A Perfect Storm Democracy on the Defensive in Trump's America

Coronavirus, economic collapse and now mass demonstrations for racial equality: The United States is facing a trio of deep crises. Instead of offering leadership, President Donald Trump is exacerbating divisions and showing authoritarian tendencies. With the presidential election still several months away, the country's health is at stake.
A demonstration in Atlanta, sparked by the killing of George Floyd

A demonstration in Atlanta, sparked by the killing of George Floyd

Foto: Ben Hendren / Anadolu Agency / ddp images

Once darkness had fallen, the general went to see the situation for himself. Mark Milley strode across the battlefield in olive-green camouflage and heavy boots, not to inspect a residential street in Fallujah or mountains in Afghanistan, but the streets of Washington, D.C.

A reporter asked Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he had a message for the American people. His response: "Just allow freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, that's perfectly fine, we support that," he said. "We took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America to do that, and to protect everyone's rights and that's what we do."

It was a striking statement given that it came just a short time after security personnel, including members of the military police, deployed batons and flashbang grenades to forcibly push peaceful protesters out of the streets surrounding the White House. There are competing narratives as to whether they had been warned before force was deployed, but it is clear why they were moved: to provide a photo op for U.S. President Donald Trump.

Around 6 p.m. on Monday, after several days in which the White House had looked like a defensive fortress surrounded by a sea of furious demonstrators, Trump stepped outside. Up to that point, the president had hardly said a word about the largely peaceful protests or the limited rioting that had beset Washington, D.C., and dozens of other towns and cities across the nation. He was unable to find the courage or desire to give a consoling speech following the horrific slaying of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered by a white policeman who kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Once the crowds were cleared on Monday evening, Trump stood in front of St. John's Church, which had been damaged by fire the previous evening. He fiddled with a Bible, then held it aloft, as though unsure exactly what to do. When Trump was asked about his favorite verse in what he described as his "favorite book" last year, he had been unable to come up with one.

In front of the church, a journalist asked the president about his thoughts about the current situation. Trump muttered a few unintelligible comments into the wind. He was surrounded exclusively by white men and women, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the four-star General Milley, who had been tasked by the president a short time earlier with coordinating the military response to the unrest in the country.

Quick Pushback

The scene was as ridiculous as it was ominous, more reminiscent of South American potentates than of American democracy. Trump, who is fond of taking about "my generals" and also claimed to have the "support of the army," had arranged for a military escort for his foray into the streets of America. He also indicated that he wanted to send military units into American cities to confront the protesters, whom he has described as "terrorists."

The pushback came quickly. Defense Secretary Esper voiced his disapproval of the plan, as did several others. After Trump’s church appearance, retired General John Allen, who once commanded NATO troops in Afghanistan and was part of the fight against Islamic State, said, "The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020." James Mattis, also a retired general and once Trump's defense secretary, wrote  in The Atlantic that Trump was the first president who was seeking to divide the country rather than unite it. But Trump's political allies were still there for him. The New York Times published an op-ed  by Republican Senator Tom Cotton headlined, "Send In the Military."

Trump and his political accessories are using the rhetoric of authoritarianism. Militarized police forces haven't just been using violence to quell plundering and rioting, they have also been attacking peaceful demonstrators. Journalists have been arrested as well.

Should we be worried about the United States? Is a fundamental shift taking place in a country that is synonymous with deeply rooted democracy? The current chaos on the streets of America isn't just the product of the country’s economic and societal tensions. The president himself has repeatedly exacerbated those conflicts with his rhetoric. Trump, it seems, needs the chaos. He feeds off it.

Few other democratically elected leaders have as much power as the U.S. president, a reality that can lead to abuse. Trump has made personal loyalty the most important qualification for those with whom he surrounds himself. He harbors deep admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and once voiced his support for the violent crushing of the pro-democracy protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, saying it was a sign of strength.

The Russia investigation and his impeachment did not show him the limits of his power, and instead awakened in him a desire to hit back hard and to get rid of anyone within government who does not fulfill his every whim. In the waning months of his first term in office, just a few months before Election Day, he is increasingly putting his authoritarian tendencies on full display.

