Will American Democracy Survive the Election of 2020?
All along, the battle of the 2020 Election has been over whether American democracy will survive. But there’s recently been a major change in the nature of the battle.
For a long time, the central question has been about “the will of the people”: “Will Americans want Donald Trump to remain their President?” Many knowledgeable observers understood that if the voters chose a second Trump term that might deal a death-blow to the American constitutional order and the rule of law.
(Trump’s conduct after surviving his Impeachment provided a frightening preview of the dictatorial direction Trump would take the country the more he’d slipped the bonds of accountability.)
But recent developments have shifted the central question: it has become less “What is the will of the people?” and more, “Will Trump manage to thwart the will of the people as expressed through the constitutional process of an election?”
Two developments have driven this change:
1) In the wake of the pandemic, the rejection of Donald Trump by Americans seems to have widened into a substantial majority (and hardened into something stable); a recent poll shows that the percentage of people declaring that they will certainly vote against Trump now exceeds 50%.
2) Trump has become increasingly brazen in threatening to prevent the constitutional conduct of a free and fair election, thereby eliciting increasingly widespread and vocal alarm.
Trump himself seems to have shifted his focus away from winning votes and more toward positioning himself to steal, overturn, or contest the election, for example by:
- planting the lie that voting by mail would result in massive voter fraud, whereas the reality is that we have plenty of experience of voting by mail and the rate of fraud is so low it’s almost zero.
- starving the postal service, and having his lackey Postmaster General start to hobble its ability to process mail just when we’re heading into an election during a pandemic when voting-by-mail is crucial so that we don’t expose millions of Americans to a killer disease just so they can exercise their constitutional rights.
- sending federal forces into American cities against the wishes of the local government and police, and have them behave in ways that are provocative of violence and turmoil, and that – besides providing good footage from Trump to use in campaign adds so that he can argue that we need a “Law and Order” President to deal with the chaos of the “anarchists” – could be preparing the way for other use of force around the Election.
All of which accentuates that underlying reality, i.e. that our present political battle pits American Democracy against what might reasonably be called “Fascism.”
It is impossible to know how this battle will turn out because:
- The cauldron of forces that drive history is way too complex for us to comprehend. (Who could have foreseen, for example, how something so small a cause as the faulty design of a ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, in the 2000 Election — by confusing enough would-be Gore voters that George W. Bush won Florida and thereby the election — could have so huge an effect as the disastrous Iraq war?
- The “unknowability” factor is magnified by our being in uncharted waters. (Never before has someone wielding the powers of the presidency, and lacking any restraint in what he’s willing to do, attacked our electoral process in this way.)
With unknowables putting the outcome inevitably in doubt, I worry. But based on what I do know, I am – on balance — optimistic.
I am reassured by these things:
- Recent decisions by the Supreme Court seem to give clear indication that — if the matter came before the Supremes – they would reject any attempt by Trump to violate the proper constitutional process and make himself a dictator. They’ve slapped Trump down on a couple of his lesser usurpations (such as Trump’s failure to proceed in accordance with the law on the Census question, and on DACA, and such as Trump’s dictatorial claims of being above the law). I am confident there would be at least five votes — and probably more — to check still-more Trump’s threats of still-more serious lawlessness.
- The Court’s apparent willingness to protect the rule of law against Trump reassures me that Trump cannot prevail even if he manages to tie up the election, and delay the declaration of a winner. The Constitution dictates that the vice-president and the President will be out of power on January 20, and if there’s no elected president, the result would be that the Speaker of the House would become President. Monkey-wrenching the process, far from perpetuating Trump’s presidency, would elevate his nemesis, Nancy Pelosi, to the Oval Office.
- I’m also reassured to see that a great many people and organizations are sounding the alarm, mobilizing, and taking to the battlefield to protect this election—so that presidential power will be granted to the candidate the people chose. The forces of Democracy clearly will neither forfeit this battle nor be taken by surprise.
- I am confident, too, that if the U.S. Military plays a role, it will be a positive one.
But my concerns focus on such “known unknowns” as:
- Although I’m encouraged by the mobilization of the forces of American Democracy, it is unclear how well will those forces conduct their side of the battle? I’ve been watching the earlier stages of this battle, which has been gathering for a generation, and the side now fighting Trump has failed to fight effectively for so much of that era –enabling the force that has given us Trump to gain so much power – that there are grounds for concern.
- It remains to be seen, too, to what extent Republican office-holders in Congress and around the country will support Trump in his naked attack on our election, or whether they will finally draw the line at a naked grab to perpetuate his power.
- Also yet to be determined is whether the Republican base will allow Trump to weaponize them for his assault on our constitutional order – whether they’ll believe his lies (e.g. to delegitimize valid mail-in votes) — or whether they will at last recognize and reject the un-American purposes of their leader?
These unknowns come together to make one major point: the strength of Trump’s attack on our constitutional order will depend (in part) on how fully he commands the Republican world, that in turn will depend (in part) on how much support Trump gets from the Republican electorate for his coup d’etat. Therefore, the forces of American Democracy must recognize that a major battlefield now must be the fight for the hearts and minds of Trump’s base.
Yes, it’s a given that they will vote for Trump. But it would be a mistake to simply assume that Trump’s base will follow him still further into an illegitimate war against the legitimate kind of election that Americans have conducted every four years since the nation’s founding.
It would be folly to leave Trump’s base to Trump. But it is a folly of a kind that has characterized Liberal America’s approach for a generation.
So, in their battle plan, those fighting for American Democracy must devote at least – and at last – some energy and creativity to increasing the resistance in the minds of Trump’s voters to the coming most dangerous seductions of their dangerous leader.