Argument

The Real Meaning of Trump’s Post-Election Defiance

When you feel you don’t have a future, you have no choice but to fight.

President Donald Trump sits in the presidential limo as he departs the White House for Capitol Hill, where he will deliver his second State of the Union speech, on Feb. 5, 2019 in Washington.
President Donald Trump sits in the presidential limo as he departs the White House for Capitol Hill, where he will deliver his second State of the Union speech, on Feb. 5, 2019 in Washington.

“If they steal the 2020 election, there won’t be a 2024 election!”

Loudspeaker announcement during the Stop-the-Steal demonstration in support of U.S. President Donald Trump on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, Nov. 14.


It will be some time before members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s shrinking inner circle publish their tell-all memoirs recounting, in lurid detail, how the White House first reacted when Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States. Even as we already have a rough sense of the scale of rage and the swirl of conspiracy theories, we will probably be surprised when we discover the jumble of hopeless stratagems for clinging to power that Trump and his entourage have been desperately concocting.

In the meantime, whatever happens next, his headline-grabbing refusal to concede Biden’s victory raises a deeper question. It focuses attention on a mystery that lies at the heart of democratic politics—namely why electoral losers, especially when they are incumbents, willingly accept defeat.

Commentators are divided in trying to make sense of Trump’s last-ditch gambit to prevent the certification of election results. Many have focused on his psychological or strategic aversion to being seen as a loser. After all, when his reckless business ventures went belly up, didn’t he always claim to have scored another great victory, as if spinning it would make it so? Others, more cynically, have assumed that he is simply scamming his supporters into contributing online to a nonexistent legal defense fund to line his pockets. Still others argue that he is taking a wrecking ball to the well-established transition process to regain the limelight he has lost since becoming a lame duck: What better way to regain control over the news cycle than to threaten to end U.S. democracy?

Alternatively, some of his sworn critics have speculated that he is desperately stalling to postpone the moment when Biden’s so-called landing teams gain access to government offices in order to destroy records of money laundering and similar malfeasance. And a few have implied that he is exploiting the unconscionably lengthy U.S. interregnum to declassify information helpful to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to transfer sophisticated weapons systems to Persian Gulf states in exchange, in both cases, for kickbacks or favors after Jan. 20. Or perhaps he just relishes the thought of making life as difficult as possible for the incoming administration, while informing the rest of the world that the United States will no longer be lecturing dictators about the virtues of free and fair elections.

These factors may all be relevant. But the main reason he is obstinately refusing to concede involves the dependence of democracy on faith in a yet-unwritten future where the electorally defeated get a second chance. Trump believes, and his supporters seemingly agree, that for him as well as for them there may never be another election.

More forcefully than any other politician, Trump has given voice to the average white voter’s fear of being politically marginalized by demographic and generational change. For these voters, U.S. elections are indeed rigged. But the cheating, ultimately, has little to do with ballot-tampering, despite the frivolous claims now being lodged by Trump’s lawyers. The United States’ elections, Trump’s most fervid supporters feel, are rigged by open borders and low hurdles to the naturalization of people who have entered the country illegally and by making it easier for African-Americans to register and vote, policies introduced by Democrats who are thereby seeking to lock in their future preeminence by reshaping the electorate to their advantage.

Such fearmongering helps us understand what exactly Trump and his supporters mean when, without a shred of evidence, they claim there was electoral fraud. They do not only mean fraud in the technical sense of stuffed ballots or incorrectly tabulated votes. More important for them is that the wrong sort of people have been registered to vote in the first place. The only reason Trump lost, they believe, is that the Democrats, by supporting minority rights and a liberal immigration policy, have betrayed the racial solidarity of the majority-white electorate.

The corrosive and undemocratic implication that all votes should not count equally was also conveyed by Trump’s baseless distinction between the brave souls who would defy the pandemic to vote in person and the cowards who planned to cast their ballots by mail. The distinction was arbitrary and did not map neatly onto the difference between Trump and Biden voters. But it did reflect the anti-democratic premise that the votes of certain citizens, contrary to the 14th Amendment, are worth more than others.

Trump’s allegation that the presidential election was rigged is the 2020 version of so-called birtherism. To say that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States is to say that a Black man has no right to become President. In the same way, to say that we cannot trust the results of this election is to say that the African American citizens of Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta have no right to vote. Drawing a parallel between the two bogus charges makes additional sense if we assume that Obama’s election triggered, as it certainly did, deep fears among many white Americans of demographic inundation.

In any case, the multiethnic lines of citizens seen waiting to cast their ballots at polling stations were an accurate mirror of the multiethnic United States. The contrast with Trump’s largely monoethnic rallies could not be starker. Seen from the perspective of an almost all-white campaign rally, increasingly multiracial voter rolls are the sign of an electorate unfairly stacked against the rallygoers. They are also an omen of an imagined future where defunded police departments will no longer be able to protect the besieged white majority from antifa rioters presumably in league with racial minorities. The percentage of white voters is decreasing over the long term. Hence the democratic legitimacy formula, giving the loser hope for a comeback, is forfeiting its ability to reconcile the defeated to their defeat. The fact that 60 percent of voters under 30 voted against Trump reinforces his supporters’ sense that the future is not on their side. That is why his baseless accusations of electoral fraud are so dangerous. They suggest to his supporters that the moment to abandon democracy itself is drawing near.