In the Hands of Loyal Acolytes

Not long ago, it seemed absurd to question the strength of America's system of checks and balances. U.S. democracy, more than 200 years old, has survived numerous crises and its resilience has always withstood attempts to grab power. But after more than three years of Trump, and despite him being the democratically elected president, the foundations of American democracy have grown brittle. Trump has continually pushed back the limits of what was considered acceptable under his predecessors. Flouting tradition, he placed the powerful Department of the Interior and the intelligence agencies in the hands of loyal acolytes.

"It's very frightening," says Rosa Brooks, a professor of law at Georgetown University. "I hope that I'm being much too paranoid but it's hard not to think of things like the Reichstag fire at this moment."

From the German perspective, of course, the comparison seems farfetched. In February, 1933, the National Socialists used the fire in Berlin’s Reichstag building as an excuse to issue the "Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State.” This essentially meant the suspension of the Weimar-era constitution and the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship.

The U.S. is far away from that. The system of checks and balances is a long way from being defanged and opposition is lively, as the streets in recent days have shown. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats have a solid majority and both Washington and New York are home to newspapers that wield tremendous power.

But the president is flirting with authoritarianism. And his party is following along.

On Monday, Trump retweeted a post by Cotton, the Republican senator, reading: "If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let's see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they're facing off with the 101st Airborne Division."

On Monday night, military helicopters circled at low altitude above the streets of the capital to intimidate demonstrators and looters. In military jargon, the tactic is known as a "show of force," and tends to be used in foreign battlefields in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Meanwhile, National Guard troops in battle equipment lined up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, their faces covered. And then, suddenly, a high fence was erected around the White House on Thursday. To protect the president from the American people.

Daniel Ziblatt, a professor of the science of government at Harvard, co-authored the book "How Democracies Die" two years ago. It quickly became a widely respected work about the rise of autocrats and the strategies they employ. "When we wrote the book, we wanted to avoid seeming too alarmist," Ziblatt says today. "Now, I think we were too optimistic. We thought the Republican Party would break with Trump when he began attacking the democratic system. But that hasn't happened."

Destructive Rioting and Curfews

The U.S. has been beset by a perfect storm. In absolute numbers, no other industrialized country has been hit as hard by the coronavirus pandemic as the United States, with more than 100,000 dead. The economic consequences of the virus have also been devastating: More than 40 million Americans have lost their jobs, a disaster second only to the Great Depression. And now, the killing of George Floyd has torn open the country's oldest wound: the deep-seated racism left behind by slavery.

Police protecting the White House from demonstrations out front.

Police protecting the White House from demonstrations out front.

Foto: ERIC BARADAT / AFP

During the initial weeks of the coronavirus crisis, many people took comfort in the notion that "we’re all in this together.”  The phrase was repeated daily by news anchors, politicians and celebrities. But many black people in the United States saw it as an affront. They have been hit much harder than white Americans by unemployment - even George Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer at a restaurant in Minneapolis. Furthermore, the chance that a black American will die from COVID-19 is three times higher than for white people.

"Our country will thrive and prosper again," Trump said in his inaugural address in January 2017. But now, dozens of U.S. cities have seen destructive rioting, and curfews have been imposed on 60 million Americans.

Racist police violence has a long, ugly tradition in the United States and white terror existed long before Trump rose to power, but almost all presidents in recent history have tried to unite the country. When a white terrorist shot and killed nine black people during a Bible study on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, Barack Obama sang a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace" at the memorial service. It comforted the nation.

The contrast to Trump could hardly be greater. Last year, the current president awarded one of the country’s two highest civilian honors to the racist radio host Rush Limbaugh – a man who once said: "If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it's Caucasians." When the first disturbances began following the killing of George Floyd, Trump issued a warning that culminated in the sentence: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." The sentence was used in the 1960s by racist politicians and police chiefs. Trump seemed to intentionally be throwing a match into a barrel of gasoline. And now, the country is burning.

"I am here to fight for my black skin," says a breathless Tranesha Smith, 25, in Oakland. She is holding up a homemade sign as a dark wall of police assembles in front of her. The sign reads "Peace for George Floyd" on the front and, on the back: "You killed my black brother." She says she is fighting for her children, for all black people. And for justice.

Understanding the Rage

"No justice, no peace," is one of the most frequently chanted slogans at the demonstrations. It is often followed by a second sentence: "No racist police!" Thousands have taken to the streets of Oakland in recent days, just as they have in dozens of other cities and towns around the country: in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, Houston, Portland, Louisville and Chicago. Windows have been broken in Oakland, which is located across the bay from San Francisco, and there has been looting.

