As Donald Trump has continued to suggest that the election will be rigged against him, the media’s takes have only gotten hotter and hotter. “Donald Trump, enemy of democracy” and “Donald Trump vs. American democracy,” two New York Times headlines warned. “Trump confirms he’s a threat to democracy in third debate,” New York magazine suggested. “At the final debate, Trump threatens American democracy,” Rolling Stone claimed.
The argument follows the same thread: If Trump refuses to concede the election, he’ll threaten the basic trust that our democratic system of governance relies on, and the whole system could come tumbling down.
I’m here to deliver some good news: American democracy will be fine.
Trump’s comments are no doubt dangerous. They really do undermine US democracy to some extent, as political scientist Shaun Bowler explained for Vox. And they might lead to voter intimidation, particularly against people of color, on Election Day — as some Trump supporters have already suggested to media outlets.
But it’s important to put this in context. America has survived several actual existential crises in the past — the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War. It’s gotten through tremendous challenges — multiple big economic panics throughout the 19th century, the Great Depression, and two world wars. It’s improved under the large strain of big social movements — particularly the civil rights movement — that forced many Americans to confront some of the ugliest parts of the country’s history.
One presidential candidate’s angry words pale in comparison. In historical terms, Trump is simply not important enough to threaten American democracy — he’s just an angry, spoiled man refusing to come to terms with the fact that he’s, for once in his life, not getting what he wants. That’s not enough to even dent a country that has endured centuries of actual crises. And while he may have some effect on his followers, there’s nothing in America’s history that suggests the country can’t overcome that — we’ve overcome much worse than a few disappointed voters.
As President Barack Obama said last year at Selma, Alabama, the site of pivotal civil rights protests in 1965, “America is not some fragile thing.”
America has centuries of norms defending its democracy. Trump can’t undo that.
There has been a lot of talk about Trump breaking norms throughout the election. The idea is we should be seriously worried about Trump’s norm breaking because it could permanently alter how politics functions in the US.
But one way to see if Trump really is changing the landscape of American politics is to look at what other people think about what he says and how they respond to it.
The American people’s opinion seems pretty clear: They really don’t like what Trump is saying. Trump is currently down by more than 6 points in the polls — a simply massive gap in a presidential election, especially during an election year that political science models say should have favored Republicans. He currently has an unfavorability rating of 61.1 percent — the worst ever measured for a presidential candidate.
If Trump’s racism, sexism, general bigotry, loose talk about democratic norms, and so on were really desensitizing Americans and permanently altering US norms, why do so many Americans appear to despise the man? It seems very clear, based on these figures, that Americans are not hearing what Trump is saying and thinking it’s okay — they are hearing what he’s saying and really disliking it. That’s a massive barrier for Trump to overcome before he’s truly desensitized Americans to his nonsense.
One common point is that other politicians might see Trump’s success so far — after all, he became the Republican nominee for president — and decide they, too, can try to break some norms and win elections.
But again, who’s looking at Trump’s polling numbers and thinking that’s a good idea? If anything, the opposite is happening: Several Republicans have refused to endorse Trump or reversed their endorsements of him. And those who do support Trump — like House Speaker Paul Ryan — have repeatedly distanced themselves from Trump’s inflammatory remarks, with Ryan calling one of Trump’s comments “textbook” racism.
Even Mike Pence — Trump’s running mate! — spent the entire vice presidential debate dodging, denying, and lying about Trump’s past offensive remarks, in a performance that Matt Yglesias described as “throwing Donald Trump under the bus.” No one seems eager to follow the Trump model.
Consider one round of Trump norm breaking that the media — including myself — fretted about earlier this year: his calls for violence against protesters at his rallies. Trump told his supporters at one point, for example, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously.”
Now, there were a couple of scary nights at Trump rallies and some one-off events involving a couple or a few individuals fighting.
But the bigger wave of violence that so many feared never happened. There were many, many warnings before the Republican National Convention that protests there could get violent, but the whole event came and went with barely a peep — just some peaceful marches and counterprotests. Since then, things have continued to be pretty calm.
