In a July 19, 2020 interview with Fox News, President Trump was directly asked whether he would accept the results of the upcoming presidential election, a question that never before had necessitated an answer.
The President gave no strong affirmative response but instead stated that he would wait and see, questioning the basic expectation of democracy for a peaceful transition of power. At that time, it seemed like such a “Trump thing” to say, but to those of us who study democratic backsliding, the statement was an ominous sign for what was to come. Fast forward to January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol building by mobs of violent Pro-Trump supporters, and the President’s response is no longer a political word play but instead a true threat to American democratic values.
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For decades now, democratization scholars have worked to understand the characteristics of democracies and what differentiates a democratic regime from an authoritarian one. There has been much disagreement on the list of the necessary and sufficient qualities of a democracy. However, the common denominator of all measures and indices of democracy has always been “free and fair elections.” Countries that have recently overthrown authoritarian regimes struggle with different aspects of democratic order but the minimal expectation of all democratic regimes is the establishment of a competitive, free, and fair electoral process. To see that questioned in the United States of America by our own President and various elected officials around the country, including some from North Carolina, is simply astounding.
There is no question that democracies, just like authoritarian regimes, are not static constructs. Without dedication and intentional tending, democracies can stagnate and dwindle. Recent and ancient history has taught us that. However, electoral fraud has never been a problem in the United States. This is not to say that the quality of our electoral process is not in need of improvements. Democracies are a work in progress. Issues such as gerrymandering, campaign finance, and misinformation have been identified as challenges to improving the quality of American elections. In addition, in the recent decade we have witnessed a global technological explosion, leading to a rise of external on-line threats. We have never experienced internal voter fraud of any type. All claims by the President and elected officials this year have been unsubstantiated and unfounded.
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Unfounded claims of electoral fraud are dangerous political ploys. As the leading democracy in the world, even though we spend more than $700 billion in our military, our largest asset is our soft power, our reputation. Politicians who want to score points with their local constituencies using dangerous rhetoric that questions the very well-being of American democracy, damage our global reputation, our diplomatic relations, and ultimately our global leadership.
On January 6, 2021, not only was our American democracy directly attacked but our position in global governance also took a hit. It will take years for our diplomacy to recover. How can a U.S. Embassy abroad advise other countries’ constituents to remain calm and accept outcomes of democratic elections when our own Capitol building was overtaken by domestic terrorists wanting to reverse the outcomes of our democratic elections? Most importantly, how can we advise other countries’ political actors to respect democratic election outcomes when our President and many of our elected officials have refused to come to terms with electoral loss and instead have incited violence based on fictitious accounts of voter fraud?
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Under the circumstances, the only path forward is to distance ourselves from the unacceptable act of inciting violence against the government of the United States, and impeach former President Donald J. Trump. Anything less would be insufficient to send a clear and resounding message not only to the American people, but also to the world needing reassurance that we will not tolerate violent attacks on democratic institutions.
It will not be an easy decision for the Senate Republicans to make but one that is needed to thwart the rise of far-right extremism heavily encouraged by the Trump presidency. As dates for the Senate impeachment trial are being negotiated, we are seeing signs of a fractured Republican party, uncertain on how to move forward in a post-Trump era. There is only one path forward, one that puts political expediency aside for the sake of our democracy and reclaiming our leadership in the world. I hope our members of Congress courageously put country over party at a pivotal moment in our American history.
Dr. Ingrid Bego is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of International Studies Program at Western Carolina University. Her book, “Gender Equality Policy in the European Union,” was published by Palgrave in 2015 and she is currently working on finishing her second book project with Routledge examining the role of gender on executive appointments in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.