When Donald Trump was elected as the new U.S. president in fall 2016, many Europeans sought reassurance by telling themselves that it wouldn't be that bad. Sure, as a candidate he had accused Mexicans of being rapists and Chancellor Angela Merkel of being insane. He denied climate change and promised that he would back out of international treaties that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had painstakingly put together.
At the time, though, people said it was just campaign rhetoric and that Trump would quiet down once he was surrounded by serious advisers in the White House. "I would ask that we wait to see what concrete steps he takes," said Horst Seehofer, now Germany's interior minister, in November 2016. And plenty of people took the same approach, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The concrete steps that Trump then took inlcuded building a wall on the border with Mexico, backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement and imposing punitive tariffs on a number of countries, including Germany. One after the other, he got rid of all those independent voices in his government that people like Seehofer had hoped would rein him in. Most recently, he cut off U.S. funding to the World Health Organization right in the middle of the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years.
Trump is impulsive and often behaves like a 6-year-old, we've known that for a while. But those who continue to believe that he won't do what he says he is going to do are naïve at best. It isn't just mindless prattle when Trump complains day after day about how vulnerable the November presidential election is to voter fraud. No, it is an attempt to lay the groundwork for a coup. "I think there's a there's a greater risk of a real breakdown of democracy in the next six months than at any point, at least in the post-World War II period," says Jacob S. Hacker, a political science professor at Yale University.
According to surveys, more than half of American voters would like to vote by mail in November, more than ever before. In response, Trump has issued a constant stream of claims that this form of ballot casting is prone to manipulation, despite a lack of evidence for such assertions. It isn't even the case that Republicans would be disadvantaged by absentee voting. On the contrary, older Americans in particular value mail-in voting for its convenience. Trump himself has also voted by mail in the past.
Much Too Intemperate
When he nevertheless claims that the Democrats are preparing vast voter fraud, it demonstrates one thing above all else: He would like to hold open the option of ignoring the election results should it be close. Mail-in voting presents a perfect alibi for doing so: Should the counting of absentee ballots move slowly, Trump could prematurely claim victory. Or he could simply claim that his opponent's victory is based on manipulated mail-in ballots as an excuse for refusing to accept the results.
Those who think such a scenario is nothing more than a political fantasy should take a look back to 2016. During the campaign, Trump refused to say that he would accept a loss. Later, he claimed that the race against Hillary Clinton was only close because she had profited from millions of fraudulent votes. There is no proof for that claim either.
Today, Trump has a Republican Party behind him that is willing to provide cover for every act of capriciousness that the president decides to commit. Attorney General William Barr is mostly focused on protecting cronies of the president from long stays in prison and Trump has managed to install two confidants on the Supreme Court, where there is now a solid conservative majority. And it should not be forgotten that back in 2000, the court had the last say in who emerged victorious from a close election.
We in Germany should avoid gazing in arrogance at the at-times rather kooky and drama-prone American democracy. It is over 200 years old and has thus far survived all of the crises it has faced. Our first experiment with democracy collapsed after just 15 years -- and it was the Americans who resuscitated it after 1945.
Nevertheless, it would still be negligent to close our eyes in the face of reality. That democracy dies in darkness is one of the political shibboleths of our times. But nothing describes the situation in the U.S. as inadequately as this saying. Trump has never been cagey about his intentions; he is much too intemperate for that. Whatever goes through his head can be read just minutes later on Twitter. His opponents should not make the mistake of seeing him as nothing but a clown as a result of that immoderation. They would be better advised to carefully study his Twitter tirades. And to take them seriously.