“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
That Joni Mitchell refrain ricocheted around my head in the wake of Monday’s Electoral College vote confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
In what passes for the new normal, swing-state electors had to pass through lines of state troopers protecting them from irate Trump fans. Many state election officials and ordinary election workers have been threatened and required police protection.
Meantime, on Tuesday, President Donald Trump was still tweeting about his “landslide victory,” in the wake of violent weekend demonstrations by armed pro-Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., whom he egged on against a “rigged election.” No one believes Trump will acknowledge his defeat or stop feeding lies to his base about massive fraud.
Yet the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is the bedrock of American democracy. It is as central to our system as breathing to humans, a basic norm we mostly took for granted before 2020.
That is something we can no longer afford to do.
“Trump’s effort to overturn this election was farcical, but he has made the unthinkable thinkable,” says Steven Levitsky, coauthor of How Democracies Die, on the president’s destruction of democratic norms. “It was taken for granted [in the past] that you don’t play hardball with election results.”
In 1800, John Adams set the precedent for peaceful transfer of power between opposing party candidates. And no modern president has refused to concede defeat since formal concessions became an election custom in 1896.
Indeed, America’s self-assumed role as the world’s premier democracy rests on the basis of free and fair elections. At a time when many countries with onetime democratic systems are backsliding, and autocracies such as China are touting their model as an alternative, the peaceful transfer of power is the gold standard of solid democracies.
“That means everyone plays by the rules and the idea of overturning an election is unthinkable,” says Levitsky. However, our current president doesn’t play by any rules.
“Trump is trying to make America like one more failed democracy, just exactly as others have done,” says Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.
The methods of diminishing elections vary. In Russia, serious opposition parties and candidates are banned and votes rigged when necessary. In once-democratic Hungary, the press is now controlled and activities of opposition groups curbed. In Belarus, demonstrators still struggle to reverse a flat-out fraudulent election.
But in the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy, Trump is doing something different. He is undermining trust among his tens of millions followers in the very concept of a fair election. Instead of believing in democratic institutions, they have transferred their faith to him.
Because Trump is willing to lie about everything, he can convince his followers of anything. No matter how many court cases he loses for lack of evidence or unconstitutional claims — they now number around 50, plus two Supreme Court rejections — he insists he’s been cheated.
No matter how many state recounts confirm he lost, he will urge his base to take their anger to the streets. As Trump famously told them in August, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
Snyder compares the president’s aims with those of other autocrats who have circumscribed elections. “You ritualize elections, but you manage them, fake them. Democracy dies, but you keep the corpse out there. You have elections but you know in advance who won.”
Fortunately, Trump failed, this time. “He wanted to fake it, but didn’t have the power,” says Snyder, referring to the still potent strengths of the U.S. court system and civil society. “However, he showed up the weakness of the system. The fact that a coup attempt doesn’t work doesn’t mean it will never work. We have to put in guarantees.”
Of course, the big obstacle to instituting such guarantees is that the GOP has turned into a personalized party controlled and intimidated by Trump, with a base that is fiercely loyal.
A majority of GOP House members signed on to the Texas case that the Supreme Court rejected (which outrageously contradicted the Constitution), and many GOP state officials still parrot his election lies. So do Fox News talk-show hosts, and the minor networks like OAN and Newsmax that are Trump propaganda shills.
So, much will depend on whether a larger group of top GOP legislators have the courage to emulate the few Republicans courageous enough to condemn Trump’s assault on democracy — and to work across the aisle on critical issues. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t deign to congratulate Biden until Tuesday.)
As Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan put it: “We have to get more Republican profiles in courage who will tell the president the truth.” Or, more important, who will convince at least some of Trump’s followers that the 2020 election was legitimate.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, those followers won’t realize what they once had, until it’s gone.