Just over a year ago there was a coup in Bolivia. Early votes in the 2019 Bolivian election favoured the conservative opposition, but as counting continued, the left wing incumbent, Evo Morales, took the lead. In the view of the Organization of American States (OAS), the primary election-monitoring body of the Americas, this reversal of fortunes was deeply irregular. The OAS released a press statement to that effect, opposition protests erupted, and soon after the military asked Morales to resign.
In the weeks that followed, the OAS, The New York Times, The Economist, and the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all doubled down on the claim that Morales had committed election fraud. The trouble was that, as repeated studies have now demonstrated, no evidence existed to justify that assertion. The swing to Morales was to be expected—the rural votes, which strongly favour Morales’ party, were simply counted later in the day. In June of this year, The New York Times sheepishly ran an article with the headline A Bitter Election. Accusations of Fraud. And Now Second Thoughts.
We should be grateful, then, that the Washington, D.C, based OAS chose not to observe the 2020 US election. In crucial states like Pennsylvania, mail-in ballots dominated by Joe Biden were the last to be counted and Donald Trump was forced to watch in desperation as his lead evaporated. True to form, the President took to Twitter to express his dismay at his own reversal of fortunes: ‘STOP THE COUNT!’.
For the most part, the count was not stopped, and by Saturday all major media, including the President’s stalwart supporters, Fox News, had called the election for Joe Biden. For a brief moment, it looked like the Republican party would jettison Donald Trump and accept the results.
That didn’t last long. Donald Trump did not need the OAS to undermine his election: by Tuesday, one year after attacking the results in Bolivia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was using his press briefing to predict ‘a smooth transition to a second Trump administration’. On social media and in press conferences, Trumpian politicians were trying out various, often mutually contradictory, accusations of voter fraud. Eventually, the Republicans settled on a catch-all approach that asserted nothing and implied everything: ‘Every legal—not illegal—vote must be counted’, proclaimed Melania Trump. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell changed his early tone of concession to one of defiance, stating that ‘President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.’
The question, of course, is not about the President’s legal rights but about his legal basis. As the New York Times reported Wednesday after contacting election officials in every state, no evidence of electoral fraud exists. Neither does any Democrat disagree with the assertion that only legal votes must be counted. But that is hardly the point. For the desperate, hapless Donald Trump, the point is to throw the hail-mary of coup attempts. The process would be the same as that in Bolivia: undermine faith in the election, create civil unrest, and have the military or courts step in. The microscopic chances of success don’t change these facts—a desperate and incompetent coup attempt is a coup attempt all the same.
For McConnell, who risks losing control of the Senate in January if Georgia’s two run-off elections do not go away, this moment is about keeping the Republican base energised. The tactic here is to sow agitation among Republican supporters and confusion among Democratic supporters. That tactic was first stumbled upon by Trump four years ago, accidentally, through brutish intuition, and made explicit by Steve Bannon in 2018. ‘The Democrats don’t matter,’ he said. ‘The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.’
Today, this method of agitation and confusion represents the extent of Republican political vision. There is no longer term strategy at play – simply a faith that the politics of division and disarray will return the anti-democratic outcomes the Republican Party needs to survive. This is a minoritarian party that depends on voter suppression and gerrymandering. Some readers may be too young to remember, but the last time the Republicans won more votes than the Democrats in a Presidential election, John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia.
Venture online today and you will find voices rushing to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. Responding on Twitter to the editor of this magazine Jonathan Green, Daily Telegraph Opinion Editor James Morrow jumped to Trump’s defence: ‘Actually it’s not [a coup]. Was Al Gore attempting a coup when he dragged his 2000 recount effort out for 37 days? Everybody needs to calm down.’
The difficulty for Morrow is not so much that the 2000 election was far, far, closer than the 2020 election. Nor is his primary problem that Al Gore’s legal basis was far, far superior than Donald Trump is today, with the primary advantage of it existing. The real problem for apologists like Morrow is that they have adopted a fetish for legalism. They assume that anti-democratic attempts to seize power are only problems (or count as coup attempts) when they break the law.
This view might charitably be called naive, but when employed in the service of authoritarianism it ceases to be innocent. When the Bolivian military ‘asked’ Evo Morales to resign, no law was broken. When Jeanine Áñez, a lowly politician from the Bolivian hard right, stepped into the vacuum and took control of the country, no law was broken. Nonetheless, it was a coup—a coup overturned only by a mass political movement of socialists who forced a new election to be held a month ago, and then won in a landslide. The lesson of history is simple: it is in the spaces between the law that democracy can seep away.
The sad, joyful truth of democracies is that they are held together with sticky tape and goodwill. They are the result of symbiotic, mutualistic behaviour between participants who, from day to day, operate as enemies, but when the time comes find faith in one another. Functioning democratic states are not simply the result of laws. They are made up of laws, and conventions, and norms, and practices, and sheer, sheer, unadorned faith. All of these are necessary to liberal democracy.
The Republican Party knows this and takes advantage of it. The choice from the Republican Party and its propaganda arm, Rupert Murdoch’s media apparatus, to act against these foundational requirements of democracy has given it a structural advantage in our political culture. And the failure of liberals to understand the extent of that bad faith—to be fooled over and over again—has allowed this anti-democratic spirit to run unchecked. Their failure to reaffirm the value of democracy, which has its expression in egalitarianism, has allowed that shared simultaneous commitment to dwindle in our political culture. No democracy can survive without it. It is after all because of, rather than in spite of, the fragility of US democracy that Americans insist their system is imbued with ‘checks and balances’.
But it must not disappoint us that the life or death of what we call liberal democracy will depend not on laws but on that irresolute quality of human beings, faith. Instead the beautiful fragility of this system asks that we are clear-eyed in our view of those who act against its spirit. That begins with the most simple of acknowledgments: Donald Trump would like to steal this election. He will not succeed. But the Republican Party’s choice to erode what is left of America’s faith in democracy goes against the founding principles of the country. In the US and around the world, we will be living with the consequences for generations to come.
Alistair Kitchen is an Australian writer and photographer. He tweets at @alistairkitchen