Thomas Homer-Dixon holds a University Research Chair in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo and is executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail’s writer at large.
Four years ago, on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, the two of us made a bet about what would happen in the 2020 presidential election.
Although we differ in our political perspectives – John would characterize himself as a small-c conservative, and Thomas as a small-l liberal – we’ve had geeky exchanges about current events and public policy for many years. We were both deeply concerned about the damage a Trump presidency could inflict on the republic, but found ourselves disagreeing on the danger it posed to American democracy.
Our e-mail exchange ended with a bet. The loser would pay for dinner in Toronto. John set the terms: “There will be a democratic election in 2020 followed by an orderly transition of power, if warranted.” Thomas took the bet. “I really hope I lose,” he wrote, though he was confident Mr. Trump would obstruct an orderly transition.
In the days after the Nov. 3 election, we agreed John had probably won. The election had been free and fair. By Dec. 8, we were inclined to call it a draw, as Mr. Trump’s behaviour became increasingly unhinged.
And then finally, as we watched rioters invading the Capitol building on Jan. 6, John wrote: “I just lost the bet. I owe you dinner. These scenes are appalling.”
While Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Jan. 20, Mr. Trump’s efforts to cling to power amounted to an attempted autogolpe – a “self-coup,” in Spanish – where a country’s leader uses illegal methods to seize extraordinary powers or to stay in office. Mr. Trump pressed state officials to change vote totals; he sought to overturn the results in the Electoral College; and when all else failed, he ginned up his most extreme supporters, who then stormed and ransacked the Capitol building to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes.
And while the republic has survived Mr. Trump – at least for now – American democracy remains on life support.
Research shows that once political discourse becomes extremely polarized – with each side viewing the other as a danger to society – the result is often backsliding from democracy. In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that if polarization becomes extreme, and an election produces an aspiring dictator, the aspirant often succeeds in dismantling independent courts, subordinating the legislature, intimidating the press and becoming an actual autocrat.
“We’ve seen this process unfold in Russia with Vladimir Putin, Hungary with Viktor Orban, and earlier with Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines,” says Jack Goldstone, an expert on political revolutions at George Mason University. A decade ago, Dr. Goldstone and University of Connecticut evolutionary systems theorist Peter Turchin predicted electoral violence and social unrest in the U.S. by the 2020s. “People have assumed that advanced democracies were immune to this process,” Dr. Goldstone told us this week, “but the sacking of the Capitol building shows they’re not.”
In the U.S. in 2020, polarization within the electorate was severe, and the sources of disinformation many and popular – from commentators on Fox News to Mr. Trump himself on Twitter. When he lost the election, both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College, the President predictably pronounced the election fraudulent and the news of his loss fake. On the day of the riot on Capitol Hill, he told his supporters: “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen.” He urged them to march on the Capitol. American democracy, at that moment, was under siege.
But order was eventually restored, and Congress went on to certify Mr. Biden’s election. And on Jan. 13, Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president for his actions the week before, making him the only U.S. president to have been impeached twice. Mr. Trump’s campaign of subversion failed. Why? What saved America from Donald Trump, President for Life?
A key part of the answer lay in resistance long before election day from people who knew how wannabe autocrats work. One example: In the summer of 2020, the bipartisan Transition Integrity Project brought together more than a hundred experts to “war game” Mr. Trump’s possible actions to seize power. By warning in advance of what was possible, such efforts helped inoculate the public and the political system against those possibilities.
Similarly, electoral analysts predicted well in advance that a “red mirage” of Republicans who voted in person on election day would be followed by a “blue wave” of mostly Democratic mailed-in ballots that would be counted later. So when Mr. Trump appeared to be ahead on election night, responsible analysts took a wait-and-see attitude. Sure enough, Mr. Trump’s illusory early lead vanished, replaced by a convincing win for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump cried foul and fraud. But any reasonable voter knew there was no fraud.
The 2020 election result was further buttressed by the successful efforts of officials at the federal and state levels to protect the vote from offshore actors. As a result, the 2020 elections were “the most secure in American history,” pronounced Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Mr. Trump subsequently fired Mr. Krebs.
Many Canadians shake their heads at the chaos of state-run federal elections, with their profusion of rules and procedures for casting and counting ballots. But that system provided an important firebreak against Mr. Trump’s efforts to subvert the results. A federally controlled election, such as those managed by Elections Canada, would have been far more vulnerable to manipulation. Even partisan politics mostly operated within democratic limits, at least at the state level. Mr. Trump’s rage against his losses in Georgia and Arizona stemmed from the fact that Republican governors and officials certified Mr. Biden’s victory in the Electoral College in both states. Whatever was happening in Washington, the rule of law – and the democracy it protects – was alive and well in the state capitals.
