The specter of foreign interference has hung over President Trump’s entire term in office. Investigations into his 2016 campaign’s contacts with the Kremlin led to a string of criminal indictments. Trump insists such accusations are part of a broader “hoax” to delegitimize his rule, and still refuses to acknowledge the impact of foreign influence operations back then. But away from the White House, U.S. officials reportedly fear outside attempts to sow discord even beyond Election Day, especially if there’s no declared winner on election night.
“By creating the impression that the election lacks integrity, such a move would cast doubt on the result and undermine the legitimacy of the victor in voters’ eyes,” wrote Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. “And if Americans take to the streets of their own accord in the days after the election, foreign actors could seek to exploit post-election outrage by provoking violence.”
But it’s Americans who are creating the conditions to be exploited by opportunistic actors abroad. Even more so than in 2016, the United States is a hotbed of polarization and conspiracy theories. According to recent studies, Trump himself is a leading driver of misinformation on both the coronavirus and integrity of mail-in voting.
“Through his rhetorical attacks and norm-busting actions, Trump has eroded public faith in the Justice Department, the State Department and the intelligence community; demeaned the military leadership; threatened the freedom of the press; and challenged the courts,” wrote my colleagues Philip Rucker and Shane Harris. “Most recently, he has challenged elements of America’s democracy itself by questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming election and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.”
“Trump, who tends to stand with autocratic strongmen against the values that the United States and its allies have defended for more than a century, sees skepticism about the integrity of U.S. voting and a vicious culture war as his only hope for a second term,” noted Robert Delaney, North America bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language daily.
This all poses a crisis that has little to do with overseas meddling. “I think that for Americans … the story of Russian interference was a really damaging crutch for the imagination,” said Russian American journalist Masha Gessen in a recent interview. “It was something that allowed us to think about Trump as somebody from outer space … an alien body from which we’re somehow miraculously going to be liberated.”
Trump’s critics bash his presidency for its perceived toxic effects on the American body politic. On Tuesday, 20 former U.S. attorneys — all Republicans — issued an open letter calling Trump “a threat to the rule of law in our country” and decrying his naked politicization of the Justice Department and the workings of the judiciary.
But other analysts argue that what’s happened is the symptom of a deeper rot. In rushing to install conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Trump was doing the bidding of a right-wing movement desperate to ensure its ideological majority for a generation to come.
The Republican Party did so even while tens of millions of Americans had already cast ballots for a new president and new Senate. The Trump presidency has heightened focus on the degree to which Republican power in U.S. politics is now a matter of “minority rule.” The senators who voted to confirm Barrett represented some 14 million fewer Americans than those who voted against her. Most analyses of current polls show that Trump’s only path to return to the White House runs through the arcane electoral college — and possible interventions by a Supreme Court now ideologically stacked in his favor.
“The Republican Party has become a new kind of Confederacy. They are secessionists without taking the revolutionary step of seceding, power-obsessed rebels who fight to preserve a bygone America by gaming the system,” wrote David W. Blight, one of the preeminent American historians of the Civil War. “They have managed to win the presidency twice without the most votes, maintain control of the Senate although vastly outnumbered in the national electorate, and build a majority on the Supreme Court by stealing an appointment that belonged to a sitting Democratic president.”
Demographic realities could mean that Trump and his allies embody the last spasm of a certain brand of hard-right politics in the country. But they so far have shown little interest in changing course and remain committed to tactics that suppress turnout in elections. “Excessively counter-majoritarian institutions blunt Republicans’ incentive to adapt to a changing American electorate,” wrote Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University. “As long as the Republicans can hold onto power without broadening beyond their shrinking base, they will remain prone to the kind of extremism and demagogy that currently threatens our democracy.”
As the American system has evolved over time to better empower and represent more of the country, the academics argue for a new era of major political reforms, including the elimination of the electoral college, that ensures both parties feel the political incentive to actually win the most votes. Otherwise, the United States is veering toward a deeper crisis.
“A political system that repeatedly allows a minority party to control the most powerful offices in the country cannot remain legitimate for long,” Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote.