Last Wednesday, while talking to reporters in North Carolina, President Trump encouraged his supporters to vote twice to “test” the electoral system: first by submitting a mail-in ballot, then by heading to the polls on election day. This follows weeks of the president advancing the idea that the upcoming election will be rigged against him, with unsubstantiated claims of inevitable voter fraud. It comes three years after the president claimed that millions voted illegally in an election that he won. Again, this is a claim without any evidence, despite a task force — headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach — being set up to investigate it. To be quite clear, after saying he wouldn’t accept the results of a rigged election, the president is now encouraging his supporters to rig that very election.
Trump’s supporters aren’t stupid. They understand the illogical nature of his demagoguery (most notably: the election will only be rigged if he loses) and they don’t actually believe his lies.
Instead, I venture to argue something more cynical: they just don’t care. If the past four years have shown anything, it is that this president — and most of his supporters — are anti-truth and anti-democratic. They have proven that they will violate any norm to accomplish their agenda, and they probably won’t stop even if it comes to violating democracy itself. That’s because in the face of a growingly diverse population, white conservatives are losing the war of ideas, and democracy itself will soon become antithetical to achieving their goals.
Nightmares like Texas turning blue — effectively blocking any Republican president with the GOP’s current ideology from winning office — haunt them. For these reactionaries, the president represents the final wall of white supremacy against demographic changes, the overdue advancement of people of color, and a fairer reorganization of American society. Ask yourself: with the pandemic still raging, the economy in shambles, and racial violence rampant, what reason do they have to support him? His policy failures have stripped away any plausible deniability about what this president actually represents to them.
In the context of this unprecedented mail-in pandemic election, some researchers and journalists have recently started speculating about the potential for political violence after the election, and their predictions are bleak. Political violence is almost certain to occur this November, regardless of who wins. What’s scariest is how ready and willing the president is to defend it, as he did with Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter of his who stands accused of murdering two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Come November, Trump’s attitudes toward violence have the potential to tear our entire democratic system apart. Without question, difficult times lie ahead.
After two years of studying democracy and public institutions here at Wesleyan, the most important concept I’ve learned is that there is no magic glue that holds any system of government together. Power boils down to winning over public trust and support. Many may believe that our public institutions in the United States are resilient enough to withstand the coming chaos, but Trump has been pushing the limits of our liberal democracy far beyond established frontiers. If the Republican National Convention last month was any indicator, it is that every inch of our supposedly apolitical bureaucracy has been politicized. Even the military had to publicly clarify that it would not intervene on any side in the event of a disputed election, something completely unprecedented.
Between now and November, the Democratic Party must focus on cultivating “people power.” The public must be prepared to mobilize in the form of non-violent protests if Trump loses but does not step down. This is obviously difficult in the face of rapidly organizing right-wing militias, but we must embody the principles of liberal democracy with non-violent action if we are to save it. History has shown that at these critical junctures, as in interwar Germany and Italy, mutual violence only hastens the collapse of democracy. The Biden campaign is already preparing lawsuits if Trump fights the results, but public demonstrations of our collective democratic will are a necessary backup to litigation. To make clear who has won the election, the public must show up and it must do so in masses, as we see in protests against authoritarian rule in foreign countries. The lack of support for Trump cannot be denied when the country marches against him. “The battle for the soul of the country” will likely be won on the streets, not in the courtrooms.
Finally, if a transfer of power is accorded in the event of Trump’s defeat (and that’s a big if), Biden and the Democrats will have serious work ahead of them in combating the deep illiberalism found in our society today. Though much of this work, such as depoliticizing the bureaucracy, will not be to their advantage, the Democrats seem to understand the necessity of restoring impartiality for the longevity of the nation. But should they prove unable to make progress in bringing Trump’s supporters to accept living in a country where they aren’t politically, socially, and economically supreme, the political violence which appears so inevitable in November may well become a regular part of American life for the foreseeable future.
Huzaifa Khan is a member of the Class of 2022 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.