Anyone who wants to succeed as dictator also needs to control the military and the courts. But Mr. Trump’s reported insults to veterans and increasingly erratic behaviour made the senior ranks of the services increasingly uncomfortable with him as commander-in-chief. In a joint letter published in The Washington Post, all 10 living former U.S. defence secretaries warned Mr. Trump against involving the military in pursuing claims of election fraud, and military leaders were reportedly prepared to refuse an unlawful order to intervene.
And when Mr. Trump sought to have results overturned in key battleground states through court challenges, he failed in more than 50 attempts, including a swift dismissal by the Supreme Court.
Perhaps the most important factor preventing Mr. Trump from seizing power was the extraordinary effort and bravery of hundreds of thousands of regular people across the country – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – who anticipated the challenges of making the voting systems in their diverse states work under the extreme pressure of the pandemic and surging mail-in and advance voting. These efforts often required poll workers to risk their health as they toiled for hours counting and recounting ballots in enclosed spaces. Their actions ensured that the vote was free and fair.
Attorney-general William Barr infuriated the president when he announced on Dec. 1 that “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” Mr. Barr, up till then considered by many a Trump lapdog, resigned a few weeks later.
Finally – though this may surprise some – the mainstream media helped prevent an autogolpe, by holding the Trump administration to account. Reporters competed to be first in documenting chaos in the White House, underhanded dealings with Russian agents and the President’s attempted blackmail of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And ironically, it was Fox News that helped seal the President’s fate by being the first to project that Mr. Biden had won Arizona on election night. The call devastated Mr. Trump’s plan to discredit the election, because Fox couldn’t as easily be dismissed as a purveyor of “fake news.”
On Dec. 14, the Electoral College met in the state capitals to cast its ballots, based on the popular vote in each state. The result: 306 votes for Mr. Biden to 232 votes for Mr. Trump. But Mr. Trump remained determined to cling to power, and some politicians and commentators continued to aid and abet him. “This is total fraud,” the President told Fox News on Nov. 29. “And how the FBI and Department of Justice – I don’t know, maybe they’re involved. But how people are allowed to get away with this stuff is unbelievable.” As the weeks passed, his allies invoked crooked Democrats, communist China, a dead Venezuelan dictator, the national intelligence services and even elements within the Republican Party as parts of the coalition that rigged the election.
The conspiracy theory spread like a malignant tumour through social media and sycophantic sources such as Newsmax and One America News. As the Jan. 6 deadline for Congress to count the electoral votes approached, an Ipsos poll showed that 28 per cent of Americans believed the election had been rigged. Some Republican senators and most representatives vowed to vote against certifying the election. On Jan. 7, even after order had been restored following the insurrection at the Capitol building, 147 of them voted that way. If the Republicans had held a majority in both houses of Congress, Mr. Biden’s win could easily have been overturned.
By fomenting schisms so deep that a large minority of the American public no longer had faith in the country’s democratic institutions, Mr. Trump has caused incalculable damage. A snap Ipsos poll taken hours after the Capitol riot showed that one in five Americans supported the rioters. The website FiveThirtyEight’s composite poll of Mr. Trump’s popularity revealed a slight dip to 42 per cent three days after the attack – down only four points from his record high last March, although it has dropped further since.
The polarization of the body politic is now so severe that Mr. Biden may not be able to restore Americans’ confidence in their democracy. Supporters of Mr. Trump, who consider the Biden administration illegitimate, are threatening violence on Inauguration Day and in the weeks that follow. Extremist right-wing violence is now the gravest internal challenge facing the U.S.
And because people now question its stability and democratic principles, America is much weaker in the world.
Since Mr. Trump came to power, Justin Trudeau’s government has tried to diversify Canada’s economic and diplomatic ties. His and future governments, of whatever political persuasion, will have to continue that effort. With all of America’s faults, the world will be a darker place for want of that country’s leadership.
It has come to this. While workers were still sweeping up glass and debris left behind by the mob’s attack on Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz stood in the House of Representatives and declared: “If the reports are true, some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
Can democracy endure when people in positions of power repeat such bare-faced lies – and when so many Americans believe them?
Maybe. But we’re not willing to bet on it.
Trump’s last days: More commentary and analysis
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.
Build your personal news feed
- Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
- Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.