Since Election Day, a paradox has come into focus: some expected that defeating Donald Trump would preserve democracy. Far from it. Trump’s defeat has actually intensified the crisis of democracy.
No one expects the president to admit that he lost the election. He tweeted, “I concede nothing. We have a long way to go.” He is right about that: we’re not out of the woods yet.
The idea of a president making false claims, bringing frivolous lawsuits, and generally riling up his supporters into rejecting the outcome would be problem enough by itself. But there is more. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) allegedly tried to influence the vote count in his neighboring state of Georgia. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) is pushing GOP-held legislatures in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania to overturn the will of their voters by instructing their electors to vote for Trump. It may be an inconvenient truth, but the election is not truly settled until the Electoral College votes in mid-December.
Now, that’s unlikely to happen this time around. Republican officials in those swing states have already rejected that idea. But if the Trump era proves anything, it is that when the popular mood shifts in one direction, it doesn’t always shift back the other way. Once, the idea of a legislature ignoring its state’s popular vote results was mostly theoretical. But now that it’s out there, the notion feels a bit like an open carry firearm, unused at the moment but likely to be fired eventually.
And why not? GOP contempt for democracy is not new. It has led to gutting the Voting Rights Act, harassing minority constituencies through spurious voter ID laws, conspiracy mongering over non-existent voter fraud, and using lame-duck legislative shenanigans to weaken incoming governors, to cite just a few. Aside from cutting taxes on the wealthy, GOP policy over the last decade seems focused on reducing the size and influence of an increasingly diverse electorate.
Even without Trump, that won’t change. A key conservative goal is to rein in the power of an electorate that they see in every cycle as becoming more liberal, less Republican, less traditionally American, and less controllable. Elected officials, like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), increasingly argue against the very idea of democracy, floating ideas like requiring citizens to pass a civics test before being allowed to vote. One wonders if those officials themselves could pass such a test.
Come January, Biden will likely be inaugurated even if Trump never concedes. But it doesn’t feel like the sure thing it should be. The damage being done to the traditions and legitimacy of American governance is incalculable. Which means that even if defeating Trump was necessary it was only a first step. His refusal to acknowledge defeat means the emergency is still acute. This anxious moment will probably pass, but the struggle is just beginning.