Donald v. Democracy: Trump Takes Election Loss Like Defiant Dictator
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.
As these words are written, US President Donald Trump and his supporters are challenging the results of the 2020 election; an outcome that has Trump losing to his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. We may be shooting at a moving target, excuse the expression, but there may be some benefit in examining challenges to election results in other cases and other parts of the world.
Part of the rationale for holding competitive elections in the first place is that they provide a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of domestic political conflicts: ballots instead of bullets. This may be true in many cases but unfortunately, competitive elections may also serve to promote violence during election campaigns. If the stakes are high and the electorate polarized, e.g. the last elections in Weimar Germany, the campaign itself (the term ‘campaign’ is drawn from the vocabulary of war) may inflame tensions and lead to heightened levels of violence. Under these circumstances, the military may intervene even before the campaign ends.
In Greece in April 1967, political tensions were so high and the prospects of a left-wing victory so likely that the Greek military seized power to prevent the elections from taking place. The new military junta, the regime of the colonels, proceeded to purge (i.e. torture and imprison) socialist politicians. The colonels regarded these techniques as so successful, they invited a delegation of Italian neo-Fascists to Athens to teach them how to apply these lessons to the Italian situation (see Leonard Weinberg, A History of Right-Wing Violence in the Western World since World War II, World Scientific, 2020).
Donald Trump’s two campaigns for the presidency were marked by calls for political violence. At campaign rallies, when confronted by protesters, Trump advised his followers “knock the crap out of them”. And, more recently, when armed right-wing protesters marched into the Michigan state legislature, Trump expressed his approval, siding with the militia types over the governor and the forces of public order. As a so-called ‘law and order’ campaigner Trump urged the ‘Proud Boys’, Bugaloo Bois, and other far-right aggregations to stand by, to be ready for action as the need arose.
Of particular interest to us are efforts to disrupt the voting process once it’s already underway. Algeria offers a prominent case of voting interference. In 1992 the country’s ruling military junta agreed to hold open competitive elections – as part of the country’s transition to democratic rule. The balloting was to occur in two stages (along the lines of the French electoral law). Much to the chagrin of Algeria’s rulers, the first round of voting produced massive voter support for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). This Islamist party showed every sign of being able to win the second and deciding round. At this point, the military intervened, called off the balloting, and declared FIS illegal. These steps led to what amounted to a civil war, as FIS transformed itself into a terrorist organization.
Haiti, under the leadership of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier offers another case for our consideration. After a failed attempt by army officers to depose him in 1959, the Haitian dictator created the Ton Ton Macoute, a paramilitary force loyal to him exclusively. Over the 1960s the Ton Ton Macoute carried out grisly killings of “Papa Doc’s” enemies or suspected enemies. When elections were held (under foreign pressure) the Ton Ton Macoute operatives threatened voters that evil would befall them if they didn’t support Duvalier. Superstitious Haitian also came to believe that the group possessed certain magical powers (Voodoo) that would be inflicted on them if they opposed Duvalier’s rule. During the Trump era, the closest approximation to the Haitian Ton Ton Macoute appears to be the QAnon conspiracy theory, which populates the world online with fantastic accounts of powerful conspiracies and demon-like enemies.
American history provides still other examples of voter interference in competitive elections, along both religious and religious lines. In New York and Boston during the 1860s, nativist Protestant gangs used mob violence to prevent Irish Catholic immigrants from casting their votes in various elections. (Martin Scorsese’s film “The Gangs of New York” captures the atmosphere.) The major American case involved the Jim Crow South. For almost a century white southern gangs and local officials used violence to deny African-American citizens access to voting booths throughout the region.
This brings us to the 2020 presidential election and Trump’s efforts to undermine its outcome. In Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a few other cities pro-Trump crowds gathered in front of offices where the votes were being counted. Their demand was that the counting be stopped, or in some cases continued, on the grounds that illegal or invalid votes were being tabulated — with no evidence to support the assertion. Officials responsible for overseeing the vote count have been the recipients of death threats, warning that if they didn’t stop the count, they should expect to suffer the consequences. President-elect Biden has also been the target of death threats – a few arrests have been made.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
In many competitive election outcomes, it is common for the losing side(s) to contest the results, often by violence. This is particularly true in developing nations. Oftentimes the military intervenes on one side or the other or, more commonly, simply to put an end to competitive elections more generally.
If there is turmoil and violence following the balloting the military may attempt to impose martial law or declare a ‘state of exception’ and employ brute force to restore order. As on several occasion in Nigeria, the military leadership may decide that enough is enough and end civilian rule and replace it with a military regime on an indefinite basis. The history of several Latin American countries during the 1970s, Brazil, for example, is illustrative.
The military may veto the results of competitive elections if the presumed winners are perceived as posing unacceptable threats to the status quo. Until the Erdogan dictatorship came to power in Turkey, the country’s military leadership exercised what amounted to a veto over governments it regarded as unacceptable.
The chances of the US military intervening in the aftermath of Trump v. Biden contest seem to be remote, although some months ago Col (ret) John Nagl (co-author of the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual) sent a letter to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warning him that Trump was likely to subvert the democratic election process, so that the forces under his command should be ready to defend the Constitution in the event Trump’s followers sought to keep him in office, irrespective of the vote totals. Gen. Milley has since made where he stands clear:
Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff: “We do not take an oath to a king or queen, a tyrant or dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion.
We take an oath to the Constitution.” pic.twitter.com/B73sBLsxpe
— The Hill (@thehill) November 13, 2020
In sub-Saharan Africa, there is an abundance of cases in which an incumbent president refuses to leave office after he has lost to an opposing candidate at fair and open elections. Zimbabwe under the leadership of the late Robert Mugabe may be used as an example, although the behavior is so widespread that we could do worse than record a history of post-independence Africa based largely on the refusal of defeated incumbents to relinquish power. In many instances, the defeated president deploys elements in the military, or what amounts to a praetorian guard, to fight off opposition groups.
Despite his admonition to the Proud Boys and other violent far-right groups to ‘standby’, ready for action, Trump seems unlikely to activate armed militias to keep him in the White House after January 20, 2021. Instead, Trump is pursuing what amounts to a judicial coup d’etat. He and his supporters are using the justice department and federal courts, now populated by the President’s own appointees, to overturn the election results. Fortunately for democracy, the cases are failing all around the country as his voter fraud lies fall apart. As more Republicans call for the transition to start, it’s looking like the end of the road for Donald Trump.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.