While President Donald Trump and former VP Joe Biden make their closing arguments to voters in battleground states, a divided US electorate and, indeed, a world watching from the sidelines faces a worrying question: What if 3 November does not offer the political reset that so many voters, analysts, and allies are hoping for? No matter who the next occupant of the White House is, he will inherit a country depleted by the health and economic tragedy of Covid-19, exhausted by tweet storms, and at least partly disaffected by the election outcome itself.
Increasing evidence indicates that November’s election is unlikely to be the balm for all that ails the country.
One recent poll found that four in ten college students polled plan to participate in protests if Trump is reelected in November. And the propulsion to unrest is not just about Trump. An estimated six in ten students polled said they will confront peers who can vote in the election but do not. These sentiments follow an even starker poll, finding that among Americans identifying as either Democrat or Republican, one in three believe that violence could be justified to progress their political party’s objectives.
While not directly connected to either political party, we have already seen stunning acts of political violence this election season, including the Kenosha killings by a 17-year-old vigilante with an AR-15-style rifle at a protest against police violence, the fatal shooting of a ‘Patriot Muster’ protester by a private security guard in Denver, and a foiled plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. All this as US gun and ammunition sales have reportedly “surged” in the election run-up, including by first-time buyers and demographics not traditionally associated with gun ownership.
The violence has, of course, not gone unnoticed. There is an increasing chorus ringing the alarm that November 3rd may not mark an end to political uncertainty, but rather bring the beginning of a more volatile, sinister moment in US political history. To prepare for all eventualities, Facebook plans to deploy emergency levers developed for “at risk” countries, including slowing viral content in the US to counter election-related unrest and violence.
As a long-time scholar of electoral violence, here’s what I know: If winners repeatedly win and losers repeatedly lose elections, or if winners are perceived to repeatedly win and losers to repeatedly lose, then losers may pursue alternative strategies to access power.
Holding free and fair elections is as fundamental and old as America itself. Yet as the definition of what it means to hold both a free and fair election has evolved over time (see, for instance, the 15th Amendment of the Constitution granting African American men the right to vote and the 19th Amendment expanding the franchise to women), so too have efforts to undermine it.
With the US holding a pivotal election in the midst of a global pandemic, American voters have been the recipients of election-related misinformation, including a fake email influence campaign directed by Iran, and watched as mail-in ballots and the US Postal Service have come under attack. New claims of mail-in balloting fraud, ballot harvesting, poll watcher intimidation, double voting and delayed results concerns make headlines daily.
The narrative thread of illegitimacy around November’s elections and its results has the potential to pull further apart the fabric of a country already frayed, and in so doing raises the likelihood that voters turn to alternative non-election strategies to be counted and heard.
According to Gallup’s latest available data, only 40 percent of Americans polled have confidence in the honesty of US elections. Restated in the alternative, the majority of Americans polled do not have confidence in the honesty of US elections. Is there any doubt that an already activated protest population (of all political stripes) and waning trust in US elections — plus a president sowing mistrust and hesitating to repudiate extremist groups or promise a peaceful transfer of power — is a potent recipe for instability?
Grievances around the election’s integrity will travel through the existing fault lines in American politics (the left-right spectrum; racial inequality; the K-shaped Covid-19 recovery; the coasts versus the middle; red states versus blue states), activating them further and heightening the likelihood of civil unrest and violent responses across US cities in the aftermath of November.
This will look like anti-mask demonstrators in Ohio rallying at the State House against a Biden victory and his eight-point plan to combat Covid-19; Antifa activists in Portland or Seattle protesting Trump’s re-election facing off against federal agents; or confrontations between armed Proud Boys and racial justice activists at dueling election results rallies in Texas, New Jersey, or Michigan.
For Americans who have set their countdown clocks for November 3rd hoping it will bring an end to the turbulence, for allies waiting to see if US voters choose Trump twice and longing for the reassuring embrace of multilateralism, reinvigorated Transatlantic relations and a return to business-as-usual, cracks in the American foundation are unlikely to resolve even if Trump is voted out of office. There will be losers in this election. With so much at stake, so much out in the open for the world to see, political risks are more likely to rise in the coming months than fade away.
Dr Lindsay Newman is a senior political analyst