At nearly 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the morning after Election Day 2016, the Associated Press declared Donald Trump the winner of the presidential election. Around the same time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Trump to concede, a call she made at the urging of then-President Barack Obama. That Thursday, less than 48 hours after the election results, Obama met with his successor to help him prepare for the transition to the presidency.
Four years later, nothing like that has happened. More than a week has passed since major news outlets declared Joe Biden the winner, but Trump has refused to concede. Instead, his legal team is pushing efforts to invalidate the results, and his administration won’t work with Biden officials on the transition of power. Top Republicans in Congress and around the country aren’t openly acknowledging Biden’s victory either.
That some Republicans won’t go along with the traditional niceties following a presidential election (like congratulating the victor from the opposing party) isn’t that important. But the sitting president’s refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat is worrisome, as it raises the prospect that he will not uphold a core tenet of democracy: Elections determine who is in power, and those who lose surrender power peacefully. The behavior of top Republican Party officials — subtly acknowledging that Trump must leave office on Jan. 20 but not openly rebuking his conduct — in some ways also violates that core value. And the combination of Trump’s and his party’s behavior raises a serious question: Is America’s democracy in trouble?
Maybe. People who study democratic norms and values both in the United States and abroad say that the behavior of Trump and the Republican Party over the past week deeply concerns them. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan says it’s important not to think of democracy in binary terms — that either a nation is or is not a democracy. Instead, Nyhan argues, democracy falls more on a spectrum, and based on how Trump broke with democratic values as president and how he is handling the end of his presidency, America does remain a democracy, but it is somewhat less democratic than it was pre-Trump.
This tweet from The New York Times’s Max Fisher, who has written extensively about the erosion of democracies abroad, is particularly apt:
“Whatever happens now, we may spend the rest of our lives dealing with the party-wide normalization of:
- Refusal to concede losses
- Refusal to transfer power
- Efforts to overturn election results
- Delegitimation of outparty governance
Very hard to unring this bell.”
Not respecting the election results is problematic on its own. But considering the crisis the nation is facing now — a new surge in coronavirus cases — Trump’s actions are particularly dangerous. Now more than ever, an effective transition of power is of the utmost importance.
Not only is Trump blocking his advisers from helping the incoming Biden administration get ready to deal with the pandemic, but the defeated president has largely disengaged from the COVID-19 crisis himself. In terms of managing the virus, America will be functionally without a president for two months.
We can’t totally rule out the most alarming possibility either — that Trump is going to try to stay in office past Jan. 20. After all, he has mobilized some key parts of the federal government and the Republican Party behind his efforts to question and undermine the election results.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a State Department press conference last week that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Attorney General William Barr announced that U.S. attorneys could start investigating potential voter fraud (even though there is no evidence of such fraud) before the election results are certified — rather than after certification, which is the Justice Department’s normal policy. That move resulted in the department’s leading official on election crimes resigning from his post in protest. And, most alarmingly, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while the rest of the department’s senior leaders either resigned or were replaced with people considered more loyal to the president. A leader of a nation losing an election and then consolidating control of the military is far from ideal. As Nyhan notes regularly on his Twitter feed when discussing Trump’s moves, “What would you say if you saw it in another country?”
But whatever Trump’s intentions, it seems far-fetched for him to stay in power. Courts are rejecting his legal team’s claims, and even Republican officials in key swing states are unwilling to support outlandish proposals to hand Trump electoral votes in states that he lost. Republican senators are saying that Biden should start receiving classified intelligence briefings, a de facto acknowledgement that the former vice president needs to be prepared to take over on Jan 20.
So, it seems that America’s democracy has survived mostly intact for now. An election was held, the opposition party defeated the ruling party, and the opposition party will take control of the government. That said, the last week has been far from reassuring. If the election had come down to just one state, would Trump be even more recalcitrant? If it were a closer election, would the broader GOP more openly support Trump’s efforts to stay in power? Would the Supreme Court, which includes six justices appointed by Republican presidents and some justices who seem strongly aligned with the party’s goals, have interjected in a way that boosted Trump?
It’s hard to know the answers to these questions. Democratic values are almost certain to be upheld this time — that is, the election determined who will be in charge, and the transfer of power will ultimately be peaceful. But it’s not totally clear that these values will be upheld the next time a Trump-like figure emerges. American democracy is likely to survive Trump, but his tenure has raised important questions about the state of America’s democracy and whether it will endure in perpetuity.