When Joe Biden takes the oath of office as the 46th US president on 20 January, the ceremony will not proceed in the customary way. The inaugural parade, in which the outgoing president escorts the incoming one to the crowd’s cheering crowds, will not take place. Instead, the president-elect and his wife will walk a short distance to greet Democratic Party supporters before the inauguration ceremony, but afterwards they will not be given the traditional welcome tour of the White House.
The usual celebration of American democracy has been marred so much by a bitter electoral battle but by anxieties over the balloting process that undermine the legitimacy of the president-elect, which emanate from President Donald Trump himself.
In a marked departure from democratic norms, where allegations of fraud never come from the incumbent president, Trump has consistently maintained that the election was rigged. Since 2016, and with renewed force after 3 November 2020, of all the world’s political figures the American president has been complaining about the opposition – a true crisis in which the very concept of democracy is being brought into question, with some asking whether democracy is really universally applicable regardless of time and place – something that looks like a recurrent theme for a while yet.
Democracy of course did not receive a very warm welcome from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers; and it had little traction among eastern philosophers later on. In modern times fascist and socialist philosophers mounted a fierce assault on democracy, arguing that it did not serve the interests of justice or competent government.
Trump is simply a new test for democracy. The phenomenon of has not been confined to the US. Versions of Trump are in power in Poland, Hungary, Brazil and India; many more enjoy leading positions in Western parliaments. In the UK, the tendency has caused a break with globalisation, an important ideological corollary of democracy, and led to Britain exiting the EU.
A rebel who revolted against the institutions and customs of the US being escorted out of the White House against his will brings the crisis of democracy to a head. When diagnosed as a symptom of demagoguery – a phenomenon Greek philosophers described as an ailment that was hard to remedy and brought disaster to the societies it struck – the glitch was thought to lie in the democratic mechanism or process being exploited by populists, bringing societies to the brink of anarchy indeed.
The time between polling and inauguration (3 November-20 January) is enough opportunity for the populists to throw the concept of democracy into doubt. Already the disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote which ultimately determines the outcome primed the scene for confusion over legitimacy. The situation was easy to anticipate given how George Bush Jr and Trump prevailed thanks to the Electoral College results in 2000 and 2016, even though Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in those elections.
The scene looked increasingly fraught: media outlets anticipating results, state governments settling objections and suits, Electoral College or both houses of confirming results or turning them over to the Supreme Court and a possible recount orders. All the while American and the rest of the world were kept in suspense.
Trump left no stone unturned to exploit every possible gap and loophole through successive defeats at court and despite general public frustration. A significant number of Republic congresspersons backed him in these efforts, so much so that Republican Party is now on the threshold of a schism. If this occurs, it will eliminate one of the most important advantages of American democracy: the stability made possible by two major parties able to balance out each other in order for power to change hands peacefully.
Trump went so far as to phone Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to pressure him into tampering with the election results. Fortunately, the Washington Post obtained and publicised a recording of the phone call in which Trump used flattery and threats in the hope of persuading Raffensperger to overturn his defeat.
Richard Haass, an American diplomat and the long-serving president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted, “Listening to the full tape of @realDonaldTrump’s call, [it is] impossible not to wonder about long-term vulnerability of American democracy as well as whether/how US will ever be able to promote democracy elsewhere again.” According to Andrew Weissmann, a former prosecutor on Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, the call contained evidence of “criminal intent.” Other competent sources agreed that it violated both Georgia and federal law.
Many have voiced stronger opinions, accusing Trump of treason and of sowing the seeds of dictatorship. Yet the crisis of democracy is deeper than the need to accommodate to new technologies, economic, health and even climate cries putting the modern state under pressure, and the global division between democratic and autocratic governments.
What we see today in the US and the UK is that democracy as a kind of ideological whip compelling the world to live according to systems and charters that were shaped by various historical, social and cultural circumstances. In any event, the subject merits looking past the shame caused by Trump and Trumpism, as these phenomena are probably more than mere obstacles on an otherwise victorious path.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.