The American Election Part V: Norms and Governance

The “efficiencies” introduced by the US Postal Service prior to the election, particularly in Democratic-dominated areas, did impede the delivery of ballots until these cuts were suspended. This failure in governance could be considered political interference in the selection of a president. Measures that reduced the possibility of eligible voters being able to cast their ballot did so as well. Old fashioned measures, such as poll taxes and literary tests, are no longer used. But reducing voter rolls in counties which generally vote for the opposition by severely limiting early and absentee ballots, reducing access to voting stations, reducing the number of voting places in minority areas by Republican governments, distributing misinformation on where and when to vote and making identification difficult for the voter, all were used to limit voting from the other side. Gerrymandering, that is, drawing constituency boundaries so that Democratic voters, for example, were crowded into the same constituency so that, although that constituency might be lost in the voting, three other surrounding constituencies might be won because they number of Democratic voters in each was reduced.  

Gerrymandering, and a host of other measures to suppress the vote of minority voters expected to vote mostly Democratic, worked to keep the senate in Republican hands, reduce the Democrat majority in the House and to deliver well over 70 million votes to Trump in spite of his appalling character and his massive failure in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing constituencies in such a politicized instead of a neutral way might be legal, might even have been the norm no matter which party held power, but it was not and should not be a norm of a quality democracy.

Breaches in norms may not have been strictly illegal, but they did offer an unwarranted assault on the democratic process. For most norms – such as how power is transferred from one administration to the next – are not written regulations, but assumptions about how leading politicians are expected to behave when they lose. Instead, Donald Trump’s declared victory at 2:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning when voting had not been completed, gained little traction. His futile calls to stop the counting (at least in those states where he lead) appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.

The problem was that breaking norms was at the heart of the Trump approach to governance – and of his widespread appeal for disaffected voters. That he kept getting away with it, that he rubbed the noses of his Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House to ensure their supine support, actually won him applause. Power back to the people was Trump’s slogan even as he broke almost every single norm that limited presidential power lest an incumbent use power against the will of the people.

Trump never did, as he promised, release his tax returns. He never reported on the loans he owed to foreign powers and/or banks. He openly flouted the norm of separating private business interests from executing government responsibilities. He fed his clubs, hotels and golf courses with business, not only from those who wanted to get on his good side, but from the large contingent of security personnel and civil servants required to accompany him when he golfed an average of 70 times a year at his own golf courses and when he visited Mar-a-Lago. What used to be an absolute norm – avoiding even the appearance of personal financial gain in carrying out presidential responsibilities – had been thrown in the trash heap with little fanfare.

Donald Trump abjured accountability, firing whistleblowers at will and even five Inspector Generals, the internal watchdogs of government operations. There were no legal obstacles, except normatively that this was not the way presidents were expected to govern. Presidents are not supposed to remove the Inspector General of the Intelligence service for personal political motives. Michael Atkinson had not blocked the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s blackmailing of the Ukraine president to get dirt on the Bidens in return for American military aid and support. Christi Grimm, the Inspector General for Health and Human Services, had been too honest in revealing the terrible faults in managing the COVID-19 pandemic that led to so many deaths. Steve Linnick, the Inspector General for the State Department was inspecting whether Pompeo and his wife had used civil servants for personal purposes. Because he had not been sufficiently loyal, he was fired. For Trump, the responsibilities of these officials were not to higher principles but, rather, to the person and not the office of the president.

President Trump decapitated the heads of the defence department – Mark Esper, the defence secretary, resigned. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr. James Anderson, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, Joseph Kernan, and Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense, Jen Stewart, submitted letters of resignation. They were all replaced by Trump loyalists. Chris Miller became Acting Secretary, Anthony Tata was named under Secretary of Defence for Policy. Did Trump want to use the military to defend retaining his continuation in office? Was national security being used for personal interests rather than the security of the state?

Trump’s conversion of the Attorney General of the United States into his own consigliere of his mob mentality was perhaps his greatest breach of accepted norms, starting with Jeff Sessions who had heretofore been an unquestioning loyalist. Trump fired the FBI Director because he had crossed him, Trump’s own personal interventions into the legal cases against his campaign associates were serious breaches of previous normative standards. Trump attacked and insulted the judge trying a case in which he was personally involved. He pardoned associates who had been convicted. Instead of the justice system being independent of power, it was increasingly reduced to an extension of his personal interests.

