In his last few weeks as US President — President-elect Joe Biden is set to take the oath on January 20 — Donald Trump has once again undermined his office. Earlier this week, in a leaked telephone conversation between Trump, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and lawyer for the Secretary, Ryan Germany, the US President appeared to cajole and intimidate his fellow Republicans to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. Yet, for those outside America as much as for its citizens, the key point is not that a president who lost an election in the world’s oldest democracy asked an official to “find” 11,780 votes (he lost by 11,779 votes). Or that he vaguely threatened Raffensperger and Germany, saying that not reporting completely unproven incidents of voter fraud was a “criminal offence”. In the drama that has followed the US election results in November last year, what has stood out, again and again, is the resilience of the country’s institutions in the face of an onslaught by the highest executive office.
Multiple state and federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, have dismissed or ruled against Trump and his allies in the Republican Party in lawsuits seeking to change the election results. This is all the more commendable given that three of the nine justices on the Supreme Court were nominated by Trump, and six in all are seen to be conservative, if not Republican, in their outlook. Earlier, in the immediate aftermath, state officials who conducted the polls — both Republican and Democrat — stood by the decision, and the sanctity of the electoral process. While Trump and some of his supporters did not acknowledge Biden’s victory, many in the Republican party went against their leader in doing so.
In democracies with “strong” leaders and governments, it is easy to see simple acts of propriety, doing one’s job, as extraordinary. It would be difficult and remarkable in such systems for a member of the ruling party to tell the leader that “the data you have is wrong”, or dissent publicly over the government’s decision. That’s what Raffensperger did when Trump claimed that the election was fraudulent and repeated social media rumours as though they were facts. The lesson from Trump’s latest tantrum and its fallout is this: Institutional integrity, a robust system of checks and balances, mostly means that people do their jobs. For the most part, it doesn’t require heroism or bravery.
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