But the fear of returning to the cruelties of the Trump years will spur America to show a reborn and uncompromising vigilance against racist or dehumanising rhetoric in politics.
US President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and will depart office on January 20, 2021.
While it won’t save his presidency, Trump can damage confidence in American elections among Republican voters as part of rebuilding a ‘’lost cause’’ myth around his time in the White House. He’ll be defeated, but remain defiant. He’ll be a folk hero to some and an enemy of the people to others. And in the stories his fans tell about him, he’ll always be the winner because he can never lose.
Does Trump have a real chance of staying on for another four years? No. Does the forthcoming Joe Biden administration know precisely what to do about Trump gnawing on the skin of civil society until he tastes blood? Also no. That process will take far longer than the 70 days Trump has left in the White house.
‘’I don't think he wants to stay in office. He wants concessions for a peaceful transfer of power,’’ Vasabijt Banerjee, an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University, told TRT World.
‘’It helps Trump build a post-presidency political career. This includes access to political influence and consequently money,’’ said Banerjee, who focuses on the social dynamics of insurgencies.
‘’Trump may cede power, but also extract concessions for doing so, including immunity from prosecution. He can incite his followers and/or abuse his power as president until the actual transfer on January 20.’’
And Trump continuing to refuse to concede the election is out of step with the public. A Reuters poll on Tuesday found that 72 percent of respondents thought Biden won the election, and only 3 percent thought Trump had. And while polls were off running up to November 3, the margins here show Trump at an unmistakable disadvantage in convincing people he won a second term.
Although international election observers said they saw no evidence of fraud, the task of actually proving fraud is difficult in both the state and federal court system. Disputed ballots contested by the Trump administration fall far short of making any difference to the outcome. Even if Trump won every ballot challenge, Biden would still be president-elect.
Although Trump received 71.9 million votes compared to Biden’s 76.9 million, that doesn’t mean Trump has 71.9 million people waiting to seize power on his behalf. Even his closest political allies are privately admitting that Trump’s legal challenges are a charade to appease Trump’s disappointment over defeat.
‘’I’ve spent some time with Republican officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and what they say is that no one out there should worry our democracy is in actual jeopardy,’’ CNN’s host Jake Tapper said Tuesday night of his conversations in Washington.
‘’They say this is all part of walking President Trump through this process emotionally and that they assume while he may never concede, he will leave. There will be, they say, a peaceful transition of power to a Biden-Harris administration on January 20. But they say this on background because they don’t want to upset President Trump and they don’t want to get death threats from his supporters. You may or may not find that reassuring.’’
The lost cause syndrome
Although the election day itself has escaped deadly violence, Trump’s tactic could still get people killed or injured long after he leaves. It could put ethnic and religious minorities in the US in the sights of leaderless, far-right militia groups who consider those minorities to be beneficiaries of the Biden presidency, and hence legitimate targets for unpredictable retaliatory violence.
Biden has said Americans should now focus on working together against the common threat from coronavirus and trying to ‘’lower the temperature’’ of political rhetoric. But a sense of undignified and undeserved dispossession has brought out the worst of people in people in large groups before.
‘’It's the same as the post Civil War confederate ‘lost cause,’ or the post WWI Germany’s 'stab in the back'. It's the essential kernel of fascist ideology,’’ said Alex Yablon, a journalist who covers political violence in the US.
The Confederate ‘’lost cause’’ myth said that southern slavery was a noble, misunderstood institution. The Union wanted to destroy it not because it was evil, but because they wanted to pillage the South and impose their coarse culture by force. In 50 years, Americans could still be arguing about whether Trump was a monster, a messiah or simply the ‘’lesser of two evils.’’
How bad things get ‘’depends more on Trump himself and the fringier elements of the mediasphere,’’ and the willingness of politicians to play along with Trump’s resentment of the election outcome could ‘’turn that slow burn of lost causerism into a roaring fire.’’
After years of him insulting top military brass, there’s little those officers will keep listening to Trump after Biden’s inauguration, even if Trump delusionally demands they do.