But on this recent afternoon, the protests are peaceful, at least in physical terms. The anger is still there, expressed in slogans like "fuck the police!" which is chanted over and over again. The heavily armed officers, dressed in dark-colored riot gear, show no emotion under their helmets. Tranesha Smith, who works as an elder-care nurse, is wearing sandals, torn jeans and a colorful top.

A woman with the letters BLM on her face, which stands for Black Lives Matter.

A woman with the letters BLM on her face, which stands for Black Lives Matter.

Foto: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE / GETTY IMAGES

Oakland is a good place to understand the rage of black people in America. Many African American people from the South moved to the so-called "Harlem of the West" in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1960s, it was the birthplace of the militant Black Panthers, who confronted the virulent police brutality of the time with violent force. Their logo can be seen these days on many of the T-shirts worn by demonstrators. Another popular motif is an image of Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who popularized the practice of kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of protest. Oakland has a long tradition of black resistance.

And with good reason. Whereas black residents made up roughly half of the city's population in 1980, their share is below a quarter today. One reason for their displacement is the economic boom in Silicon Valley and the entire Bay Area, where high-salaried tech workers drove up housing prices, making it too expensive for many long-time residents to stay. Gentrification has long-since taken root in San Francisco, where black faces are frequently only seen among the homeless.

The geography of Oakland is itself evidence of structural racism: The neighborhoods where the city's black population tends to live are located in the lowlands and crisscrossed by highways raised on cement pillars. White residents tend to live higher up on the hillsides, with views of the bay.

As the demonstrators march past City Hall, they chant the names of the victims: "Say their names! George Floyd! Say their names! Breonna Taylor! Say their names! Ahmaud Arbery!"

Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Kentucky in March. Ahmaud Arbery was a young black man who was apparently shot and killed while jogging in Georgia by a white civilian. They are just three names in a long list of black victims. Many American cities have their own George Floyd.

"But this time, it's different," says Jackie Byers, 48, from a local human rights organization called Black Organizing Project, who is also marching with the demonstrators. It's different, Byers believes, than during the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed. And different from the 1991 uprising in Los Angeles after police beat Rodney King half to death.

"A Stab in Our Hearts"

What’s new, says Byers, is that millions of Americans could see the expression on the face of the policeman Derek Chauvin as he presses his knee into the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The video immediately went viral on the internet. The lack of emotion, the impassiveness, says Byers, "is like a stab in our hearts." It reflects, she says, the degree of arrogance of white law enforcement officers who don't have to fear ever having to face justice for their actions.

According to the Mapping Police Violence database, 99 percent of all deaths caused by police between 2013 and 2019 resulted in no charges whatsoever. Each year, around 1,000 people in the United States lose their lives at the hands of the police, though the likelihood of being one of those victims is almost three times higher for blacks than it is for whites.

Another new aspect, says Byers, is that there are now two life-threatening viruses fueling the rage of black Americans: racism, which is deeply rooted in American culture and history, and SARS-CoV-2, which has hit blacks much harder than whites. Together, they have created a social explosion.

The fact that a greater proportion of black Americans die from COVID-19 is also a consequence of the conditions in which they live. On average, black Americans are much poorer than white Americans, which frequently translates to worse health and inadequate access to quality medical care. The average income of a black household in the United States is around $40,000 per year. For white households, that number is $70,000. Black Americans are also relatively more exposed to the virus because they are more likely to work at lower paying jobs that they cannot perform from home – working in supermarkets, delivering packages or caring for patients in the hospitals.

Walking around the Chicago’s Austin neighborhood with Elce Redmond, one gets a sense of how American capitalism has treated black residents. A community organizer, Redmond has spent 30 years focusing his attentions on Austin, one of the city's poorest and most dangerous districts. Some 81 percent of its population are African-American, and 13 percent are Latino.

Broken Out or Boarded Up

Until the end of the 1980s, Redmond says, Austin was a solid, stable neighborhood. But then, spurred by globalization, numerous companies moved production overseas, plunging many people into unemployment and the neighborhood into a constant battle against poverty, drugs and crime. In some streets, nice homes with well-tended yards show that not everyone is losing the battle. But just one block away, entire rows of houses stand empty, with the windows either broken out or boarded up.

