Ever since his premature claim of victory and baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 US election, commentators have rightfully denounced Donald Trump’s attempt to disenfranchise voters as an attack on democracy and the rule of law. But this turn of events was no surprise. For months, he’d cast doubt on the legality of mail-in ballots and his claims of a stolen election are the culmination of four years of pushing the limits of executive power.
What’s been missed, however, is that in attempting to undermine the process, Mr Trump has unwittingly proven the robustness and independence of the institutions charged with overseeing free and fair elections. “One of the truly positive stories is that the electoral system really did hold up,” notes Paul Rosenzweig, senior fellow at R Street Institute and lead prosecutor of Bill Clinton’s impeachment inquiry.
Federal elections are run at state level. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the perseverance of local authorities — the bulk of which are far removed from Mr Trump’s bubble — has guaranteed both a record turnout and a record number of postal votes.
Fears over violence at polling stations, voter intimidation and cyberattacks on voting infrastructure proved largely unfounded. County clerks, secretaries of state and other officials were unfazed by the president’s antics, instead showing unflinching dedication to electoral processes. As Mr Trump tweeted ‘Stop the count’, the world watched Joe Gloria, a county registrar in battleground state Nevada, calmly declare: “Our goal is not to count fast… We want to make sure we’re being accurate.”
Most of the president’s lawsuits are being dismissed by state courts as quickly as they’re being filed. And many (although certainly not enough) loyal Republican governors and lawmakers have censured him. Even Fox News, the right-leaning channel which propelled Mr Trump’s political rise, has aired fairer coverage than usual — perhaps having realised its responsibility to the public as the US’s most watched news network.
As investors and trading partners watch these events unfold, they should observe that the rule of law is delivered not only by leaders, but also the institutions holding them to account. “Rule of law is really a culture, and it depends on that culture being deep-rooted and on individual actors having internalised how to fulfil their office,” says Murray Hunt, director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. “Even a very determined president with all the powers at his disposal can’t undo that culture over a four-year period.”
That said, checks on executive power have largely been missing throughout Mr Trump’s term. “We give the president immense authority and assume they will use it wisely — unwisely sometimes — but never for their own benefit,” says Mr Rosenzweig. The president’s questionable use of discretionary authority, which includes politicising the justice department, has prompted a push to codify these unwritten norms to prevent future abuses.
Presidential powers aside, the US is still a flawed democracy. The electoral college system, police violence (recently condemned by the United Nations) and a fiercely divided population all present huge challenges. But for all the country’s faults, the machinery charged with running fair and transparent elections — a cornerstone of the rule of law — is not one of them. True to form, the president is taking his claims to the Supreme Court, but the consensus among legal experts is that voters, not judges, will determine the outcome.
Mr Trump has put the electoral system through its paces and, in contrast to the rest of his term, it is keeping him in check. He’s proven that these institutions are less fleeting than an unpredictable leader. And, in that sense, in the sunset of his term, maybe he has in some small way made American democracy great again.