During the third presidential debate in 2016, candidate Donald Trump made headlines for refusing to answer Fox News journalist Chris Wallace, who was moderating, on whether he would accept the result of the upcoming election. “I will look at it at the time. I will keep you in suspense,” he said, claiming the race was already fixed against him. “That’s not how democracy works,” replied his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who went on to win the popular vote but lose the election.
Four years later, here we are again. President Trump, once more, baselessly claims the entire electoral system is “rigged” to favor his adversary, now Joe Biden, and won’t commit to abiding by the outcome. It’s still not how democracy works. But now we know better. Trump has little interest in or respect for the democratic process.
Since he appeared on the political scene, Trump has been open about his disdain for democracy. His 2017 characterization of the Constitutional checks and balances on executive power as “archaic…really a bad thing for the country,” was a clue that came early in his presidency. His role models appear to be authoritarian leaders he has praised like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who claim that they maintain open societies but in fact use democratic institutions like elections to maintain themselves in power.
The manipulation of information has always been key to the success of authoritarians. Such leaders don’t merely disseminate propaganda at a dizzying rate, but expertly withhold information that counters their principal aim: to maintain themselves in power. The more than 20,000 lies and misleading claims, as counted by the Washington Post, spewed by Trump since he took office get plenty of attention, but what he has refused to disclose is also notable.
From the eternal mystery of his tax returns (which we still don’t have) to records of which businesses are receiving pandemic stimulus loans (which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “proprietary information” before the Small Business Administration released the data in July), to what Trump says when he meets with Russian president Vladimir Putin, his administration stands out for all that it tries to avoid telling the public. The results of the 2020 election may fall into this category.
Trump’s disregard for transparency and accountability, both bedrock principles of democracy, accounts in part for this situation. Like all authoritarians, the President does not believe he serves the people; rather, the people serve him, stroking his ego and allegedly enriching his private businesses. The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, has accused the Trump campaign of breaking campaign finance laws by “laundering” tens of millions of dollars in donations through several companies. (A spokesman for the Trump campaign says it complies with all campaign finance laws and FEC regulations.)
Trump only cares about serving those Americans who support him, although even his most devoted followers must be kept as dependent as possible on him and distrustful of everyone and everything else. To that end, peddling confusion and signal-boosting conspiracy theories, as he routinely does, is useful. Having supporters risk their lives for him by attending his rallies, unmasked, during a pandemic is a boost.
The unprecedented barrage of misinformation about the American election system he’s unleashed as President has its place here. He, without proof, tars mail-in voting — newly popular due to the pandemic — as susceptible to fraud and tampering. It’s just one talking point of a broader psychological warfare campaign designed to reduce confidence in all institutions that support inquiry, fact-based argumentation and hard data.
The press, members of intelligence and national security agencies and scientists studying climate change and Covid-19 all have been subjected to smear campaigns and accusations of bias or fraud. Now this line of attack appears to be focused on electoral outcomes, surely leaving many American voters unsure if their votes will even be counted.
This is because some of the scenarios that election experts hypothesize involve Trump “running down the clock,” or exploiting the extra time needed to count mail-in ballots. Together with slowdowns or confiscations due to charges of fraud and misconduct, this could delay any firm outcome before the deadline of December 14, which corresponds to the end of the 41-day window mandated by the Electoral Count Act.
States could then appoint electors — in the current GOP, Republican-led states would likely appoint Trump loyalists — whose votes would replace those cast at ballot boxes.
That presumably would be just fine with the President, who recently floated his own authoritarian solution to the upcoming election: “get rid of ballots and you’ll have a very…there won’t be a transfer [of power to Biden], frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded to Trump’s refusal to say if he would accept the election outcomes by both assuring the public that there would be a peaceful transfer of power.
But Trump has shown himself to be anything but peaceful. Strongmen succeed when they are able to convince people that the truth is unknowable — especially election results that might force them out of office — and that governance is best left in the hands of those who speak and act for them. We can’t let that happen in America.