The promise of representative democracy, at its core, is powerful and simple. After a fixed term in office, those who have held power face the verdict of the people and, if they are voted out, a peaceful transition takes place. On November 5, US President Donald Trump did his best to undermine that promise in what is touted as the country where the first formal blueprint of a modern democracy was designed. Speaking from the White House for nearly 17 minutes, Trump made unsubstantiated allegations, and presented rumour, conspiracy theory and outright lie; hinted at violence from his supporters should he lose a closely-fought election; targeted voters, election officials, the electoral process, basically the rules of the game. The essence of Trump’s diatribe against his political opponent and election officials in battleground states was this: The votes cast in his name were legitimate and “legal”, those for his rival were “illegal” “mystery ballots”. “Bad things” were happening, his numbers were being “whittled down”, he suggested, in the states that hold the key to the White House because the election officials and the entire political apparatus in those states was “so corrupt”.
The way the American electoral system works made it possible in 2016 for Trump to be elected despite having polled far fewer votes (about 3 million less) than his then opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the last four years, Trump has undermined the institutions, commitments and conventions, both domestic and international, that have marked the US presidency since at least World War II. His legitimacy, like that of all populists, relies solely on the claim to popular support, which is then used to undermine institutions and checks and balances, disregard protest and dissent. As is now becoming clear, when the source of that legitimacy, an election, seems to be not going his way, the electoral system can be denigrated too — by summoning spectres of “shenanigans” and a “stolen election”, and by blaming “them”, the “big media, big tech, big donors”.
For all its shortcomings, the US has been an exemplar of democracy in action. Even now, there is a great measure of resistance to Trump’s indiscriminate attacks on the election process. For the third day, election officials have continued their careful work, despite intimidation by Trump supporters outside counting centres. Democrats have not risen to the bait, maintaining decorum in their public statements. Leaders of the Republican Party have kept either a studied silence or openly disavowed Trump’s diatribe. Senator and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for example, has said that “no elected Republican will stand behind that (Trump’s) statement” and that much of his words were “incendiary”. There is, however, no gainsaying the fact that the ambassador of “America First” has done immeasurable harm to US domestic politics and to the country’s image abroad. For other democracies, big and small, in the thrall of strong men, Trump’s 17-minute blow to democracy is yet another lesson from the US — on the path to avoid.
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