Children who grow up in Austin have a difficult start in life. "People used to think they had a chance if they worked hard and didn't give up," says Redmond. But that faith is waning. "The American dream doesn't work because there is a wall: institutional racism." To show what he means, Redmond points to a large building whose windows have been bricked up. It used to be Emmet Elementary School, but like many schools in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, the school was closed down in 2014. "The only path to advancement is education," says Redmond. "There are plenty of dedicated teachers here, but there is a lack of financial means and there is a lack of desire to change things."

The American education system is heavily tilted toward the haves and away from the have nots. Schools in wealthy neighborhoods receive more public funding than those in poor neighborhoods because funding is dependent on local tax revenues. "Children who need help don't have a chance," Redmond says. And the many local initiatives in Austin can hardly change that situation. Now they are having to deal with the coronavirus as well. "This is a virus hotspot," says Redmond, a situation, he says, that came about in part because of high residential density and a lack of quality health care. The local hospital was shut down years ago.

The virus has combined with this widespread rage to feed the current unrest on American streets. The sentence George Floyd uttered as he was dying, "I can't breathe," has become the slogan of the nationwide demonstrations against police violence. But it also reflects the particularly hard impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the black population in the past several months.

Colin Kaepernick's kneel of protest has also taken on new meaning in recent days, mirrored as it is by the way the policeman knelt on George Floyd's neck. In many parts of the U.S., kneeling has become a way for the police to demonstrate solidarity with protesters. These scenes shouldn't be forgotten amid the news coverage of burning buildings, plundered shops and clouds of tear gas.

A Question of Power

America finds itself at a high-stakes crossroads. Although there has been looting and rage, hundreds of thousands of white Americans have joined the anti-racist protests. Indeed, the protests seem to also be aimed at the man in the Oval Office, whose administration does not include a single black person in a prominent cabinet position and whose campaign events are almost exclusively attended by white supporters.

Outside the White House, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, making it increasingly difficult to win an election without support from black and Latino voters. The unrest is thus not just about racist police officers or jobs, but about who has the say in the United States, about power.

In 2016, Trump received 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, who won 89 percent of the African-American vote. Trump only won because of the Electoral College, which grants the primarily white states in the Midwest influence far outstripping the size of their populations. Demographically, though, whites are shrinking as a share of the population.

In Texas, a Republic stronghold for decades, the non-white population has already overtaken the white population. "We are experiencing the death rattle of the America represented by Donald Trump," believes Eddie Glaude, an historian at Princeton University. "Politically, that leads to panicked efforts to hold onto an America that is dying out. It has been accelerated by COVID-19."

The Republicans have entered into a devil's bargain with Donald Trump. He delivered all that the party has ever pined for: tax cuts, conservative judges and sharp anti-abortion rhetoric. In return, the party has completely subordinated itself to Trump, whose re-election strategy hinges on the support of white voters without a college education. The strategy can only be successful if large portions of the electorate are kept away from the voting booth.

The Republican conception of free and fair elections was on full display in Wisconsin in early April, during a vote in which Democrats also chose their favored candidate for the presidency. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, wanted to delay the vote to give citizens an opportunity to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Endlessly Long Lines

But Republicans in the Wisconsin statehouse didn't just reject that effort, they ensured that the number of voting booths was drastically reduced – particularly in areas where many African Americans lived. In Milwaukee, 175 of 180 polling stations were closed. Those wanting to cast their ballots had to stand in endlessly long lines.

It was part of a long tradition. "There is no Republican majority in America, except on election days," wrote the New York Times in a recent editorial. Instead of striving to attract new groups of voters, the Republicans have adopted a different strategy: They are trying to prevent minorities from voting at all. And it is made easier by America's system of administration, which is not easy for Continental Europeans to understand.

Because American's do not carry federal IDs, citizens must register to vote. And every state decides on its own which document is required to do so. Since 2014, the state of Alabama has demanded a driver's license. Documents entitling holders to social housing are no longer sufficient, but for many African Americans, they are the only official documents that they possess.

The exclusion of black voters was an invention of the Democrats, once the party of Southern slave owners. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, they wanted to prevent former slaves from rising to positions of power. The Republicans, who have almost no black support today, expanded and modernized those efforts in the 20th century. "It used to be: If you vote, you die," says historian Carol Anderson, referencing the lynchings that used to take place in the South. "Today, intimidation works differently."

