0958 GMT October 22, 2020
US President Donald Trump has consistently attacked the integrity of the upcoming presidential election. He has called mail-in voting a “big scam” and has suggested that he may not transfer power if he loses. These are exceptional and unprecedented threats to American democracy. But they mask an equally dangerous fact that we have recently uncovered: A significant portion of the American population agrees with him. This is the tinder for an impending constitutional crisis along with a host of other indicators that scholars are calling to the public’s attention.
Trump has long cast doubt on the validity of American elections. For years he has claimed, without evidence, that millions of ballots were cast fraudulently in the 2016 election and that he should have won by a wider margin. He also claimed that key midterm elections in 2018 were rigged against Republicans.
The crescendo of vitriol and misinformation about elections is currently at fever pitch. Some prominent Republicans, such as Sens. Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell, and Mitt Romney have publicly stated that the election will be conducted fairly and that the outcome will be respected. But most Republicans have remained silent. And the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is in part motivated by hope that the outcome of next month’s election, if legally contested, would be litigated in favor of the Republican nominee.
Research we recently conducted, however, suggests that the president is not alone in disregarding elections. We administered a survey to a representative sample of the American population in July of this year and found that 31 percent of Americans believe it is a good idea to have a “strong incumbent leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.”
Predictably in the current context of political polarization, political loyalties strongly condition views on elections. A total of 38 percent of Trump supporters back giving up on elections and Congress. This figure would likely climb substantially higher if Trump publicly and vociferously alleges that the election has been stolen come November. Alarmingly, a smaller but still significant share of individuals who did not support Trump in the 2016 election – 27 percent – similarly doubt the importance of elections and Congress.
These numbers in the aggregate have trended up in recent years. The World Values Survey asks individuals a similar question about having a strong and unencumbered leader. The most recent survey in 2017 reported 38 percent of Americans supporting an unchecked leader, compared to 24 percent in the mid-1990s and 29 percent in the early 2000s.
The considerable popular support for the violation of core democratic principles such as the supremacy of elections and separation of powers is worrisome. Many Americans may be willing to look the other way if Trump loses the vote count but decides to dig in. Others may outright support the president staying in office against clear constitutional guidelines to the contrary should he lose.
American have similarly checkered support for other important democratic practices. We conducted an experiment in which we prompted respondents to consider a fictitious scenario in which the president orders the Department of Justice to investigate his main political opponent on charges of corruption. We told respondents that the department has a mandate to enforce federal law and is headed by public prosecutors who have been appointed through a nonpolitical meritocratic process based on expertise and have served under different administrations across the political spectrum. The department refuses the president’s order, indicating that there is not sufficient evidence to merit an investigation. In response, the president replaces long-term public prosecutors with loyalists who will start an investigation against the president’s main opponent.
One-fifth of respondents supported this nakedly partisan move. And again, this was dominated by Trump supporters, with 36 percent of his supporters supporting this action. Whereas 55 percent of non-Trump supporters found this action impeachable, only 10 percent of his supporters felt it was worthy of impeachment. We then randomized whether respondents were told that public prosecutors were protected from being fired on the basis of their expertise-based decisions by existing law or long-standing norms of executive noninterference. More Trump supporters (40 percent) backed the president’s action when it violated existing law. This suggests that elections are not the only pressure point for democracy.
Because our survey was nationally representative, it does not just capture nonvoters who might be apathetic about politics in general. This suggests genuinely tepid or qualified support for democracy.
Mediocre support for democracy, especially among the president’s supporters, is a recipe for a constitutional crisis. The military is debating whether to step in should Trump sow election chaos or refuse to concede defeat if he loses. Trump is also trying to quickly nominate a favorable replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court in order to capture the top referee of American democracy. And with the Senate controlled by Republicans and the House of Representatives by Democrats, there is little hope for Congress to decisively check Trump.
The likelihood that Trump manages to stay in office in the face of a clear loss in the Electoral College vote is probably small. But with so many mail-in ballots and other changes due to the pandemic, vote-counting may take time, and early results may not be able to quickly adjudicate the election. Such a scenario could spell trouble for American democracy.
Experts have spelled out a number of nightmare scenarios. These range from allegations of foreign hacking to tedious and contested recounts in swing states. In the worst case, an unclear and contested outcome could bring Americans onto the streets, where armed rabble-rousers could stir chaos and provide fodder for an emergency executive declaration. Even if the most far-fetched scenarios remain improbable, the fact that they should be taken seriously represents a sea change in US politics.