America’s norms against political violence endured, despite Trump’s words.
Very few people are treating Trump’s “rigged election” talk seriously
Another way you can tell Trump is not actually changing US norms is, ironically enough, his “rigged election” talk.
If Trump were altering the political landscape in some form, then established American institutions would be taking his talk of a rigged election seriously.
That’s absolutely not the case. All the headlines about Trump’s threat to democracy prove that he’s not changing anything — the media is ready to slap him down on this issue. This might not matter much to Trump’s supporters — many of them don’t like the media — but it shows that the broader institutions that enforce US norms are not taking what Trump says seriously.
Just look at how the Associated Press, which is supposed to be an impartial news outlet, opened its story about the final debate: “Threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy, Donald Trump refused to say Wednesday night that he will accept the results of next month's election if he loses to Hillary Clinton.” Norms against this kind of talk are so strong that a supposedly impartial outlet is willing to condemn a major party presidential candidate’s actions in the opening sentence of a big news story.
What about political institutions? Many, many politicians, including some of Trump’s own allies, have roundly condemned Trump’s comments. Trump supporter and House Speaker Paul Ryan, through a spokesperson, said that he’s “fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity.” Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Trump super ally who’s made his share of bizarre, offensive remarks, said Trump’s final debate comments were “stupid,” adding, “I mean, come on, get over yourself. Donald, take your licks, and let’s move on four years.”
Even some of Trump’s own staff have distanced themselves from his comments, with campaign manager Kellyanne Conway telling MSNBC that she doesn’t see evidence of widespread voter fraud.
The public seems to agree: According to a poll by Politico and Morning Consult, nearly 70 percent of Americans say the loser should accept the election results, and a measly 14 percent say the loser should challenge the results.
This is simply not how institutions would react if Trump were actually altering US norms with his words. Americans are thoroughly rejecting what he’s saying.
So here’s what will probably happen on and after Election Day: Trump will, based on the polls (and this could change), likely lose. He may refuse to concede, because he’s Trump. The media and politicians, including his former allies, will denounce his comments. Maybe Trump will continue whining. The Electoral College will meet and vote for Clinton to become the next president. And Clinton will become the next president.
American democracy will function as it always has. Trump’s ultimate impact will be merely proving that he’s not only a loser, but a sore loser.
Things may look pretty bad, but democratic collapses are way uglier than what we’re going through
One reason all the talk about Trump threatening American democracy annoys me so much is because I am from a country whose democracy is actually falling apart. I know how bad that really looks.
I was born in Venezuela. I moved to the US in 1996, and I’ve become a US citizen since then.
My family’s timing could not have been any better. Since then, Hugo Chavez rose to power, taking radical steps to undermine the (already weak) system of democracy that existed in Venezuela — changing the constitution to solidify his rule, shutting down media outlets that opposed him — and his successor is now doing everything he can to delay a vote that could knock his party out of power.
As a result, Venezuela is completely falling apart. Violence is a huge problem — as my grandma’s regular reminders when I call her of the “dangers of the streets” suggest, and as the capital city’s ranking as the most murderous city in the world proves. The economy is in shambles, with food and basic toiletries nearly impossible to obtain in grocery stores, and hospitals turning away desperately ill patients.
This is what a country’s collapse looks like. It’s really serious. People get very hurt. It’s not something to discuss casually.
Trump has no doubt had a negative impact on the US. He has made this election into a circus nightmare, repeatedly insulting anyone who criticizes him even slightly. He has worsened racism in schools — likely having some sort of psychological impact on the millions of girls and Latino, Muslim, and black kids who have heard him insult them in some way over the past couple of years. He has given a feeling of legitimacy to outright racist groups.
But we should also be happy with what he hasn’t managed to do. His words aren’t leading to the kind of democratic downward spiral we’ve witnessed in places that see their institutions actually collapse. He hasn’t led other politicians to replicate his behavior. He’s very widely disliked, based on the favorability numbers.
This could all change if Trump wins, of course. But based on the current polling figures, that doesn’t appear to be the case.