‘’Joe Biden is going to be president. That's not really a question. The military is an avowedly nonpartisan institution that wants nothing to do with keeping Trump in power. It is markedly less far-right than the police,’’ Yablon added.
But even though there’s no military junta on the horizon coming to save Trump, that doesn’t mean his delay in recognising defeat won’t cost innocent lives.
Already, the White House’s unwillingness to start the paperwork on the transition has delayed plans for rolling out a coronavirus vaccine under the next administration. The bravery of masked vote counters working around the clock, risking their lives indoors and in close quarters, in Georgia and Pennsylvania stands in contrast to the petty complaining brought on by the loser of the presidential election.
That average people have more quiet courage than their elected leaders have loud bombast is good news for the future of American democracy. Some of them have faced death threats from Trump supporters, too, but unlike members of congress they don’t get to hide behind deceptive press releases praising Trump for hopelessly clinging to the Oval Office desk.
By one measure, the furor over the election is as predictable as it is irrelevant, said Steven Spohn, a disability rights advocate who lives and votes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Confined to a wheelchair since birth due to a bone illness, Spohn says that the US government needs to start saving the lives of people like him, who are at serious risk of falling victim to pandemic that has already killed more than 239,000 Americans, sickening more than 100,000 a day since the start of November. On Tuesday, 130,000 people in the US tested positive, the highest daily figure for any country in the world so far.
‘’I'm not worried about political violence. No one is going to come after me with a baseball bat because I'm disabled. I think between now and January 20 there will be a lot of people yelling back and forth about the legitimacy of the presidency. And I think some people are so ingrained that there's no possibility they could ever lose that they legitimately believe they did not lose, when they did,’’ he told TRT World.
And when the pandemic will be even worse, during the height of winter and during the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season, the US pandemic response will probably not have the benefit of an incoming and outgoing president willing to work together, at least not in public.
Rather than the paper tiger of election fraud, Spohn is more ‘’interested in the plans allowing people on Social Security Insurance to keep their Medicaid while they work; pay taxes without fearing losing insurance; get married like anyone else, and a host of other disability-related problems that people don't even think about.’’
Pennsylvanians like Spohn are caught in the middle of Trump’s show of smoke and mirrors, and no one in the White House is asking them their opinion of whether it’s worth the sound and fury.
But the show goes on all the same. The US Justice Department at the direction of Attorney General Bill Bar on Monday took the deeply unusual step of saying it would be investigating voter fraud, typically the duty of the states.
Trump’s top Republican surrogate in the senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also said Monday that Trump had every right to call for an examination of alleged fraud.
It will be impossible for Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Its legal challenges have been thrown out for both baselessness and simple clerical sloppiness. Even the lawyers behind this effort staged a mutiny in the pages of The New York Times, saying the election-undermining effort would damage their firms’ brands. The Justice Department official responsible for investigating voter fraud quit in protest on Monday night.
Until December 14, when each states’ electors meet to confirm the electoral college vote, Republicans maintaining the illusion that Trump can overturn Biden’s win will let the party raise much-needed money for two key senate runoff races in Georgia. Those races that could determine control of the upper chamber of the federal legislature.
Republicans need Trump’s help in raising money and turning out the vote for those races. If McConnell gives up too soon on Trump’s bid to invalidate thousands of ballots, then Trump may lose interest in helping McConnell.
Trump, for his part, says he is raising money for legal challenges. But the fine print of those donation receipts says that cash can also go to paying down the campaign’s debts. And Trump is happy to sow doubt about the election result if it saves him money.
Republicans have consoled themselves with the fact that they will likely keep their majority senate and gain seats in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have the majority. Trump being out of office may offer them an advantage.
‘’Trump's Second Term becomes more valuable as a rhetorical lost cause to champion, instead of a present reality,’’ military technology writer Kelsey D. Atherton told TRT World.
He added that there won’t be much of a showdown on January 20 that could delay or foil the inauguration. This year’s ceremonies will almost certainly happen with some kind of social distancing rules in place.
