President Donald Trump’s false claims to have won the White House race have been rejected by the courts but have deepened the wounds in a bitterly divided nation and risk leaving long-lasting scars on American democracy.
“This kind of poison can really seep into a democracy and delegitimize how normal politics occurs in this country,” said David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas.
“We’re in an era in which the legitimacy of our institutions is being challenged like it never has been before except perhaps during the (1861-65) Civil War.”
Ahead of the November 3 contest with Democrat Joe Biden, Trump set the stage to challenge the results, claiming it would be “rigged” if he was not reelected.
Trump repeatedly attacked mail-in voting, which was used more extensively by Democrats because of the coronavirus pandemic, alleging without evidence it was subject to fraud.
Despite getting seven million fewer votes than Biden and losing the Electoral College 306 to 232, the 74-year-old Trump has refused to concede.
Trump and his allies have filed more than 50 court cases alleging fraud in states where he lost narrowly — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — and even some where the margin was significant — Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
The Trump campaign has lost every case with the exception of a minor one and the Supreme Court, which includes three justices appointed by Trump, shot down what was seen as their last-ditch bid on Friday.
That case would have effectively disenfranchised millions of voters in four states where Trump lost and was backed by 126 Republican House members, prompting expressions of concern by Democrats and some Republicans over the willingness of their fellow lawmakers to do Trump’s bidding.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said Trump and his Republican allies were waging “the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of this country.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, said Republicans were conducting a “reckless and fruitless assault on our democracy.”
Held the line
It is not just the courts though that have resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. State election officials and legislators, many of them Republicans, have also done so, paving the way for the Electoral College to confirm Biden’s win on Monday.
“Americans can take pride in the fact that our judicial institutions and state legislators have held the line and not bent to the political pressures,” Farber said.
Polls suggest, however, that Trump’s unfounded allegations of ballot fraud have resonated with his Republican base.
Seventy-seven percent of the Republican voters in a poll by Quinnipiac University said they believed there was widespread voter fraud. Only three percent of Democrats believed that.
Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor, said Trump’s claims were able to flourish in an environment in which “people are getting news that is very siloed.”
“They’re basically going online and talking to themselves,” Schiller said. “Covid has really distorted any kind of way of gauging people’s reactions. There isn’t any other venue for them to hear the counter-point.”
Michael Nelson, an associate professor of political science at Rhodes College, said part of the problem is that Trump retains an iron grip on the Republican Party.
“Nobody will stand up to contradict him,” Nelson said. “They are afraid of making their voters mad.”
Schiller predicted that Biden is likely to face “tremendous resistance for the first six months to a year.”
“But I think Covid will eventually subside, he’ll get a lot of people vaccinated and I think the economy will start to pick up,” she said. “People will start to say, ‘OK, Trump is gone.'”
Nelson said his concern “isn’t so much what’s going to happen in the next year or so” but “if this keeps happening over the next 10 years or the next couple of presidential elections.”
“You could slowly start to see democracy kind of erode.”
Thomas Holbrook, a professor of government at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, echoed that concern, saying he worried that “some people feel like the election was stolen.”
That could lead to an increased level of tolerance for “fringe groups” such as militias in Michigan, Holbrook said.
Thirteen members of a Michigan militia were arrested in October for conspiring to kidnap Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer and last weekend armed demonstrators staged a protest outside the home of a Michigan state election official.
Schiller said that despite the political turmoil in the wake of the election she was heartened by the record turnout of more than 150 million Americans.
“Once Biden is actually sworn in I think we can walk away from this and say that for all of Trump’s attempts to destroy Democratic norms in 2020 he was defeated by the most fundamental democratic practice, which is the right to vote,” she said.