To this explanation for Trump’s refusal to concede, we need to add the subconscious impact of the pandemic on the country, including on his supporters. His shameless lie that “we are rounding the turn” did not change the fact that Americans are living in the constant presence of pointless, arbitrary death. The rise of an apocalyptic mindset should therefore come as no surprise. COVID-19 merely reinforces the sky-is-falling mentality that characterizes the worldview of most populist voters. The dizzying peaks and troughs of the pandemic have created additional uncertainty about a future which is unpredictable even in normal times and which feels especially ominous to those panicked by demographic and generational change. Trump is signaling to his supporters that they must never concede that this election was fairly decided. To do so would be to accept the changes in the composition of the electorate that will put future races for the presidency out of their reach. This fear of the future seems to resonate powerfully with roiling insecurity about an unpredictably spreading pandemic. There are presumably many psychological, social, and economic reasons why a large swath of the U.S. electorate, under Trump’s hypnotic spell, seems ready to abandon democracy. But distrust of the future based on their fear that “real Americans” will never again win an election is the most decisive factor.

Lockdowns, face masks, and social distancing, it should also be said, have created a pent-up popular thirst for collective action which is meaningful, spectacular and even defiant. This urgency, on full display in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, also helps explain why Trump’s supporters feel emboldened to ignore the electoral outcome. Although voting is a public act, there is nothing heroic, daring, sensational, or even particularly memorable about it. But a protester, perhaps masquerading as a freedom fighter and agitating raucously against stolen elections, is or least can pretend to be a heroic figure. Defying the outcome of the election and trying to prevent the certification of valid votes presumably gives Trump’s voters a sense of participating in large events, of rattling history’s cage. This is an appealing opportunity given the small, housebound, risk-averse, and inconsequential repetitiveness of life under COVID-19.

Needing Trump’s support to keep their majority in the Senate in the two upcoming Georgia runoffs, the Republican establishment continues to walk the thin line between right and wrong. Under no illusion about the Electoral College vote, perfectly normal politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who would feel totally out of his element at a Trump rally), understand that Biden is the president-elect. But they have not publicly said as much because doing so would break their tenuous connection to those Trump voters who inhabit a make-believe world in which “Make America Great Again” can never lose. Trump may even be blackmailing McConnell into keeping quiet about Biden’s win by threatening to tilt the Georgia election in the Democrats’ favor. Be that as it may, Trump bested the Republican establishment in 2016 because, unlike them, he was willing to question Obama’s right to be president. And he intimidates them today because, unlike them, he is willing to suggest, without resorting to euphemism, that the African American voters of Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, in particular, have no right to vote.

Can the Republican establishment keep its balance and its bearings with one foot in the United States’ multiethnic reality and the other in an impossible, not to mention morally repugnant, dream of restoring white supremacy? They are temporarily indulging Trump’s claim that “the Election was Rigged,” pretending that he is referring to a falsification of votes when they know that, in fact, his voter-fraud claim is really about the extension of the franchise to the wrong kind of people. The Republican establishment is presumably plotting life after Trump. But can it publicly acknowledge that Biden won the election while pandering to white grievance and lending credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the president and accepted by his credulous supporters? Straddling these two mutually incompatible worlds, one real and the other hallucinatory, is anatomically uncomfortable. Indeed, it is a posture impossible to sustain over time.

Elected Republicans, especially those whose power depends on equal State suffrage in the Senate, are not going to accept Trump’s invitation to destroy the legitimacy of the American electoral system. Under this system, unlike him, most of them have a good chance of winning free and fair elections in the future, despite the unstoppable changes in the United States’ demography. The GOP is not demographically doomed, whatever nightmares of ethnic disappearance haunt Trump’s electorate. While the United States’ demography is changing, U.S. voters are too opportunistic and parties are too adaptable for ethnicity to remain a reliable predictor of party affiliation even in the medium term. In the short run, however, Republicans may well lose the majority in the Senate if they dare slap down the fantasy that Trump won an imaginary election that did not take place. For the next two months, it seems, a myopic Republican leadership will continue to regard the Jan. 5 runoff as the only future election that counts.

It is unclear what price, if any, Republicans will pay for temporarily indulging Trump’s flirtation with ending the democracy on which their own legitimacy depends. What is quite clear, on the other hand, is that the party’s current leaders can live neither with nor without the apocalyptically minded voters that the current president has led to the brink of abandoning democracy. Trump built his political brand not only by promising to humiliate Obama, but also by encouraging many Republican voters to see themselves as belonging to a shrinking white majority that can only maintain control of the commanding heights by undemocratic means. The intense polarization of the U.S. electorate, deliberately exacerbated by Trump, poses an existential threat to democracy because his half of the electorate has lost faith in the future. When supporters of a defeated candidate believe that they are demographically doomed, they have no incentive to play by the rules. The unsettling consequences are playing out before our eyes.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Stephen Holmes is professor of law at New York University.

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