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America passed the Trump stress test

Dec 08,2020 - Last updated at Dec 08,2020

CHICAGO — The all-but-completed US presidential election has upset a range of lurid predictions. We were told that ballots would not be counted, voting machines would be hacked, state legislatures would order electors to defy the will of the people, armed thugs would intimidate voters and riots would erupt, with the police taking the side of the “law and order” president. President Donald Trump, true to form, has indeed refused to concede, accused Democrats of fraud, and challenged the election in the courts. But he has no realistic prospect of remaining in office after Inauguration Day.

Those arguing that Trump’s post-election behaviour amounts to an attempted coup d’état are misreading the situation. Trump’s refusal to concede means nothing. His legal challenges are frivolous and have been swatted away by courts. He has lost.

While many Republican voters tell pollsters that the election was stolen, hardly any of them have taken to the streets or pursued tactics that one would expect from people who truly believe that democracy has been subverted. There has been no Hong Kong-style uprising. Trump’s attacks on American institutions are largely a form of political performance art.

It is tempting to say that Trump has nonetheless damaged the US electoral system, and American constitutional democracy more generally. The basic claim, repeated with extraordinary frequency over the past four years, is that Trump has subverted certain “norms” that are crucial to the functioning of democracy. These unwritten rules ensure that the two main political parties cooperate, that the will of the people is respected, and that politics does not degenerate into violence. If a president flouts or attacks these norms, they will disintegrate, making democracy impossible.

This worry was certainly legitimate. But, paradoxically, Trump’s attacks on American democracy seem to have strengthened rather than weakened it. Consider the election. Political scientists have lamented for decades that too few Americans vote or bother to pay attention to politics. Yet voter turnout this year as a percentage of the eligible population was the highest it has been since 1900. Despite the hardships and constraints of the worst health crisis in a century, people donated money to candidates, argued with each other online and organised on a massive scale. Notwithstanding the conspiracy theorising, polarisation and persistent sense of turmoil, these are signs of a healthy democracy.

Similarly, while Trump has attacked the press as the “enemy of the people”, often criticising various journalists by name, major media outlets have flourished. Print and digital subscriptions to The New York Times, one of Trump’s chief “enemies”, have soared, fromthree million in 2017 to seven million in 2020. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all enjoyed record ratings in 2020. Nor is there evidence that journalists or commentators have suppressed stories or opinions because they feared government retaliation.

The judiciary, another frequent target of Trump’s criticisms, has also maintained its independence. In addition to rejecting Trump’s baseless election challenges, judges have dealt his administration defeat after defeat. Trump’s efforts to deregulate the economy, while applauded by conservatives, have been blocked by courts in the vast majority of cases brought before them, and far more frequently than with previous administrations. Courts have also interfered with many of Trump’s signature efforts to limit illegal immigration, in some cases sharply criticising the administration. And while Trump has moved the judiciary to the right, the judges he appointed appear to be taking their jobs seriously.

The larger point is that violations of norms do not always succeed; often, they expose flaws that can be ameliorated through the democratic process. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the norm against serving more than two terms, the norm was codified in the US Constitution with the Twenty-Second Amendment.

And even when violations of norms cause them to disintegrate, that’s not always a bad thing. In many cases, the norms reflected past practices and had outlived their usefulness. In retrospect, the presidents who violated them seem farsighted rather than retrogressive. In the nineteenth century, presidents violated norms that prohibited them from campaigning while in office, which was considered undignified, or from appealing directly to the people, rather than working through Congress. These norms disintegrated because earlier notions of elite governance lost their purchase on the polity as democratic ideals strengthened. Political norms, like moral norms, are powerful precisely because they cannot be destroyed by a few prominent people. When they erode, it is because they conflict with emerging principles or new political realities.

By contrast, Trump’s attacks on competing power centres in the US political system mostly served to remind people why these power centres are so important in the first place. Trump himself seems to have understood this, considering that his attacks were merely rhetorical. As far as we know, he did not take concrete actions to undermine the press or weaken the courts, for example, by ordering investigations or prosecutions, or pushing legislation that could hamper their activities. Nor did he use law enforcement or other government processes to harass Democrats or other political opponents, as much as he might have wanted to. His incendiary rhetoric backfired, costing him important votes among Republicans and stimulating massive turnout from Democrats, while doing little to harm his targets. Americans’ confidence in public institutions, as measured by Gallup, appears not to have declined over the course of the Trump administration, though a downward trend long predates him.

Trump probably hoped, and continues to hope, that by attacking the election, he could sway Republican politicians, judges and others to overturn the outcome. Perhaps, if enough voters took to the streets, and enough officials calculated that a grateful Trump would award them with future sinecures, these officials would have delivered for him. But that did not happen.

The main reason it did not happen, aside from the fact that nearly all electoral officials performed their roles with integrity, is that Trump is not a popular president. Given that he lacked the political support to win the election, it is not surprising that he also lacked the political support to overturn the result.

It will be a long time before historians have fully assessed Trump’s impact on America’s constitutional democracy. Clearly, his term in office has exposed some serious shortcomings, probably the most important of which are the outsized influence of ideologically extreme voters in the presidential primary process, and the excessive role of money in politics. But American democracy remains strong, at least for now.


Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of “The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump” (All Points Books, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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