less so. The executive orders which were drafted by people in the White House instructed voting machines to be seized and appoint a special counsel to investigate the election results were well within Trump’s power to issue, even if they would have immediately been contested in court.
The use of formal and legal (or non-illegal) means for antidemocratic ends – for the most part not breaking the rules – erodes democracy in a stealthy way. Seemingly legitimate actions, like contesting election results, becomes troublesome when the loser refuses to concede upon the results being settled. Such moves and rhetoric certainly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of law and democratic norms.