As the Democratic field narrows and the political commentariat speculate which candidate is best placed to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, America’s national conversation continues to ignore an elephant in the room – the profound threat to democracy posed by this irascible, irrational president. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are auditioning for a role they may never be allowed to play.
Historically, incumbency offers a first term president significant advantage when it comes to retaining power. Every president since FDR has gained a second term in office if they avoided a recession in the year leading into an election. 80% of all American presidents seeking a second term have won re-election. Since Reagan in 1980, the only one-term president was George H.W. Bush. On bare statistics alone, Donald Trump is extremely likely to gain a second term
Unlike opposition challengers, incumbents don’t have to introduce themselves to the nation, they usually don’t have to go through the bruising process of primaries, and above all else sitting presidents know how to win (having already done so). An incumbent can use the power of the presidency to try to set the agenda of an election, and for all his manifest flaws few are more gifted in the dark art of agenda-setting than Trump.
Yet, over and above these existing advantages, Trump is unique in American history in his willingness to test or exceed the boundaries of normal behaviour in order to retain power. The barriers to a Democratic win in 2020, when examined, seem almost insurmountable.
First, America’s election mechanics remain at parlous risk. Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Trump’s team invited overseas interference, welcomed it, and appear to have coordinated some of their campaigning with Russia. Senate Majority Leader ‘Moscow’ Mitch McConnell has refused to allow bills aimed at securing future American elections to come before the Senate for a vote, and the Trump administration has actively worked to gut task forces protecting elections from overseas meddling. America has a president who still refuses to believe that Russia attacked its election in 2016. With such a lead from the top, it should not be a surprise that the 2020 election is gravely at risk.
Americans face many other structural challenges to have their voice heard. Populous states are dramatically under-represented. The two Dakotas (total population 1.6m) have double as many Senators as California (population 39m). Gerrymandered districts mean Democrats sometimes need to win by overwhelming margins just to reach representative parity. On election day, poorer areas often experience longer voting queues than those of rich, white neighbourhoods, caused by an inadequate number of polling locations or places chosen specifically to be inconvenient and hard to get to. The simple matter of holding an election on a working day is a powerful disincentive for poor people (who lean significantly to the left) to vote, as getting away from work may prove impossible.
So America’s elections are structurally unsound and unrepresentative, at significant risk of overseas malfeasance, gerrymandered almost exclusively to benefit one side and run in a manner to depress the vote of poor and minority groups. Republicans have won the popular vote just one once in seven elections, yet on election day next year will have held office for twelve of the last twenty years. There is a thumb on America’s scale that is never removed.
This massive democratic imbalance needs to be taken into account before we even consider the number of cards President Trump can play to further manipulate the electorate in 2020.
Trump has yet to face a true international crisis, and is the only Republican president since Gerald Ford not to oversee the commencement of a major war. He may not continue to be so lucky or so restrained, but it’s worth reflecting that armed conflicts overseas, whilst bad for the protagonists, are often a political boon for a president. Wartime presidents are perceived as strong and patriotic; fear, however misplaced, drives Americans to the comfort of the flag and the office of the executive, and casts dissent and division as unpatriotic. Personal popularity for presidents only wanes when the public tires of war, or perceives that America is not ‘winning’. A war would almost certainly be of political benefit to President Trump in 2020.
Domestic convulsion can also be harnessed for gain. ‘Divide and Rule’ has been a political maxim since Roman times, and Trump is perhaps the most divisive president in American history, using race, colour, creed, ethnicity and religion to denigrate and dehumanise groups of people, and to claim that changes in demography mean that America is somehow under attack. Jews who don’t vote Republican are disloyal. Latino immigration represents an invasion. Black neighbourhoods are crime infested. Non-white representatives should go back where they came from.
Republicans know that their base in 2020 is white America, and no president has been more active and consistent in attacking the ‘other’, and fanning the flames of racism that are often barely concealed within the American psyche. White nationalist groups have heard the clarion call and – rightly or wrongly – believe that in Trump they finally have their man in the White House. Division can be exploited, and the higher the temperature the greater the benefit.
Propaganda requires publicity, and this endless stream of division is delivered through a bullhorn by something no other president has enjoyed – perhaps the single most valuable asset in the Trump’s armoury is the Fox News channel. Once conceived as a hard right alternative to CNN and MSNBC, Fox has transitioned ‘from partisanship to propaganda’, and is the closest thing to state-run media in American history. The symbiotic relationship between president and network has many wondering who is the master and who the servant – Trump often tweets based on commentary he has seen on Hannity, Carlson or Pirro, and these same commentators have proven themselves willing to repeat or amplify the president’s vituperative vitriol.
Fox, America’s highest rated network, makes over $2 billion a year by ‘maximising rage’ – weaponising political fear and anger, and acquiring new viewers in a way that resembles a zombie movie. While the rest of us concern ourselves with healthcare, medication prices and rocketing national debt, Fox viewers are caught in a vortex where the deep state is operating against American interests through people like Peter Strzok and James Comey, Uranium One is the greatest scandal in American history and crooked Hillary Clinton walks free despite her rampant criminality. It’s a parallel universe, insulated against reality and reason, and Fox viewers are often both factually wrong and resistant to the truth. When combined with a president who lies almost every time he speaks and uses division as political gold-dust, you have a frighteningly incendiary mix to take to an election.
But I would argue that the greatest threat to American democracy lies not in the broken mechanics of elections, nor the manipulative tools available to the president, but in the heart of the current incumbent at the White House. Because Trump appears to have little understanding of, or concern for, America’s constitution and democracy, and is so detached from reality that he may not respect the result of an election if it does not go his way. Win or lose, he’s not going to go.
All things remaining equal, it’s almost impossible to imagine America conducting a free and fair election in 2020, with no substantive influence from overseas and without a political and social paroxysm brought about by a president willing to go down in flames. Michael Cohen testified ‘given my experience working for Mr Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power’. Trump has gone out of his way to weaken America’s trust in elections. His surrogates darkly mutter to the press that the Democrats can’t ‘legitimately’ win next year. Over and above all other concerns, the fear that Trump won’t leave may be the greatest threat to America of all.
All things don’t always remain equal. Perhaps a recession is coming. Perhaps Trump’s rampant criminality and corruption will seep its way into even the most hardened Fox viewer’s mind. This is a criminal president seemingly in dramatic mental decline. But perhaps even these will not be enough, given the immense political arsenal at Trump’s disposal.
Any first term president is already heavily odds on to win a second term. This president has no limit to the things he will do to retain office. A return to normal is almost impossible to imagine. American democracy isn’t on the line in 2020, it’s already wounded, perhaps mortally.