Troops from the National Guard standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Troops from the National Guard standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Foto: Martha Raddatz / TWITTER

Crystal Mason is familiar with that intimidation. In the 2016 presidential elections, she wanted to cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton. Because her name was no longer the registration rolls, however, she cast a provisional ballot. It is a standard procedure and votes thus cast are examined after the election to determine if they are valid.

The mother of three had served a five-year jail sentence for a tax offense, but because she was on parole, she was ineligible to vote. By phone, she explains that she didn’t know about the rule, and received a shocking surprise a few months later: She was being charged with voter fraud. Mason was ultimately sentenced to ten more months in prison for violating her parole and sentenced to additional five years in jail for voter fraud. A court rejected her appeal. The three judges who ruled on her case had all been appointed by Republicans. "Prison for a vote cast in good faith that wasn’t counted – this is a textbook example of voter intimidation,” argues Anderson, the historian.

The Notion of American Exceptionalism

Another popular method Is to cleanse voter-registration rolls. The Republican-run state of Georgia stalled 53,000 people’s voter applications shortly before the state’s gubernatorial election in 2018. Because of alleged discrepancies within the registration system, these residents were made to meet confusing identification requirements in order to vote. Of those affected, 70 percent were black – hardly a coincidence. Ultimately, Republican Brian Kemp, a fervent admirer of Trump, won by approximately 55,000 votes.

It’s unclear if these kinds of tactics will help Trump win the election in November. The virus has shattered the strong economy he hoped would propel his election campaign. Millions of Americans have lost not only their jobs, but also their health insurance in recent weeks. The economic hardship in the U.S. is now so severe that many families no longer know how to feed their children. Miles-long queues have formed in front of food banks, and American downtowns are on fire.

Trump is trying to profit from the anger felt by many Americans about the looting, which has been especially serious in New York, Washington D.C. and Minneapolis, all of which are run by Democratic mayors. "I am your president of law and order,” Trump said in a White House address on Monday. But it is unclear if those kinds of appeals will actually help him.

The nation is watching footage on its screens of burnt-out police cars and shattered storefronts, of an America in chaos. In a recent CBS News survey, 49 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with Trump’s management of the crisis, compared to 32 percent who thought he was doing a "good job.”

American self-confidence has always been predicated on the belief that it is special. In his farewell address on January 11, 1989, Ronald Reagan spoke of a "shining city upon a hill,” admired not only for its prosperity but for its richness in ideas, its goodness and cosmopolitanism. Ten months later, the Iron Curtain fell, and it seemed like the age of American dominance was upon us.

This notion of American exceptionalism also came up in Trump’s inauguration speech in January of 2017, albeit in a vulgar form: "American will start winning again, winning like never before,” the president said. Three and a half years later, there are no signs of victory. The defeat in the war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, is now as good as certain. The war will soon have lasted 19 years and cost the lives of 2,400 U.S. soldiers and Trump is eager to withdraw from the country, though there is little doubt that the Taliban will take over in Kabul when he does, much like the Communists overran Saigon after the last GIs left Vietnam. China is seizing the opportunity provided by the crisis to impose itself on Hong Kong, and Trump is in danger of destroying the G-7 Summit, the last influential venue for discussion among the Western developed nations.

Capable of Anything

As a result, older voters in particular seem to increasingly be turning away from Trump and toward Biden and the Democrats. In a survey conducted by Morning Consult, a polling institute, 45 percent of those asked said they would vote for Joe Biden, Trump’s challenger, due to the protests. What’s particularly unsettling for Trump is that his challenger is currently ahead in the polls in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Biden now even has a chance of winning in erstwhile Republican strongholds like Arizona, Georgia and Texas. Polls predict a very close race in these states, something would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

Now a seemingly outrageous question is increasingly being asked: Would Trump accept defeat? "The next five months before the election could become very serious. Trump has the potential to significantly affect free and fair elections. He can undermine the entire electoral process and create maximum chaos,” says Bill Kristol, who was long one of the country's leading conservative voices. Kristol is known for bringing Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election, into the spotlight, and was the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard, a now-defunct conservative magazine once owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Kristol broke away from Trump early on, partly because he argues Trump is leading the Republican Party to disaster. He believes Trump is capable of anything in a fight for political survival. "He can fake a crisis, spread false information, for example, by simply claiming a week before the election that he discovered a conspiracy.”