‘’I think there's a pretty robust infrastructure to protect the executive, and I don't really see the right coming to DC to make a stand,’’ Atherton added.
Trump can legally run for office again in 2024, although he’ll be 78. Republican leaders will want to mold that resentment at Democrats to motivate voters in down ballot races for years to come, promising that Trump or Trumpism will rise again, getting vengeance for a stolen election.
Raising the spectre of ‘’illegal voting,’’ a concept which has a lineage in the US going back to the end of the first Civil War. Trump ran on a platform promising to bring an anti-multicultural, Confederate mentality into the White House. And his last acts in office will be a celebration of that legacy.
Keeping black people from voting was a top priority for southern slave states after the war. To stop ‘’illegal voting’’ by black people, they made it illegal for black people to vote. When that didn’t work, lynch mobs would brutally kill black people who dared try to vote.
It’s with that same spirit Trump and his allies are undermining the results of the 2020 election. Tens of thousands black citizens in urban districts of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia defeated Trump with their ballots. Trump’s legal team is engaged in a desperate bid to invalidate them, much as
Questioning the legality of those votes is a tactic that has a lineage that dates back to the years following the Civil War, when black men in the South briefly had the right to vote, protected by the 15th Amendment. That right was only guaranteed by the presence of federal troops in the defeated Confederacy.
But for about a decade after the war, many southern states had Black lawmakers and governors. Once federal forces left the south in 1877, a brief Black political flowering was crushed under the bootheel of the planter aristocracy. What followed was the imposition of local ‘’Jim Crow’’ policies that combined racial segregation with outlawing black people from voting. It’s a practice that continues today.
‘’In the past decade 25 states (overwhelmingly Republican-controlled) have made it more difficult to vote, especially in ways that particularly affect poor and minority voters (which are more likely to favour Democrats),’’ Brad Epperly, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, found.
Since the US Supreme Court ended federal oversight of local voting laws in 2013, Epperly said the voter suppression tactics had become more common.
‘We see today that, with the relaxation of external constraints, a return to using legal means to suppress certain groups’ electoral participation. That these means are neither as systematic nor successful as the disenfranchisement strategies used a century ago does not mean they are not driven by similar factors, or fundamental attacks on democratic participation.’’
And Trump, as a president who’s openly praised the pro-slavery Confederates’ battle flag, is happy to dust it off and use it again.
Before we continue, let’s examine why elections are a better alternative than having civil wars. Elections represent a counting of how many people in a community favour one idea or one leader over another. Knowing that number accurately should inform the losing side that if they started a war to seize power to overturn the election results, they would lose.
This system is supposed to avert violence, but only if people trust that the count is fair. As the American poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1884, that a US election is a ‘’a swordless conflict...the peaceful choice of all.’’ Whitman, a nurse to Union soldiers in Washington during the US Civil War, knew the horror of a transfer of power gone wrong. In that case, in 1860, slaveholders decided to preserve slavery with bullets when they didn’t think ballots would work.
But the president isn’t a poet. He’s a boxing promoter who likes to watch other people fight for fun. He compulsively starts fights. And the amount of inflammatory commentary he has left behind as president will continue to start fights for decades and decades hence.
Banerjee at Mississippi State University said that this could result in a period of ‘’no war/no peace,’’ of bombings or shootings.
‘’I am betting on sporadic incidents of violence in some states, especially by pro-Trump groups, but no major conflict’’ he told TRT World.
In a recent article, Banerjee argued that the availability of guns, the far-right sympathies of local law enforcement and America’s rugged rural terrain mean the ‘’preconditions for insurgencies are already present.’’ But those preconditions do not mean these groups have an advantage in the long term or possess the organizational capacity to overthrow the government.
Insurgent group ‘’fragmentation may prevent a civil war that seeks to topple the federal government, loosely tied groups of small organizations may be sufficiently powerful to prevent state and federal authorities from controlling rural areas. A phenomenon that has occurred in parts of India, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.’’
