With 58 days to go, Joe Biden remains the firm favourite to win the presidency on 3 November.
“For the first time in my life, I don’t know if the American electoral process is going to work”, said the Republican pollster, Frank Luntz in a BBC interview last week. “I’ve never had to say this before. I’ve never been this nervous before. It’s very bad.” In case you are not aware, Luntz is best known for developing talking points and other messaging for Republican causes. Perhaps no person alive has spent more time polling Republican voters and informing a generation of American lawmakers. His ability to translate between Washington and the provinces, connecting the concerns of everyday voters to their representatives in power, is unsurpassed. If Luntz is nervous, the electorate should be very worried. Many are.
In various ways, the recent Party Conventions summarised the huge divide between the Democrats and Republicans. The body politic is more fractious than at any time in recent memory. Where once the two parties overlapped ideologically, the dividing aisle has turned into a chasm. The calm, re-assuring image of the Democrats contrasted vividly with the reality-TV event created by Republicans, where 50% of the speakers had the surname Trump. Past Conventions always gave occasion to appraise the two parties for their ideas, their principles and visions for governing. Not this time. For the Republicans there was one simple negative message to the electorate, repeated time and time again: “the world as you know it will come to an end if Democrat Joe Biden is elected”. The gap between Republicans and reality is increasingly widening.
In a speech peppered with disinformation (OK let’s call them lies), all of which can be easily fact-checked, President Donald Trump constantly bellowed out the simple message “I am the candidate of law and order”, forgetting perhaps that the law and order breakdown is occurring on his watch. As the Washington Post reminded readers last week, “Trump continually repeats himself. Most of the time it’s a lie, but by saying it over and over again people start to believe it.” In this election he has little choice but to lie. The US is experiencing three major crises: a health crisis unprecedented over the past 100 years; an economic collapse equivalent to the Great Depression; and a spate of racial violence against unarmed Black people. Bereft of any solutions, Trump chose to wave off all of this, instead spinning a false narrative of Democrats’ “socialism” and indifference to violence.
Trump’s simple strategy was revealed last week by the President’s outgoing counsellor and long-term supporter, Kellyanne Conway, when she told Fox News: “The more chaos, anarchy, violence and vandalism reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.” In other words, the more Trump’s supporters are able to generate racial hatred, violence and vandalism, the greater his chance will be of being re-elected by a nervous population.
Judging by the images on our TV screens, they are succeeding. In the streets of Portland, Oregon, a “caravan” of 600 pickup trucks paraded in military style, festooned with pro-Trump flags and carrying armed white supremacists targeting peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors. In Kenosha Wisconsin, where police shot an unarmed Black person, a vigilante Trump supporting “Kenosha Guard” has been recruiting members on Facebook to join the “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property in Kenosha”. The “call to arms” was picked up and distributed by the far-right conspiracy website Infowars. Donald Trump later lauded the Portland caravan in a tweet, calling the participants “GREAT PATRIOTS”.
Kenosha and Portland represent a foretaste of things to come in the next few months during the presidential election season. All over America pro-Trump vigilante groups are being formed, encouraged by conspiracy websites such as QAnon and Infowars. Conspicuously, Infowars was the website investigated by the FBI for its dissemination of fake news stories by Russian bots during the 2016 election. Trump with his demagogic provocations repeatedly unleashes barrages of Twitter messages favouring these websites and embracing those who are “protecting my presidency” against street protests, which he claims are actually attempted “coup d’états” against him. In August, he told his adoring followers that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged”. This is the alarming backcloth to the upcoming elections, a real and present danger to American democracy.
With 58 days to go, Joe Biden remains the firm favourite to win the presidency on 3 November. He is currently 8 points ahead of Donald Trump in the popular vote. Four years ago, however, Hilary Clinton was an even greater favourite to win the election, but remember what happened. Clinton easily beat Trump by 3 million in the popular vote, but because of the vagaries and gerrymandering of the US Electoral College system, where just a few additional voters in a few “swing states” tilted in Trump’s favour, Clinton lost the election.
There are 4 possible outcomes of the 2020 presidential election: clear wins for Trump or Biden, or narrow wins for either. Of these the most likely, according to current polls and projections, is a narrow win for Joe Biden. It’s also the most dangerous outcome for US democracy, as neither Trump nor his supporters will accept it.
Here’s a likely scenario. In the early hours of Wednesday, 4 November, exit polls show that Donald Trump has won the majority of votes cast by those who actually turn up and vote at polling stations. Analysts predict that the majority of Trump supporters and a minority of Biden supporters will vote “in person”, so this result is likely. There will be huge celebrations by Trump supporters who claim he has won the election. But wait. Postal votes, called “mail-in” in the US, will take time to count and the final result of the 2020 presidential election may not be known for several days.
This year analysts predict a huge increase in voting by mail, possibly by as many as 50% of the electorate, because of fears of catching coronavirus in long queues at polling stations. This will put enormous strains on the antiquated and faltering US postal service, suspiciously made worse by the Trump appointed and megadonor Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Analysts believe that the majority of postal voters will be Biden supporters, so not only will the result be delayed because of the sheer volume, but as the votes are counted the result will gradually move in Biden’s direction. Trump supporters will be infuriated.
Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, without any evidence, that postal voting is fraudulent, even though he himself uses it. He insists that extensive mail-balloting will inevitably be tainted and that the result will only be valid if he wins. In recent months he has seeded the words “postal voting” and “fraud” in his supporters’ minds, which will further increase their rage when Biden ultimately wins by a narrow margin. Trump will refuse to accept the result and insist that the election was stolen from him, furiously tweetstorming “FRAUD” to his millions of subscribers. Pro-Trump vigilantes will take to the streets in every state in America, attacking any Democrat they meet while destroying infrastructure. The situation will quickly get out of control and partisan America will explode. When politics ceases to function, when rules governing its practice have been dismissed as a hoax, all that remains is the barrel of the gun.
None of this may happen, of course. But if it does, as is likely, there is one person who will be smiling smugly in the background: President Vladimir Putin. Russia played a huge part in Trump’s success in 2016 when it unleashed a cyber-war on the US electoral system, squeezing Trump over the line. Putin is at it again, emboldened by having paid little price for doing so last time. Already in this 2020 campaign, Russian proxy websites are amplifying Trump’s own message that his enemies are cynically using the coronavirus pandemic to implement “diabolical and untrustworthy mail-in voting” to aid the Democrats.
President Putin’s plan has always been to sow distrust in US institutions and democracy, with the aim of destabilising or even destroying America. In this election Donald Trump, Vladimir’s bosom friend, will most likely have achieved this for him.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.