Scorched earth politics: On Donald Trump and U.S. democracy

The ferment in U.S. politics appears unabated weeks after one of the most controversial election campaigns, with outgoing President Donald Trump refusing to concede to his victorious rival, Democratic President-elect Joe Biden. The irony is that this outcome, which is inflicting damage on the fabric of U.S. democratic systems, was all but a foregone conclusion, given the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on mail-in voting, and Mr. Trump’s repeated and ominous warnings that he would not accept such votes as legitimate. The tectonic shift toward mail-in voting in the 2020 election presumably stemmed from voters’ desire to abide by social distancing norms through the pandemic, which has had a far worse impact in the U.S. than elsewhere. Yet apparently the same world view that led Mr. Trump and his supporters to deride mask-wearing, social distancing and a ban on large gatherings has led them to dismiss the pandemic as a Democratic conspiracy to “steal the election” from the incumbent, allegedly through massive voting fraud. The truth is that even before this election, the rate of voting fraud was statistically insignificant, according to non-partisan studies. It is therefore unsurprising that despite Mr. Trump and his supporters firing off a string of election-related lawsuits, most legal manoeuvres of this sort have failed, leaving ever fewer avenues for the Trump team to finagle the result from certification.

However, even if all legal challenges foisted by Mr. Trump peter out, the losers of this election may sabotage the transition process to such an extent that it hobbles the Biden administration taking charge on January 20, 2021, an act of calculated vindictiveness aimed at throwing cold water on a democratically elected successor. It appears that the Biden transition team is not taking this possibility lightly, and is expediently seeking a critical sign-off from the head of the General Services Administration, the so-called “ascertainment” that is required, recognising the “apparent successful candidate” in a presidential election as a precursor to disbursing critical funds and infrastructural resources to the next administration. To date, GSA chief Emily Murphy has not officially recognised Mr. Biden’s win, potentially denying his team up to $6.3 million that Congress has appropriated for the transition process. Even if this barrier is somehow transcended, Mr. Biden has a tough road ahead because if Republicans hold the Senate, it is only through tireless cat-and-mouse negotiations with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell that Mr. Biden will be able to get his legislative agenda and Cabinet and other government nominees passed in the Upper House. Mr. Trump is doubtless emboldened by the 10 million-vote increase in his tally over 2016, but his final act of intransigence is scorching the landscape of the incoming administration, and thus harming the recovery prospects of the country he claims to love.

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