Loyalists rather than competent individuals or even just Republican partisans were appointed to other senior civil service roles. Trump insulted the democratic leaders of allied countries, including Canada. In a democracy, practices and traditions determine norms and their protection. Trump has been a disrupter of such norms. He personalized foreign policy – the withholding of aid to the Ukraine until he received cooperation in announcing an investigation into the Bidens – just the most egregious example. But perhaps the clearest breach of norms is the professed claim to tell the truth. Donald Trump is an unadulterated serial liar.

Though a number of those broken norms will have to be restored through legislation, unfortunately banning the propensity to lie will not be one of them. How do you legislate restraint? How do you legislate against self-aggrandizement? How do you legislate civility? How do you legislate against spreading conspiracy theories or offering cover for white racists? But you can legislate against authoritarian propensities that had heretofore been unwritten norms.

However, the biggest and most important norm belonged to voters. They were expected, not required, to cast a ballot. That norm emerged from the Trump administration much stronger than ever. Looking at the glass two-thirds full, over 160 million American voters cast ballots. Looking at the glass one-third empty, up to 80 million did not. Perhaps some were ill.  Some were in longer term care facilities and were incapable of voting. But I am not letting off the hook those who were eligible to vote but chose not to do so. Given that about 155 million votes were cast, and 239 million Americans were eligible to vote, and generously assuming that five million of those who did not vote were ill or faced other serious obstacles to voting (even by mail!), that adds 79 million Americans whose souls are stained by their failure to care enough about the fate of their country, of the world, and of democracy, to cast a ballot.

Should we celebrate that more voters than ever came out to vote Donald Trump out of office? Or should we shed crocodile tears because more citizens cast votes for Donald Trump as the loser than any previous president in the history of the United States? The norm of voting had been more than upheld. But Donald Trump, by personalizing the practices of governance, came far closer than anyone preceding him to cover the first lap towards an authoritarian form of rule. What if he had won? Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who did not vote for Trump, correctly stated that, “No election or person is more important than our Democracy,” which meant that preserving democratic norms was even more important than an election. Was it? What happens if electors choose an arsonist who will not allow the firetrucks to leave their stations whenever he decides to set a fire? Should we take away his book of matches?

The sitting presidenmt is on the way to getting at least 75 million votes. He has 72,174,568 and there are still 6,577,661 to be counted. Thankfully, Biden leads Trump by 5 million votes on route to 80 million. But what if Trump had not been responsible for many of not most of the 232,000 Americans who died of COVID-19? What if unemployment levels had not reached record heights so that Trump will be the first president since at least WWII to leave office with fewer jobs in the country than when he took office? Had he not been impeached by the House of Representatives for “high crimes and misdemeanours”? And he currently undermines democracy by insisting his loss was a fraud. What if he won? He came close. The situation reveals how fragile democracy is.

There are those that celebrate voter turnout as the apogee of democratic success and voter apathy as a sign of failure. The election for them was a stunning victory for representative democracy. But recall that when the referendum was held in Germany in 1933 to withdraw from the League of Nations as the key step to consolidating Nazi rule, 96.3% of voters cast ballots. The voter approval rate was 95.1% And this was not the result of coercion or intimidation or fraud. Further, Jews participated in the vote. And their much higher rate of disapproval of the measure was subsequently used against them to reinforce the Nazi claim that they were disloyal. The series of referenda culminated in 1934 in giving Adolf Hitler absolute power as Chancellor in Germany.

All this is to insist that although voting may be a cornerstone of democracy, it is not the only one. Governance in the interests of citizens rather than in service to preserving and expanding power is another normative practice of democracy. So are the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

Biden promises to heal. Biden promises to lower the toxic levels of public discourse. But how if Donald Trump continues to shout obscenities from the side of the field, “Lock him up,” can the temperature of partisanship be reduced? If Trump, given his control over so many voters, continues to hold Republican elected officials hostage, democracy remains in deep shit. Perhaps, however, because the vote counting has been so tedious and so drawn out, we may still have time for more and more Republicans to grow a backbone and remove their support for a regime approaching authoritarian rule.

“By the skin of our teeth.” Will that be the story of our time?

2 comments on “The American Election Part V: Norms and Governance

  1. Cornelia Baines says:

    Guardian today has a disturbing how-to manual for Trump to stay in power.

  2. I will read it. Thanks.

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