Lincoln Mitchell, US Opinion Correspondent

American Democracy’s Last Stand

Flickr/angela n./CC BY 2.0

In about six and a half months, Americans will go to the polls and decide between four more years of Donald Trump or turning the White House over to Democrat Joseph Biden. That sentence, with slight variations could have been written in mid-April of every presidential election year for over a century, but this time it cannot be taken for granted. To begin with, we don’t know if Americans will be able to safely go to the polls, if vote by mail will be implemented throughout the country or if access to the franchise will remain a bitterly fought partisan issue. Most likely it will be the last of these three as the Republican Party clearly fears an election where everybody can vote.

Additionally, the recent months of the Covid-19 pandemic have made Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses and mental instability, as well as the cult-like loyalty of his followers, even more apparent. In the last few weeks, even in the last few days, as Donald Trump has asserted his “total” authority while continuing to suggest that, in so many words, universal suffrage is prima facie election fraud, the acceleration of democratic rollback has increased substantially. Queries and earnest commentary about whether the US is in the beginning of a Constitutional crisis seem positively quaint now. We are not at the beginning of that crisis, nor, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, are we at the end of the beginning. We are in the middle, or perhaps more alarmingly, approaching the end of that crisis-and democracy is losing.

Given this, it is more clear than ever that the notion that the Trump presidency will end with an undisputed election, Biden being sworn in a president on January 21st of next year and Trump getting on a helicopter bound for a quiet retirement in Mar-a-Lago, is abject political fantasy. While that fantasy is very comforting and reassuring, to cling on to the belief it can happen despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary is political negligence and wastes valuable time. Therefore, Democrats, progressives and patriots of all stripes must use the time between now and the election not just to ensure Joe Biden’s victory but to build a strategy for ensuring that victory is respected. Those are both daunting tasks, and are even more so given that they both must be pursued simultaneously-in the midst of a pandemic that makes it unsafe for people to leave their homes or gather in large groups.

The recent months of the Covid-19 pandemic have made Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses and mental instability, as well as the cult-like loyalty of his followers, even more apparent

In a post-election environment where it is very likely that the President and most of the Republican Party will greet a Biden victory with accusations of election fraud, fake news and a deep state coup, Democrats can either respond by being outraged or by having a plan. The Pollyannaish nature of too many influential opponents of the president who believed that the gravity of the office, the midterm elections, the Mueller Report, the impeachment hearings or anything else was going to curb Donald Trump’s authoritarian impulses, have led to a lot of lost time, so now the post-election plan must come together very quickly.

Ensuring that a Biden victory is honored and that the US can get on the path to restoring democracy requires a five-pronged strategy that cannot succeed without planning, hard work and a strong sense of urgency. This will make it possible to use the eleven weeks between the election and the inauguration to ensure that the winner of the election is able to assume the presidency. First, drawing attention to the possibility of Trump refusing to accept the outcome of the election will make it harder for him to do just that. Beginning now, focusing media attention on this possibility, asking Trump and other Republicans to pledge that they will accept the outcome of the election, and other similar activities will make it more difficult for Trump to remain in office if he loses. Many Republicans will be outraged to even have to answer that question, but that may make it easier to get them on the record now saying they will not support Trump if this scenario comes to pass.

Second, a legal strategy that helps counter the voter suppression that will increase in the coming months and that provides evidence to counter Republican claims of voter fraud is also essential. Democrats need lawyers on the ground in all swing states who will be prepared and able to defend against false charges by the Trump campaign of voter fraud and illegal voting. This process can begin now with challenges to the Constitutionality of the voter suppression policies Republicans will try to push through under the guise of responding to the pandemic.

Third, although Republicans have demonstrated that they have placed loyalty to Trump over their belief in the Constitution or rule of law, Democrats should continue to dialog with Republicans and try to persuade some of them to break with Trump if he loses in 2020.

Democrats, progressives and patriots of all stripes must use the time between now and the election not just to ensure Joe Biden’s victory but to build a strategy for ensuring that victory is respected

Republicans who defect from Trump’s position and call for the winner of the election to be recognized and for Trump to leave office will be very valuable in the hours and days following the 2020 election. This can also help frame the larger post-election strategy as being about democracy and rule of law rather than simply partisanship. However, given the very strong partisan tensions throughout the US, Republicans will not easily go against the President, even over something as egregious as Trump’s unwillingness to accept the outcome of the election. Nonetheless, as the election approaches influential Democrats, at national, state and local levels should speak with their Republican counterparts to urge them to support the winner of the election and facilitate an environment where Republicans who oppose Trump’s efforts will be accepted as part of a broader democratic movement.

Fourth, dislodging authoritarian leaders who refuse to accept the verdict of the voters always requires a popular uprising, but in the age of the pandemic, there are many challenges around that. Demonstrations are wildly incompatible with social distancing while general strikes have less of an impact when everybody who is not working in an absolutely essential job is either unemployed or working from home. Therefore, it is imperative to find ways for mass political participation in the hours and day immediately after the polls close to demand that Trump accept defeat. These actions must be non-violent and consistent with pandemic related health recommendations, but sufficiently wide-spread, impactful and disruptive. This is a difficult needle to thread and is where the creative energies and idea of democracy activists need to be focused.

This analysis and plan will probably strike many as the kind of ideas that are better suited to a country seeking to overthrow an authoritarian regime, rather than one that has a long history of peaceful and electoral based transitions of power. However, that long history is no longer predictive of what will happen next January-and the sooner we do something about that, the more likely that American democracy will survive.

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