And anyway, we’ve survived far more serious threats than this loathsome joker in the past.
- By Rosa BrooksRosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.
Calm down, world. Donald Trump will not destroy American democracy.
True, America’s most loathsome presidential candidate said some typically loathsome things during Wednesday night’s presidential debate. Most notably, when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would “accept the result of this election,” Trump launched into a fuming denunciation of the news media and repeated his claim that the election is “rigged.” Pressed by Wallace on whether he accepts the principle that American elections should lead to a concession by the loser and a peaceful transition of power, Trump doubled down: “I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Trump sure knows how to push people’s buttons. On cue, the global media moved into hysteria mode: “Donald Trump placed an unprecedented question mark over the peaceful succession of power in the United States last night,” spluttered the Times of London. In Germany, Der Spiegel decried Trump’s “shocking refusal” to recognize the election results. In the United States, every major newspaper denounced Trump’s comment: It was “a remarkable statement that seemed to cast doubt on American democracy,” opined the New York Times, while the Washington Post called it a “breathtaking repudiation of American democracy.”
But the only shocking thing about Trump’s statements is that everyone seems to find them so shocking.
It’s no surprise that Trump is shaping up to be a sore loser. He’s been one all his life. As Hillary Clinton pointed out during the debate, Trump even complained that TV’s Emmy Awards were rigged against “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump hosted before moving on to the “The Presidential Campaign,” his latest absurdist television drama. (The Television Academy, which bestows the Emmys, begs to differ).
Yes, Trump’s ugly comments smack of fascism. Again, no surprise: This is the guy who wants to make all American Muslims register with the government so they can be more effectively monitored. This is the guy who wants to bring back torture and bomb the children of suspected terrorists. This is the guy who threatened, during the second debate, to send Clinton to prison if he wins.
Fortunately for the world, Trump isn’t the arbiter of election validity. If Clinton wins on Nov. 8, as now appears overwhelmingly likely, the courts, the police, the military, Congress, every federal agency, and the vast majority of American voters will accept her as the nation’s president. Trump can reject the election results if he wants, just as he can reject the notion that the Earth is round if he wants. It doesn’t matter. He can stand on a soapbox and whine, but the Secret Service won’t be letting him move into the White House on Jan. 20, and no one will be handing him the nuclear codes.
That’s not the only reason Trump’s unhinged debate comments don’t present an “unprecedented threat” to American democracy. Yes, they may incite some of his most disgruntled supporters to violence. But here again, this would hardly be new.
Though most Americans don’t know it — or prefer to forget it — American history is replete with examples of voter intimidation and political and electoral violence. In 1834, opponents of abolition rioted in New York. In 1856, riots broke out in Baltimore over the disputed mayoral election of Thomas Swann, the “Know Nothing” candidate. In 1871, as many as 30 blacks were killed in Meridian, Mississippi, and the mayor was forcibly driven from office by a white mob. In November 1898, a violent coup by local white supremacists overthrew the elected government of Wilmington, North Carolina. In November 1920, local whites became so incensed when a black man tried to vote that they massacred up to 50 black residents of Ocoee, Florida. 1968 saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and violent clashes between Chicago police and protesters during the Democratic National Convention.
And, of course, there was the most violent political protest of all, also known as the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, most Southern states seceded from the Union. By the end of the war in 1865, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were dead.
That’s not an exhaustive list of political and electoral violence in America, just a representative one. If angry Trump supporters take to the streets — or beat up minorities, or grope some more women — it will be despicable. But it won’t be unprecedented. America has seen much, much worse, and the republic has not collapsed.
So don’t panic. Trump won’t undermine American democracy, both because we have a strong rule-of-law culture and because we’ve survived far more serious threats.
But don’t get too smug, either. There’s another reason Trump can’t do much to undermine American democracy, and it’s a dirty little secret: America isn’t really a democracy anyway.
What? The world’s oldest, proudest, and loudest democracy isn’t really a democracy?
No, it’s not. If democracy implies that each person’s vote should count equally, the United States has never had much of a democracy. The Constitution created a greatly diluted form of representative democracy that privileges some voters over others. (And I’m not even referring to slavery, or early restriction of the franchise to white male property holders.) Every state gets two senators, for instance, regardless of population size. Since states with smaller populations have, in recent decades, also had less diverse populations, this gives outsized political power to rural white voters and dilutes the political impact of the demographic changes that have been so evident in urban America.
Meanwhile, the Electoral College further distorts democracy: A candidate can lose the popular vote but still win the presidency. Most recently, more Americans voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore than for Republican candidate George W. Bush in 2000, but thanks to the Electoral College system (and a little assist from the conservative justices on the Supreme Court), Bush became America’s 43rd president.
Toss in racial gerrymandering, interest group politics, campaign finance rules that give disproportionate political clout to the rich, and a bizarre and often discriminatory patchwork of state voter registration rules, and what you end up with is modern America: an oligarchy in which almost half of eligible voters don’t even bother to go to the polls.
That’s the final reason Trump can’t do much to undermine American democracy. It’s already been undermined.
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