On the 29th of September, former Vice-President Biden and incumbent President Trump engaged in one of the most unruly and chaotic presidential debates in American history. Commentators estimated that Trump interrupted Biden between 70 and 130 times. Whilst Biden was more restrained than his rival, the Democratic nominee lost his cool at times, referring to the sitting President as a “clown” and telling him to “shut up, man”. Neither candidate came across as presidential.
However, this was not unexpected. Many viewers tuned in to watch the sparks fly, not to inform their voting decision this November. The main takeaway from the debate in Cleveland was not any further insight into the candidates’ policies but was the shocking implications for America’s democracy. The President had previously failed to commit to a peaceful transfer of power at a press conference a week earlier and undermined the election’s legitimacy by continuing to make unevidenced claims that mail-in ballots lead to widespread voter fraud.
President Trump was always going to be a threat to the US’s democracy. Since the beginning of his short political career, Trump has displayed political tactics used by fascists and authoritarians, such as ultra-nationalism, scapegoating, ‘whataboutism’, continuous political rallies, and provoking armed militias.
The US is proud of its democratic process and in usual times would most likely be able to prevent an incumbent from stealing an election. However, COVID-19 presents Trump with two unique opportunities: Firstly, the pandemic provides an excuse for voter suppression by closing polling stations in cities, most of which are democratic-leaning. The State of Georgia’s primary elections this June provides a concerning glimpse of what might happen in November. Some voters found that the voting machines in their polling stations did not work; others waited in queues for eight hours to cast their ballot. Many Americans living in cities will be denied their democratic right to vote, especially those who are poorer and unable to find childcare or to take a day off work to vote.
Secondly, fear of catching the coronavirus has dramatically increased the demand for mail-in ballots. Several states restrict when mail-in ballots can be counted, including key battleground states: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – where they can only start being counted once the polls open on election day. The significant surge in requests for absentee ballots this year is likely to overwhelm states’ existing counting infrastructure, and it could be weeks or even months after the election before the result is certain.
It is during this period that Trump may claim victory. During the debate, he refused to commit to await independent certification of the election before declaring victory, and instead, he suggested that the election will be rigged.
Trump will have three key groups to enforce his claimed victory in November, the first of which is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court famously decided the result of the election in 2000, and it was a time of significant uncertainty and tension in the US. Al Gore, who was deemed to have lost this election, publicly accepted the result which eased divisions and ensured a peaceful process. This will not happen in 2020. The Supreme Court is likely to be split 6-3 in favour of the Republicans, as the White House and the Senate rush to add Amy Coney Barrett to the court. This Supreme Court may side with Trump if the legitimacy of his re-election is called into doubt.
President Trump also has support from several other levels of government institutions. Trump typically has support from police officers, whom he has considered deploying to polling stations. The President’s disregard for democracy also seems to be supported by at least some within the Republican party. Vice-President Pence maintained The President’s position during the Vice-Presidential debate and failed to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. During and after this debate Mike Lee, a Republican Senator from Utah, tweeted that “we’re not a democracy” and “Democracy isn’t the objective”. It, therefore, seems unlikely that the Republican party or the police will restrain Trump’s authoritarian instincts.
Trump also has the support of armed militias which have been mobilising on the streets throughout the summer. The President repeatedly egged on anti-lockdown protestors with tweets such as “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”. Later in the summer, far-right militias gathered and marched in the belief that they are protecting cities from Black Lives Matter protestors. In November they could likely conflate challenges against Trump with challenges against America, and therefore they may consider themselves to be patriots fighting traitorous protestors. When asked to denounce white supremacists in the debate, Trump notably deflected and told one group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” but not to stand down, implying that they should be ready and waiting until they are next needed. This is undoubtedly how the Proud Boys interpreted the message, adopting it as a rallying cry and making merchandise featuring the phrase. The genuine threat of violence from these groups is likely to put some off attending protests in favour of the democratic process. Deaths have already occurred on both sides of protests against racial injustice. The President has also shown his willingness to deploy the national guard to violently suppress protestors and even abduct them in unmarked vehicles. Hence the democratic right to peaceful protest will be infringed upon.
Regardless of the election’s outcome a sizeable proportion of the population will be deeply angered by the result and will cite reasons why the vote was illegitimate (both real, like voter suppression, and imagined, like widespread voter fraud). With the population already at a fever pitch after months of civil unrest, it is almost certain that there will be protests and riots featuring violent clashes. Faith in government will undoubtedly suffer. Soon America’s democracy may be added to COVID-19’s ever-growing death toll.