This is, of course, not the first time that Trump has called into question the integrity of U.S. elections. In 2016, he famously stated that the election was “absolutely rigged” and refused to say whether he would accept the result if he were to lose. Even though he won, he later set up a commission to study imaginary claims of “illegal” voting in that election; it found nothing, then quietly disbanded. What is different this time, however, is that Trump is no longer alone in making these claims. A number of high-profile Republicans have echoed his sentiments, including Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who is running for Senate; Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.); and Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, expressing concerns that opponents are trying to steal key races. There is no evidence to substantiate any of these allegations.
Framing legally mandated vote counts or recounts as part of a Democratic effort to steal races is strategic. Since the 2000 presidential election, such counts have tended to favor Democratic candidates. But votes tallied later in the game are more likely to be for Democrats precisely because the individuals who cast provisional ballots are disproportionately Democrats — it’s not a sign that Democrats are using recounts as a chance to stuff ballots boxes in their favor. Provisional ballots hurt Republicans, as do looser voter ID laws that make voting easier. Trump’s narrative that “Republicans don’t win … because of potentially illegal votes” is part of a larger strategy to disenfranchise his opponents by portraying them as cheaters. If one side is cheating, then any victories it claims are illegitimate.
Absent legitimacy, though, the democratic system is broken. And that’s where Trump’s casual accusations of fraud cross the line from routine, if cynical, politics into something potentially more dangerous.
Observers have already warned that Trump’s efforts to arouse suspicions about U.S. elections undermine the very democratic institutions he says he’s trying to defend. By raising doubts about the freeness and fairness of the electoral process — the backbone of any democracy — Trump and others incite distrust among ordinary Americans. This is already happening: A new report by the nonpartisan Democracy Project finds that a majority of Americans view democracy as weak and getting weaker, with about half expressing concerns that the country is in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic country.” Democratic institutions survive only so long as ordinary citizens believe in them, so fears that our democracy is becoming nondemocratic could become self-fulfilling prophecies. The chance of the American democracy breaking down is low — but most experts believe it has gotten higher in recent years. If Trump continues to insist that the only legitimate elections are the ones his side wins, what might 2020 bring?
Research on contemporary democratic erosion suggests that there is a clear pattern in the mode through which today’s democracies fall apart. Rather than an outsider taking control through violence and force, democratic collapse increasingly occurs at the hands of democratically elected leaders who slowly chip away at their country’s institutions to consolidate control. Examples include Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The tactics such leaders use to undermine the pillars of democracy are similar: They place loyalists and cronies in key posts, marginalize and discredit the media by censoring it or legislating against it, and silence civil society and political opposition. The rhetoric they use to justify this agenda shares a common theme: The country needs to be saved and strong leadership is required to save it, traditional political institutions are failing and in a state of decay, and experts and the established elite cannot be trusted. Such leaders typically position themselves as political outsiders, anchor their campaigns in their personality rather than the platform of their political party, and seek to confuse ordinary citizens by discrediting those in the media and challenging the legitimacy of those who oppose them.
Trump’s actions clearly check many of these boxes. Yet in the end, democracies do not fall apart because a single leader destroys them, but rather because the individuals and bodies with the power to check the leadership fail to use that power to preserve the system.
Research suggests that two key actors play a critical role in preserving democracy in the face of incumbent power grabs.
The first is the judiciary. Will judges act based on the law, rather than as partisans? Rules and guidelines cannot enforce themselves; norms of behavior matter. For this reason, Broward County Judge Jack Tuter’s intervention in Florida urging those with evidence of fraud to report to it local law enforcement and calling on both sides to cool down the tone of their allegations is so noteworthy. Rather than remaining silent, the judiciary signaled its commitment to the democratic process and the laws that support it.
But when leaders stack the judiciary with loyalists and supporters, its ability to remain an independent body that can check the executive weakens. Preventing this requires resistance on the part of those with a say in judicial confirmations. This leads to the second key actor: the leadership’s own political party. It is tempting for observers to look to the party that opposes leadership to push back against efforts to consolidate power. And indeed, members of opposition parties usually do try to resist. Their efforts are frequently futile, however. It is impossible to “check” the power of an executive without a majority in the legislature.
That means preventing democratic breakdown requires that members of the leader’s party vocally oppose any efforts to undermine democracy. Again, research shows that institutions are only powerful to the extent that those who live under them act to uphold them. So when leaders appoint overly partisan judges, staff the executive branch and bureaucracy with underqualified loyalists, and issue statements that question the legitimacy of democracy, the responsibility lies with the leader’s party to take a stand against such behaviors.
Surely it is not in the party’s self-interest to do so, but nor was it in the self-interest of George Washington to refuse to stand for a third term. Rather, the robustness of democracy requires it.