Trump is playing a dangerous game
"Election is free and fair if I win it and rigged if I lose". I wrote this sentence many times during our period of contested elections under the caretaker government system. I never imagined that I would have to write this about a US election. After having raised the bogey of possible massive election fraud during a re-election campaign, President Trump is now refusing to accept its result. He is opting for litigation to ascertain "legal" votes, implying that there were "illegal" ones, without any shred of evidence so far. Even the Republican controlled states have stood by the accuracy of the election process.
Trump is doing what he does best—disrupt. He did it all through his tenure and he is doing so as he departs, not, of course, if he can help it. But it is a dangerous game he is playing. If he really follows through with his threat of not "conceding" the election, he will cause serious problems in smooth transfer of power and push American politics towards uncharted waters, not to mention making his country subject of ridicule all over the world.
So much of democracy depends on following norms, precedence, procedures, decency and a willingness to play by the rules. Democracy is as much a system as it is a mindset, a collection of values fundamentally rooted on the respect for the "public will" and conceding to it when voted out. If a major actor of this process—in this case Trump—refuses to play by the rules and norms then the whole edifice of democracy risks being seriously dented. Trump's refusal to accept the electoral verdict will create all sorts of problems for a smooth transfer of power, a cornerstone of democracy. After all, politics is about gaining power and democracy is about its smooth and peaceful transfer reflective of people's choice. The more sober section of the Republican Party leadership must rise to the occasion and see that the choice of the majority is honoured.
A seriously vulnerable point of the US presidential election is the practice of "conceding" the election when one is defeated. Since its founding days in every election the defeated candidates had "conceded" to the winner. Normally presidents complete two terms and the election, held at the end of the second term, has two new contestants, neither of whom are in power. However, if the defeated candidate is the incumbent, as is in this instance (Trump being one of four one-term presidents) then the case is radically different. The sitting president, who is in power, has to "concede" to allow the process of transition to the new leadership to take place in a smooth manner.
So, what happens if Trump does not concede as he has announced he would not? Courts will come into the picture and their verdicts will set the course. We do not know how long it will pan out but we can be sure that it will make the relations between the winning and defeated parties—between the democrats and the republicans—bitter. The "time to lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other" appeal by Biden may fall on deaf ears making the "healing" difficult if not well-nigh impossible, definitely in the short run. People expect Biden to remain patient and he, perhaps, will. But much will depend on how elaborate, protracted and time consuming the legal process ends up being. Thankfully there is a time limit till January 20, 2021 when the new president is set to take oath. It is hoped by then some solution will emerge and power will be transferred without fracturing the time honoured process.
The fact that accusations of "widespread election fraud" is being raised and the president himself is talking about "election being stolen" is a reality that US voters have never faced before. It shows that the political divide between the two parties—considered to be two pillars on which the functioning of the American democratic process depends—has come down to such a level that they do not hesitate to question each other's integrity. The suspicion has become so deep, so entrenched, so all-consuming that they do not think twice before accusing each other of such vile crime as "stealing an election". Imagine how the Senate, the House, the various committees, the caucuses, the bipartisan groupings will function with such mutual questioning of political ethics. Differing on policies or party ideology is one thing but accusing an opponent of a criminal act is something quite different. Seldom, if ever, in nearly two and half centuries since it gained its independence had US politics stooped as low as this.
As we see, from the outside, the US post-election scene unfolding, we are horrified at what President Trump is dragging the US politics into. The fact that he got 71 million votes to Biden's 74 million is a testimony to the support he enjoys. It is to his considerable credit that in spite of his unbridled narcissism and the fact that hidden within his message of "America First" was another message of "Trump First", he still managed to gain the confidence of 48 percent of the American voters. No mean feat in any democracy. It is a matter of great concern that a good part of his supporters are extremists, believing in narratives that are neither fact based nor logical, prone to provocations—and many are armed—and ready to take to the streets if called upon. We may soon understand the true meaning of Trump's earlier directive of "stand back and stand-by" to followers.
Thanks to Trump, I had almost forgotten that US presidents could be eloquent. For four years "nobody did as much for America as I did, nobody created as many jobs in the US history as I did, nobody did (this or that)... as much as I did…" repeated ad infinitum and also using a vocabulary of limited words half of which consisted of "I", "great" and "never before" made listening to the US president—as a journalist I had to—a strain on the ears, the brain, and finer sensibilities. I used to be filled with sadness at what the US presidency had been reduced to—a pulpit for unabashed self-praise.
However, one speech by the president-elect, Joe Biden, refreshingly changed it all. Suddenly the speech was making sense, the words made an impact, one point led to another, it addressed the urgent issues at hand and the listener was eager to hear the finish of what the speaker had started to say. There was substance, meaning, vision, and the future in what Biden was saying. The presidency seemed on its way to getting its sheen back. Obviously, Joe Biden is no Barack Obama but what he lacked in eloquence he made up for by substance.
It is definitely the understatement of the moment to say president-elect Biden has a huge task in hand. Bringing together a divided nation is obviously his first priority and he appears to be best suited for this challenge. Forty-seven years in politics and numerous instances of bi-partisan work will give him personal links with many ranking members of the Republican Party that will facilitate his task.
It may be asked why I, as a Bangladeshi journalist, am so bothered about who becomes the next US president. The answer is simple. I care about democracy as the best political system and elections as a best process of expressing people's choice. Its success or failure anywhere, especially in the US, will greatly determine the prospect of its success elsewhere.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.