How Trump Is Damaging Democracy, According to One Political Scientist

A Cornell University government scholar warns that false claims of voter fraud have dangerous long-term implications.
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President Donald Trump sits opposite Russian President Vladimir Putin during lunch at the Elysée Palace while commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11th, 2018, in Paris, France.

President Donald Trump sits opposite Russian President Vladimir Putin during lunch at the Elysée Palace while commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11th, 2018, in Paris, France.

On Monday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted accusations of voter fraud in Florida's mid-term election. Without evidence, Trump claimed that "large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere" and that many more are "missing or forged," and insisted the vote count must stop.

To Tom Pepinsky, a professor of government at Cornell University, these tweets represented an alarming development. On his blog, Pepinsky wrote that the president's statements were "almost incalculably bad for American democracy."

"There is one thing that a country can't get rid of and still call itself a democracy, and that's respect for elections," Pepinsky explained in an interview on Wednesday morning. "If you care about democracy, you have to trust elections. You have to want them to be fair. You have to respect the process and cede to their outcomes, regardless of what party you're in."

Pepinsky is an associate professor in Cornell University's Department of Government, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy program. He has studied authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia and is co-author of the recently published paper, "The Trump Presidency and American Democracy," in Perspectives on Politics.

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How can a political figure undermine the legitimacy of elections?

There are two ways: saying that some of the people who are participating in them shouldn't be allowed to do so, or that the way the votes are being counted is not legitimate. As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has done both.

First he raised the possibility of fraud when immigrants or people of color vote. Now he has claimed we should not trust the constitutionally outlined procedures for counting the votes.

What are the possible ramifications of this rhetoric?

If you're someone who believes in President Trump, and/or the Republican Party, you might come to believe elections are illegitimate. Elections are the way we resolve our conflicts, so if elections are not legitimate, we'll need to resolve our conflicts some other way

The list of non-electoral options is made up of things we would not like. Republicans must resist the temptation to undermine American democracy for short-term electoral gain.

Trump says a lot of things off the cuff. I was more concerned when other prominent Republicans, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio, started echoing his statements. Does that suggest this tendency to claim vote rigging—without any evidence—is spreading beyond the president, and into the Republican Party more generally?

Yes. I don't believe President Trump thinks ahead when he says these things. What frightens me even more [than his initial claims] is that Rubio and Scott are now saying the same thing. These are people who ought to know better. I find their behavior shocking and shameful.

Had President Trump not said these things, they would not have said it. That's evidence that it matters when he says [outrageous] things.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum attends a service to advocate for a vote recount at the New Mount Olive Baptist Church on November 11th, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum attends a service to advocate for a vote recount at the New Mount Olive Baptist Church on November 11th, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Can we trace this back to the 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won after a lengthy recount in Florida was suspended? What lessons did the Republican Party take from that experience?

I don't know if they are consciously thinking, "We got our way in Florida once by playing hardball, and we can do it again." But if Republicans concluded from that outcome that they should push electoral procedures as far as they can go, we're in trouble.

There's nothing untoward about recounting the ballots when the law says you must recount the ballots. Why would you object? The only reason I can think of is you are afraid you won't like the outcome. But we don't obey the law because it gives us outcomes we want. It's because we trust the process.

There's a fear on the left that this is the beginning of an attempt by the Republican Party to hold onto power even as its membership ages and shrinks, making it less likely that the party will win elections.

It's hard to know if that's true. There is something about our current tribal mentality that has led politicians like Rubio to take positions on the electoral process that are fundamentally anti-democratic. That might be good for their party in the short term, but, in the long term, it will result in continued, repeated squabbles about every election.

The beauty of elections is they are a way to resolve conflicts peacefully, and you can always come back and fight again next time. It's almost as if the Republicans have forgotten they will bounce back in two or four years.

Actually, there's an excellent chance they will win these Florida elections—they are ahead in both—which means they may end up delegitimizing their own victories. But it's also important to note that Republican Arizona Senate candidate Martha McSally graciously conceded in her race, even though some top Republicans apparently urged her to make vote fraud an issue.

If that's true, then Martha McSally is a hero. She did an honorable thing—exactly what someone who cares about the future of American democracy would do. I thought it was good for American democracy for Al Gore to accept defeat [in 2000].

You wrote "the downstream consequences of the loss of electoral legitimacy are nearly impossible to predict." Given that caveat, where do you fear this might lead us?

The short-term consequences of this particular set of complaints about Florida is that, on the margins, there will be an increase in the number of people who believe Congress is not a legitimate, democratic institution. If you believe it isn't, then Congress doesn't have standing to check the president's power.

Another thing I suspect will happen is the party that loses any particular election will, on the margins, be more likely to support extra-constitutional ways to resolve political conflicts. The idea that "the system isn't working, so we need somebody strong to lead us" has taken hold in places where elections have lost their legitimacy, like the Philippines and Thailand.

So this could increase the chances we would slide into authoritarianism.

Yes. People who feel disenfranchised might turn to a charismatic leader. They could even lose faith in the judicial system. These are the things I worry about.

There's no doubt our system is undergoing a stress test, but there are signs it is holding together pretty well so far. A Florida judge reprimanded politicians for claiming vote fraud without evidence; other judges have halted other misbegotten Trump initiatives. There's clearly an ethos of professionalism among many government employees that keeps them doing their jobs in a legitimate way, despite what the president may tweet.

I agree that things are holding up right now. But we shouldn't have to rely on ordinary people to faithfully execute their roles in government. It's not good news that our chief executive is criticizing people for doing so. If we survive this, it's because a whole bunch of people were able to resist the president's rhetoric.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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