Foto:

cgs

A look back to February 2016 is instructive when it comes to Trump's view of democratic mores. At the time, he was only one of many candidates for the Republican nomination and he had just lost the first primary in Iowa to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The voting was fair, but Trump still claimed he had been cheated. "Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” Trump wrote on Twitter. "Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.” Neither of those things happened.

Large-Scale Fraud

Back then, few took Trump's allegations seriously. Now, though, he’s in the White House, and many people he trusts occupy positions in the state apparatus. Briefings on the security of the presidential election, for example, are now being given by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a Trump acolyte who has spread the abstruse theory that the scandal about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was in fact a conspiracy perpetrated by Barack Obama.

Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University argues that there can be no doubt that Trump is setting the stage for a refusal to accept a potential election defeat in November. Brooks has formed a working group for the Democrats that is tasked with preparing Biden’s campaign team for the worst-case scenario: a president planning a coup d’état. If Biden doesn’t win by a landslide, Trump will most likely claim victory, Brooks believes.

Trump had peaceful protesters cleared out of the way for his photo op in front of St. John's Church near the White House.

Trump had peaceful protesters cleared out of the way for his photo op in front of St. John's Church near the White House.

Foto: UPI / LAIF

Trump has been saying for weeks that his opponents in the fall presidential election are preparing to carry out large-scale fraud. The Democrats believe it’s no coincidence that the president’s criticism is focused on postal voting, even though it makes no sense at first glance. A study by Stanford University published in mid-April concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats would benefit from a U.S. vote carried out entirely by mail.

Around half the American electorate wants to vote by mail this fall, more than ever. This is mainly because of the coronavirus, which has led millions of Americans to want to avoid waiting in long lines for hours in front of their polling locations, as is common in the U.S. At the same time, Trump and congressional Republicans are refusing to provide additional money to ensure an orderly election process. "That's a recipe for distrust,” says Nathaniel Persily, who teaches at Stanford University Law School and specializes in American electoral law.

Trump already declared in 2016 that he won’t voluntarily concede defeat, and the chaotic electoral system in the U.S. gives him several opportunities to question a Biden victory. Over 10,000 different bodies are responsible for carrying out the presidential elections – cities, municipalities, counties – and the postal voting system is a patchwork quilt. In some states, like Texas, vote-by-mail is only permitted if the voter gives a valid reason. Other states have switched entirely to mail voting. There are also different deadlines and security standards. In some states, the signature on the envelope must match the signature given at the time of vote-by-mail registration, which opens the door to challenges to the validity of hundreds of thousands of postal votes.

Now Rosa Brooks and many other American lawyers are working through scenarios that, until recently, seemed unthinkable. What if, on election day, Republicans imposed a curfew on cities with traditionally large numbers of Democratic voters? What should be done if the outcome is close and the president refuses to recognize the result in a swing state like Pennsylvania? Given that it takes days to receive and count all postal votes, what should be done if Trump proclaims himself the winner before that happens?

Bringing the Peace Back

"We don't have some single entity that can validate" the outcome of the election, Brooks says. "It’s purely political.” The more the professor has looked into the subject, the more pessimistic she has become that a president can be stopped if he has no qualms about ignoring the will of the people. It’s not even clear that the Supreme Court would accept a suit against a president who refuses to vacate the White House. And even then, what if Trump simply disregards a Supreme Court ruling?

The Secret Service would have to escort the president out of the Oval Office. But the Secret Service reports to the Department of Homeland Security, Brooks says. "Their boss is the secretary of homeland security. His boss is Trump."

There have been several extremely close election results in the United States. In 1960, Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy by less than 113,000 votes. In 2000, the race between George W. Bush and his Democratic rival, Al Gore, came down to only a few hundred votes in Florida. But in both cases, the country was spared a constitutional crisis by the fact that the defeated candidates ultimately conceded defeat. This kind of humility can hardly be expected from Trump.

"Trump is going to contest whatever happens if he loses,” Jacob Hacker, who teaches political science at Yale University, argues. The question would then be whether American society can force the president to back down. Trump may have the Republican Party and parts of the state apparatus under his control, but the protests that are happening daily across the country are increasingly turning towards the president.

This past Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of people, young and old, black and white, once again protested outside the White House. They were facing down police officers with helmets and truncheons. The crowd included Pat Rolich, 60, from Virginia. "Trump is escalating the situation, causing more and more violence. It almost feels like living in a police state,” he says. For him, it is clearer than ever that Trump is no longer tenable as a president. "We need someone who can bring peace back to our country.”