On the morning of July 30, Donald Trump took to Twitter, his preferred medium of broad public address, to muse openly about the challenges of holding the upcoming federal election during the COVID-19 pandemic. As is common with his tweets, the idea kicked off a flurry of outrage from opponents, blunt rebuke from officials and damage control by Republican politicians.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he wrote. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
First things first: the challenges of voting during this election will be steep. At the best of times, voting in the U.S. involves a messy patchwork of systems, administered at the state level and with wide disparities in access. Many states are now looking at expanding mail-in voting to ease the process during the pandemic. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion, there’s little evidence that mail-in voting is insecure: in American states which utilize it widely, it has been generally successful.
Moreover, Mr. Trump cannot move the election. At least, he can’t do it legally. In the United States, the election date is set by federal law, and the Jan. 20 conclusion of a presidential term is guaranteed by the Constitution. If Congress — including the Democrat-controlled House — wanted to delay the election, it would have to pass legislation, signed by Mr. Trump and, as the New York Times pointed out, open to court challenges, which would certainly come fast and furiously.
With this in mind, a number of Republican politicians — who have largely fallen into lockstep behind Mr. Trump, even as they lament him in anonymous interviews with journalists — were quick to shoot down the suggestion that the election be moved. But the real concern here isn’t that Trump might find a way to move the election — it’s what he is communicating to his supporters when he voices the idea, and what he is setting the groundwork to do.
From the moment he decided to run for the presidency, Mr. Trump has kicked at the pillars of American democracy, flouting its norms with an attitude ranging from blundering disinterest to outright hostility. This behaviour was always brokered in part by his refusal to admit either fault or failure: when it appeared he was highly unlikely to win in 2016, he began to preemptively accuse the Democrats of “rigging” the election. Now, trailing Joe Biden in the polls as a pandemic crisis sweeps the United States, he is musing about fraud and moving the entire election.
The risk here isn’t that the election will be moved. It won’t; while the Trump presidency has shown that a lot of what we considered key checks and balances on power are, in fact, only as strong as the willingness to abide by them, this particular pillar would encounter far more resistance than makes it plausible. But once again, Mr. Trump is giving his supporters a ready-made excuse to object to the result, should he fail to win a second term. Mr. Trump will, almost certainly, blame such a failure at least in part on the challenges of voting during the pandemic; his self-anointed status as a perpetually aggrieved victim will continue intact.
Whether Mr. Trump wins or loses, the biggest concern now is whether American democracy will be able to withstand the fallout. He is historically unpopular, but backed by a furiously loyal base that aggressively defends his every act. No matter which way the presidential election results fall, the reaction will be explosive. Already, Mr. Trump is piling the tinder, ready to drop the match.