In the two weeks since Election Day, a paradox has come into focus. Preserving democracy — as Americans have practiced and understood it — required defeating Donald Trump in the presidential election. But Trump’s defeat has only heightened the crisis of democracy.
There was a brief moment of hope on Sunday that the president had at least acknowledged, if begrudgingly, that he had lost the election to President-elect Joe Biden.
“He won the vote because the Election was Rigged,” Trump wrote on Twitter. It wasn’t exactly a gracious concession — it was couched in a lie — but it appeared to be the most we could hope for. But Trump reversed himself quickly, making apparent that his “concession” was merely a mistweet.
“He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING!” Trump wrote about 90 minutes later. “We have a long way to go.”
And then, late Sunday, another lie for good measure: “I WON THE ELECTION!”
This president rarely says true things. He didn’t win the election. But he is right about one thing: America has a long way to go before this crisis ends. We’re not out of the woods yet.
The problem isn’t just the president, of course. Yes, he has made false claims that the voting software was manipulated in Biden’s favor, brought frivolous lawsuits that stand little chance of overturning the vote, and generally worked to rile up his supporters into never accepting the election’s outcome. All of that is a problem.
“Trump is tweeting absolutely bonkers lies about the election,” CNN’s Daniel Dale said Sunday. “It is bad.”
More alarming, though, is that some of Trump’s fellow Republicans are advocating for GOP-held legislatures to overturn the will of the voters in states — like Michigan and Pennsylvania — where Biden won, and send a Trump set of electors to the Electoral College. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is perhaps the highest-profile elected official to support this effort.
That probably won’t happen this election; Republican officials in those swing states have already rejected the idea. But if the Trump Era has proven anything, it’s that when the Overton Window shifts in one direction, it doesn’t always shift back the other way. Until this election, the idea of legislatures ignoring their state’s popular vote results was mostly theoretical — not taken seriously by anybody in the political mainstream. Now that it’s out there, the the notion feels a bit like Chekov’s gun, unused for the moment but certain to be fired eventually.
And why not? Trump’s contempt for democracy is hardly novel among Republicans. It was Republican appointees on the Supreme Court who disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, Republican legislatures that passed Voter ID laws intended to hamper Democratic voting constituencies, Republicans who have spent recent years nattering about almost non-existent voter fraud, and Republicans who have responded to election losses by disempowering Democratic governors and neutering voter referenda. Aside from cutting taxes, the GOP policy project over the last decade has largely been aimed at reducing the size of an increasingly diverse electorate.
That seems unlikely to change even if Trump goes away. A key part of the conservative intellectual justification for Trumpism, after all, was to reduce the power wielded by an electorate that “grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” Elected officials, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), increasingly argue against the very idea of democracy. And Trumpist media outlets are floating ideas like requiring a civics test from citizens before they are allowed to vote.
Biden has responded to Trump’s tantrums mostly by publicly ignoring him, and pressing ahead with the expectation that he will be inaugurated in January. That is still the likeliest outcome, even if Trump continues to pull out all the stops in his desperate attempt to cling to power. But it doesn’t feel like the sure thing it should be, and — as others have pointed out — the damage being done to the traditions and legitimacy of American governance is incalculable.
Which means that defeating Trump in the 2020 presidential election was necessary to shore up this country’s traditions of democratic governance — but just a first step. The president’s refusal to acknowledge defeat means the emergency is still acute. This terrible moment will pass, probably, but the struggle is just beginning.
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