National Post (Latest Edition)

A democratic nightmare

- Terry Glavin

Now that the obscene and disturbing spectacle of Tuesday night’s U. S. presidenti­al election debate is behind us, and Donald Trump’s claims about the inevitabil­ity of vast electoral fraud and vote- rigging on Nov. 3 are numerous, explicit, on the record and unequivoca­l, we might as well proceed straight to the doomsday scenario.

The democratic world’s worst nightmare is not an American election- day victory for Trump’s Republican­s, which would be catastroph­ic enough. It’s the prospect of Trump losing but refusing to relinquish power on the pretext of a purportedl­y illegitima­te vote result. It is no longer far- fetched to imagine this happening. Trump himself has come close to making it a campaign promise.

What this means is that it is genuinely conceivabl­e that the American republic will succumb to a violent constituti­onal collapse or some kind of mutiny during the 79- day twilight zone between the closing of the polls on Nov. 3 and Inaugurati­on Day on Jan. 20. As for what fresh hell would unfold on that day, and what nightmaris­h crises might cascade afterwards, it’s anybody’s guess.

You might think this is lathering it on a bit thick. It isn’t.

There’s certainly enough hysteria about Trump making the rounds, and there are very real distortion­s that occur in mainstream American journalism arising from a debilitati­ng hostility between the Trump administra­tion and what the president insists on calling the “fake news media.” Just last week, for instance, there was a great flurry of headlines to the effect that “Trump won’t commit to peaceful transfer of power.” But Trump’s statement at a White House press briefing, “it depends,” was in response to an absurdly- worded question about whether he’d relinquish power following the vote, “win, lose or draw.”

It has also been widely reported that even David Kilcullen, a leading authority on insurgenci­es, has described the United States — in the grip of the Black Lives Matter protests and the tangential­ly related riots, “left- wing” violence and far- right vigilantis­m — as being already in a state of “incipient insurgency.” That’s not quite true either. In his far- reaching analysis for the Foundation for Defense of Democracie­s, Kilcullen suggested that “one possible interpreta­tion” of the current American pathologie­s is that the United States “may be” at the brink of what the Central Intelligen­ce Agency defines as an incipient insurgency.

So we should keep our heads about us. Just because Americans seem to be losing their minds at the moment, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.

At the same time, Trump is expected to challenge the Nov. 3 election results before the U. S. Supreme Court, to which he has just appointed the purportedl­y sympatheti­c Judge Amy Coney Barrett, tilting the bench in his favour. And it was chilling to hear him equivocate on Tuesday night when asked whether he’d condemn white supremacis­t groups, but go on to advise his far- right supporters, including the socalled Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.”

The one reassuring utterance about the question of Trump’s willingnes­s to accept the verdict of the American electorate in November came during the final moments of Tuesday’s shouting match, from the Democratic party’s Joe Biden. “Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” Biden counselled the television audience. “Because he will not be able to stop you from determinin­g the outcome of this election.”

Even so, while Biden pledged he would not declare victory before the election results were certified, Trump declined to make the same commitment. “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Trump said. “I urge them to do it.”

You don’t need to be a committed anti-trump partisan to notice how that remark could be understood as a threat of vigilantis­m. The upcoming vote will be the first presidenti­al election since the 1980s that Republican campaigner­s won’t be bound to a rule requiring them to obtain court approval for “ballot security” exercises. That rule, put in place following a disgracefu­l Republican- led voter intimidati­on operation in New Jersey in 1981, and renewed in several court judgments since then, expired two years ago.

Las t month, Trump vowed to have “sheriffs,” “law enforcemen­t” and “attorneys” on hand Nov. 3 to patrol polling stations to guard against fraudulent voting, and as early as last May, Trump’s Republican­s were putting in place a recruitmen­t program to enlist 50,000 volunteers in more than a dozen swing states to be dispatched to polling stations to keep an eye out for suspicious- looking voters.

Even more ominously, in an unpreceden­ted situation owing mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic, mailin ballots are expected to be available to nearly 200 million American voters in this election — about four- fifths of the American electorate. Trump has all but declared that he won’t recognize the validity of mail- in ballots.

Trump persists in trotting out unproven and demonstrab­ly false claims about fraud associated with mail- in voting, most recently in Tuesday night’s debate.

While the CNN news network is no friend of Trump, CNN’S fact- checker Daniel

Dale has had an easy time of it, showing Trump’s several repeated claims about mail- in voting to be fictions. Neverthele­ss, Trump remains adamant. “This will be a fraud like you have never seen,” he said on Tuesday night.

It’s not just the White House that’s up for grabs in November. Americans will be electing 35 of the 100 Senators in the U. S. Congress, along with all 435 seats in the House of Representa­tives, along with the governors of 13 states. If the most powerful democracy on Earth cannot fulfil its most basic democratic functions, what will happen to the rest of us?

Like it or not, the United States remains the fulcrum upon which the world’s democracie­s rest — Canada included. Globally, Xi Jinping’s China, commonly in alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Khomeinist Iran, is in the ascendant. Democracy is in eclipse. The Economist Intelligen­ce Unit rates only 22 of the United Nations’ 197 member states as “full democracie­s,” and the EIU’S Democracy Index, along with the Washington- based Freedom House organizati­on, describe the state of global democracy as “in retreat.”

Freedom House reckons that the retreat has been underway for 14 years. This is obviously far longer than Trump has been in office, but you’d be hard pressed to name an American president who has been as hostile to democracy, or at the very least indifferen­t to democracy, as Donald Trump.

A Biden presidency would not necessaril­y reverse these trends, but it would at least begin to staunch the losses, if only by reassertin­g some recognizab­le American leadership in democracy’s shrinking global spheres of influence.

A Trump victory would be bad for democracy all round, but the real doomsday scenario is a Trump administra­tion that is defeated at the polls, but refuses to relinquish power, plunging the American republic into chaos.

A scenario such as this was unthinkabl­e only a few years ago.

Not anymore.

You might think this is lathering it on a bit thick. It isn’t.

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