In the long term, Banerjee notes, the fact that most people in the US live in cities or in suburbs means that rural insurgents are unlikely to win the sympathies of the majority of Americans, or even crucial swing states.
Incidents of partisan violence so far in 2020 have shown that armed rural militias are hesitant to venture often into the center of urban areas, where they fear attack by rivals and are unfamiliar with the territory.
But what about the armed men who will remain loyal to Trump indefinitely after work with the authority of the state? Police considering Trump to be the president long after he’s left the White House may pose dangers to the public, especially if those police choose to use their power for partisan purposes or for racist violence.
‘’We might start seeing the police port over the military's requirements on recruits,’’Atherton added.
‘’White supremacists still join the military, but there's a process for kicking them out. The military, specifically, can ditch them for cohesion reasons,’’ Atherton said, meaning that racists in the ranks of a diverse military can cause resentment that undermine morale.
Since the integration of the military, a top priority for the Pentagon has been to squash anything that looks like racial violence happening inside its ranks. Police right now do not have those same standards. How the federal government will implement ideological screening in local police departments is less clear, or what happens to officers deemed unfit for service.
Atherton noted that a wider scaling back of policing could collide with ‘’a new wave of right-wing domestic terror,’’ which could revive calls for more funding for law enforcement to combat.
Shrinking bloated police department budgets won’t save the US from civil unrest on its own. And neither will leaving disbanded police officers to become private security mercenaries. The solution requires a holistic approach.
Ambitious police reform will only work when combined with wider expansions of the social safety net and better funding for the country’s public education system. Those reforms will take decades. All of that is part of asserting the legitimacy of the rights in the constitution, which will also need significant amendments if it is to remain a legitimate document in its own right. Abolishing the office of the presidency or limiting its powers would be a good start.
And other major shifts have come after periods of violence. The Civil War prompted the US to outlaw slavery through the 13th Amendment, but it did not outlaw racist police. And for millions of black and brown Americans, that oversight meant something still too close to slavery and colonialism remained. It came in the form of unaccountable, bigoted law enforcement authorities controlling their movements, bruising their bodies and taking their lives.
Those law enforcement agencies have been suspicious or hostile to politicians’ attempts to increase oversight of their activities. Biden’s victory was not the overwhelming repudiation of Trumpism, but it was a serious setback for Trump’s vision of a practically unrestrained police force. A Biden administration will mean more aggressive regulation of police by federal legal authorities,
Abolishing policing as it is today in the US and building an equitable social democracy in the US are parts of the continuing effort to end slavery since 1865. Calling thousands of votes cast by black people ‘’illegal’’ is part of the continuing effort to maintain slavery since 1865, a tactic Trump has endorsed as the Confederate President he is.
A generations-long struggle to create an economy, a justice system, and an electoral system that is more fair and humane for all must begin as soon as possible. If insurgent groups attempt to challenge it in the name of restoring apartheid and excusing policy brutality, then they will find opposition that is now more motivated by the abuses the Trump administration committed against migrants and minorities.
A fear of returning to the cruelties of the Trump years will spur America to show a reborn and uncompromising vigilance against racist or dehumanising rhetoric in politics. They’ll be able to present hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from coronavirus as evidence of the danger of letting another Confederate President assume office. It would be a bad bet for anyone to underestimate the sincerity and mettle of that renewed resolve.
If we’re lucky, the better angels of our nature will prevail, and the US will avoid a worsening cycle of violence in the background of its political life. The hatreds of today will fade to dim echoes in the future, drowned out by the clamour of tomorrow’s crises. Our fate will be determined by the instincts of bystanders willing to pull a fist fight apart before a panic of police arrives to apply deadly force, a doctor working through another unforgiving hour in a hospital overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, someone talking their armed friend down from a nihilistic frenzy of suicidal rage, a teacher helping her students understand a new language or an old history.
Those pivotal, unnamed and unrecorded moments requiring calm and courage are the contests that will really count in America. Those aren’t lost causes.