Trump’s Delegitimization of Democracy Isn’t Wearing Off

“Stop the steal” protesters. Photo: Matt Gush/Shutterstock

People who are fond of democratic norms have been hoping that the widespread Republican mistrust of the fairness of the 2020 elections that Donald Trump created before, during, and after Election Day would fade, another vestige of four aberrant years yielding to something approaching “normalcy.” So far, it hasn’t, according to a new survey from CNN, which shows that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans do not believe “Joe Biden legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency.” That’s just a tick below the 75 percent who felt that way in a January CNN survey. In what the pollsters took to be an encouraging sign, the percentage of Republicans who think “there is solid evidence that Biden did not win has dropped from 58 percent in January to 50 percent now.”

The mistrust of Trump voters about the fairness of the election, of course, was the rationale for MAGA efforts to stop Joe Biden’s certification as president-elect by Congress on January 6. Since that mistrust persists, we are beginning to glimpse the possibility of an unfounded suspicion of foul play that cannot be dispelled or even rebutted because it has never really been articulated except in nonsense legal proceedings that every court has instantly rejected, and in chaotic and sometimes incoherent arguments from Trump and his hirelings.

Whataboutists will naturally claim that in this tragically and sometimes inexplicably polarized era, both sides are equally prone to denying the legitimacy of the other side’s president. FiveThirtyEight examined that premise in late November of last year and found it completely unwarranted:

[S]ome Democrats did lose confidence in the election after Trump won in 2016. Nevertheless, a majority of Democrats (as well as Republicans and independents) believed that votes were counted accurately after the election was over. So the finding in this latest round of polls, that roughly three in four Republicans don’t have faith in the electoral process, is a big departure from what public opinion polls found after the last election.

To be exact, polling as of January 2017 found 65 percent of presumably disappointed Democrats expressing confidence in the 2016 results, pretty close to the 71 percent of presumably thrilled Republicans who thought likewise. Keep in mind that some of the 28 percent of Democrats who were not confident the votes had been fairly and accurately counted were probably bitterly opposed to the Electoral College which gave Trump the White House despite Hillary Clinton’s decisive popular-vote margin, or had heard a lot about possible Russian interference in the election on Trump’s behalf. Add in the sheer shock Democrats experienced and never quite overcame at the sheer implausibility of someone like Trump becoming president, and it’s surprising that doubts about the integrity of the election weren’t significantly higher in that quarter.

Indeed, any false equivalence postulated between the Democratic delegitimization of President Trump and the Republican delegitimization of President Biden is much like the claims on January 6 that Democrats challenged the certification of prior victories by George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Yes, there were challenges in those years, but they were scattered, expressly justified as symbolic gestures, and most of all were not endorsed, much less encouraged on an hourly basis for months, by the losing candidate.

Another troubling and distinctive thing about the post-2020 Republican angst is that unlike Democrats in 2016, they have to believe in a lot of fraud to think more Americans supported their candidate than his opponent. Yes, Trump came close to pulling off another Electoral College win. But all the talk among Republicans about the need to respect the 74 million Americans whose votes were counted for Trump involves some pretty serious disrespect for the 81 million Americans whose votes were counted for Biden. The Democrat’s 7,054,000 popular-vote margin was, after all, larger than the winning margins in 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016. Even if Republicans believe Trump was somehow counted out in a few critical states, they sure can’t believe their man was robbed of some popular mandate.

So you have a major political party whose rank-and-file members overwhelmingly believe, without specific evidence and without much justice in the broader scheme of things, that the president of the United States is a usurper who should have never been allowed to take office. That these same people (or certainly their elected representatives) are furious that Biden won’t significantly compromise on his key legislative priorities is grimly amusing. But you have to worry about today’s GOP mistrust in democracy becoming permanent. In 2024, how much of a Democratic margin will be necessary to give a Democratic winner truly bipartisan legitimacy? 10 percent? A minimum of 5 percent in every battleground state? Does the loser get to decide if the winner can actually claim victory? How about if the loser has said for months that any defeat must be the product of a “rigged” election? What if the Republican candidate is again Donald Trump?

In the long run, this phenomenon is a bigger threat to democracy than the thuggish but sometimes farcical insurrection on January 6. And like a slow-motion riot, the threat remains ongoing.

Trump’s Delegitimization of Democracy Isn’t Wearing Off