Amid all the bluster of Donald Trump’s persistent, pathetic and frankly anticlimactic simulacrum of a power grab, it is easy to forget just how much is at stake.
For weeks, we’ve seen the president and his attorneys wheel out their sock puppets to show-and-tell the nation their conspiracy theories of election fraud — with all the rhetorical and legal prowess of a fourth-grade holiday pageant. Even though they have been tossed out of court after court, the freakish tragicomedy of it all is causing real, lasting damage.
What’s more, unlike the damage Trump has wrought on some of America’s more resilient institutions (the courts, the Justice Department, the intelligence community), this farce strikes at the heart of an already weakened facet of public life: faith in democracy.
At a time when so many Americans feel either disillusioned or entirely removed from the process by which their leaders are chosen, the president’s campaign has further undermined the most sacred aspect of secular life.
Every few years, in democracies around the world, citizens of every walk of life journey to community centres, places of worship and schools to participate in a ritual that binds us all. In doing so, they pay testament to their belief in the promise of modern democracy. They believe that their votes, cast in those musty halls and church basements, will be counted fairly, without fear or favour — and that our leaders will accept the result.
That promise is an article of faith. The very bedrock of our democracy.
Yes, many Americans have changed the channel on Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s noxious lies. But as they spin malignant fables about Dominion Voting Systems and a conspiracy among Georgia Republicans, remember: voters are watching. America is watching. Perhaps worst of all, the world is watching
First, voters. Prior to the 2020 election, which saw nearly unprecedented voting figures, the U.S. had fallen behind most developed democracies in voter turnout. This trend has been driven by a number of factors, not least of which being the determined efforts of state legislatures to disenfranchise and disillusion certain voting populations — especially in urban districts and among Black Americans.
This reality is troubling in itself, but it also points to an incredibly fragile democracy which is further imperiled by Trump’s efforts to convince Democrats and Republicans alike that the election game — like so many others in his alternate reality of America — is rigged against them.
Second, the nation as a whole. As the U.S. enters a year that could present even greater challenges and cause for division than 2020, it needs resolute leadership and a federal government that can genuinely work to unite Americans. That will be no easy task for Joe Biden’s administration, but it will be made even harder by the implications of Trump’s fraudulent claims of a “stolen” election.
Recent polling shows that upwards of 70 per cent of those people who voted for Donald Trump genuinely believe that Biden’s win is illegitimate; that the election was, indeed, stolen from Trump. If that’s the case, Biden’s aims of unity and reconciliation are dead even before he raises his hand and takes his oath of office. Those voters will simply never accept him as their president. It will be Obama redux, with the result being even less appetite for bipartisanship and even less getting done in Washington.
Finally, the rest of the world.
It will take years to mend the damage Trump has done to international relationships, global co-operation and general comity among allies.
Since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, U.S. diplomatic strength has relied on a sense of exceptionalism rooted in the morality and stability of American democracy. Now that the president’s actions are more befitting a Kim than a Kennedy, it will be that much harder for the State department to scold Russia, Iran or the many despots whose actions it routinely condemns in the UN. “Look,” they will say, “you’re just like us.”
In the end, we can take comfort in the fact that Trump’s efforts will fail. But we cannot lose sight of the very real damage he will have inflicted — and the work it will take to clean up his mess.