The recent presidential election may have been unique in American history.
We had an election in which the accuracy of the result in one key state — Florida — was disputed (Bush vs. Gore, 2000); an election that was so close it was settled by Congress, with disastrous consequences, especially for Black Americans (Rutherford B.. Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden, 1876), and an election that could have been challenged, but the losing candidate chose not to (Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960). And of course, we had an election that state governments from an entire region refused to accept, triggering an attempted secession (Lincoln vs. John C. Breckinridge, 1860).
But we may never have had an election that — despite all the evidence to the contrary and recounts conducted by both Republican and Democratic election officials — so many believe was a fraud.
Polls indicate that millions of Americans — about two-thirds of Republicans, accounting for about one-third of the electorate — have succumbed to the president’s poisonous disinformation that the election was fraudulent and that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. Interviews with Trump supporters who are convinced that he won the election, and by a landslide, are disheartening. The number of people subscribing to that view is alarming.
The storming of the Capitol by the mob of Trump supporters believing that they could prevent or at least stall acceptance of the Electoral College results is evidence of the dangerous effect of his disinformation. It also may foreshadow more political violence. We shouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in the growth and aggressiveness of fringe groups and more armed paramilitary demonstrations as occurred at the Michigan State Capitol.
Some Republicans have spoken out against the president’s disinformation campaign. A former Republican Missouri congressman warned that the “theater” that Republican Senate “objectors” created would only sow “seeds of distrust” that would “be absorbed into the body politic (and hasten) the end of democracy.” Nebraska Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse pointedly stated that “Adults don’t point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government.”
The president’s disinformation campaign about an election he believes that he surely won but was stolen is his ploy to justify overriding the will of the people. While it has not changed the outcome of the election how will his assault on our traditions, norms, and rule of law make it more difficult for the incoming Biden administration to govern an already severely polarized nation? Longer term, how will the president’s disinformation campaign affect the future of our democracy?
The full effect of a presidential candidate who lost an election but is psychologically and emotionally incapable of accepting defeat and gracefully conceding is not likely to be known for a while. But there is a significant part of the story about the stress Trump’s presidency imposed on our institutions that future generations will note: the backbone of our democracy, namely our Constitution and the rule of law, stood against the president’s disinformation campaign and his assaults on our traditions, institutions, and norms.
Thanks are due to a handful of state election officials, both Republicans and Democrats — but also to the law enforcement officials who prevented the planned attack on Michigan’s governor for which the paramilitary members are now accused; and the FBI director who warned us of increasing violence by far-right terrorist groups; and hundreds of former federal attorneys who spoke out against the president’s obstruction of justice as detailed in the Mueller report; and to the Republican and Democratic-appointed judges who rejected all but one of more than 60 lawsuits the president’s lawyers filed in a desperate effort to overturn the election.
But the protection of our constitutional values and the rule of law is our collective responsibility. The November election demonstrated how people in a democracy engage in revolution and rise up to remove a president. It will be our shame if we ever fail in that responsibility or allow a disinformation campaign to convince us to give up on democracy, and especially the power of our vote.
Democratic institutions require protection from the corrosive effect of disinformation. Trump has been a super-spreader of toxic disinformation. Its effect is heard in the voices of those who say they don’t believe Trump lost the election. But facts and truth are the vaccines.
Howard Simon retired in 2018 as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.