Could There Be Violence In The 2020 Election?

With the US facing widespread polarization and divisiveness, and President Trump's rhetoric growing increasingly violent, the question must be asked.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

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Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

Advocates of democratic elections have often maintained that the ballot box is really a substitute for the gun and the bomb. Open and competitive elections offer citizens a means of determining who governs and for what purpose without resorting to violence. Unfortunately, and despite the claim, free, open, and competitive elections have frequently served as occasions for violence.

Not all democratic contests though provide such occasions. Relatively routine elections where who wins and who loses will not make much difference in most people’s lives rarely stimulate violent reactions by the contestants and their supporters. Losers will abide by the election outcome aware that they will get another chance at the next election. Both winners and losers agree that ‘rules of the game’, that the ‘referees’ conducting the balloting and then tabulating the results will be neutral and fair-minded.

Some elections though are far from routine affairs. The stakes seem higher and the principal parties contesting the election regard their opponents as enemies rather than opponents with whose views they disagree. These showdown or crucial elections occur from time-to-time among the world’s now declining number of democracies.

In these situations, it is often the military that intervenes to nullify the apparent results and ‘restore order’. As in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nigeria, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the developing world, the military leadership may suspend the ‘rules of the game’ and impose its own authoritarian control on the country. In other situations, the military may pick a winner and install their preferred candidate in office – no matter the nominal vote count.

The chances seem highly unlikely the US military would intervene to affect the results of the 2020 presidential election. Nevertheless, the coming election is shaping up to be a crucial contest whose outcome will likely affect the lives of millions of voters, some of whom won’t abide the outcome of their candidate loses – or appears to lose.

The context is one in which the Republican and Democratic supporters view each other more as virtual enemies than simply rivals contesting over limited stakes. Ezra Klein quotes Pew Research on the subject: “ In 2014, Pew found that 37 per cent of of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats viewed the other party as ‘a threat to the nation’s well-being’. By 2016, that was up to 45 percent of Republicans and 41 per cent of Democrats.” And many other observers have pointed out American voters are more polarized than at any point in recent history. These divisions are not simply political but reflect sharp social and economic cleavages in American society.

To make matters worse and the electoral stakes higher, the immediate circumstances surrounding the November presidential contest appear to exacerbate the country’s existing divisions: the Covid-19 pandemic with its mounting death toll, exceptionally high levels of unemployment, and widespread mass protests over the country’s racial divide combine to raise the stakes and heighten tensions. Moreover, one of the presidential candidates, Donald Trump, the incumbent president, owed his 2016 electoral success and current popularity to his apparent toughness and his verbal attacks on illegal Hispanic immigrants, Muslim citizens, and ‘black lives matter’ protesters.

Given these conditions, we should not be all that surprised if the November 2020 election leads to bouts of violence, particularly if the election is widely perceived as a close, neck and neck race. It makes sense to consider the prospects for violence at each of the three stages of the contest: the campaign, election day, and its aftermath.

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The Campaign

First, given the exceptionally high level of unemployment in the country, there will be large numbers of people with time on their hands and serious grievances about their circumstances. In other words, there will be a larger number of people than normally available to participate in violent activity. Second, the Secret Service will provide protection for both sets of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. So, it can’t be completely discounted but assassination attempts appear unlikely. But not impossible. “Lone wolves” who don’t issue threats on the Internet and who lack ties to known extremist groups might pose a threat. They are likely to fly under the FBI’s radar.

Far more likely however are episodes of ‘turmoil’, relatively unplanned events in which supporters and opponents of Trump’s re-election come into violent conflict. Campaign rallies and other large scale events in which there is face-to-face contact between the contending sides seem likely to spark fights and rioting. These may very well become serious if one or both of the two sides are armed. If the “Black Lives Matter” protests spill over into the campaign, right-wing opponents, e.g. the Boogaloo Boys, displaying pro-Trump paraphernalia, may seek to disrupt the protests and insight violent retaliation.

Election Day

Of course, the name of the game is voting and having the votes counted fairly. The right to vote is currently under some threat. Trump and many GOP lawmakers falsely claim mail-in ballots are fraudulent. The rationale for their use in 2020 is that in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic it avoids the necessity that voters stand in line, in close proximity to one another, for long periods and thereby spread the virus. It is likely GOP lawyers will challenge the use of mail-ins, as the votes are tabulated. But it is at least conceivable that some Trump supporters may seek to use force to prevent the inclusion of these ballots as the vote-counting gets underway.

There’s a chance there could be fights over who gets to cast their ballots in-person. In Georgia and a number of other southern states, attempts have been made to purge the rolls of individuals who failed to vote in the previous election(s). The purge has fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. In these same localities, the number of polling stations has been reduced making it more difficult for African-Americans to cast ballots. Assuming many African-Americans will be highly motivated to vote in 2020, the refusal of election officials to allow them the opportunity to cast their ballots may very well become a source of frustration-fueled violent protests.

After The Election

The 1800 presidential election between the incumbent John Adams and the challenger Thomas Jefferson was precedent-setting. Despite a highly acrimonious contest, Adams recognized his loss and ceded the presidency to Jefferson. Since that time losing incumbents have done likewise. This has been a fundamental principle of American democracy. There is some reason to believe the 2020 election may test this practice.

A number of news commentators have argued Trump may refuse to leave office in the event he loses to Joe Biden. How Trump would go about holding on to the reins of power remains to be seen. But it makes some sense to consider the possibilities for violence given different election outcomes.

  1. If Trump wins decisively, we should expect massive street protests by his numerous opponents in the electorate. These are likely to lead to violence especially when jubilant Trump supporters attempt to interrupt the protests.
  2. If the election outcome is ‘too close to call’ and subject to court challenge, a la the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, Trump would likely be declared the winner given the partisan divide on the Supreme Court. Many Biden supporters will refuse to accept this outcome and launch a massive wave of protests, challenging the fundamental legitimacy of the whole process. Street battles could ensue.
  3. If Biden wins decisively, Trump will likely claim the election was rigged against him and will likely urge his followers to take to the streets in opposition to the result. This would be an exceptionally dangerous situation because many Trump voters who take to the streets will be armed with a wide assortment of lethal weapons. When they encounter serious opposition, either from the authorities or Biden supporters they are likely to use them.

Of course, a fair amount of guesswork is involved in anticipating the likelihood of violence in the coming presidential election. But we should hardly be surprised though if serious violence occurs over the next several months in view of the high stakes involved and the mutual animosity of those preparing to vote.

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Opinion // 2020 / Authoritarianism / Donald Trump / Elections