The lasting impact of Trump’s attempts to challenge the 2020 election results

Expert on authoritarianism discusses president’s voter fraud claims, future of U.S. democracy

Editor’s note: This interview was originally conducted before the violent events of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Some of the answers have been updated accordingly.

Since his defeat in November, President Donald Trump has challenged the outcome of the 2020 presidential election at every turn.

The effects of those efforts culminated yesterday, when a violent group overran the U.S. Capitol during the Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Those events represent an “egregious attempt to overturn the election,” said Assoc. Prof. Michael Albertus, and a “failing” on the part of American democracy to uphold one of its most basic tenets—the peaceful transfer of power.

Albertus has written about the legacy of authoritarianism in democracies, and is an expert on dictatorship, regime transitions and civil conflict. In the following Q&A, the University of Chicago political scientist discusses the causes and lasting consequences of Trump’s attempts to delegitimize and overturn the outcome of the presidential election.

What are the implications of a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the vote certification? How can Congressional leaders and the incoming Biden administration assert the strength of American democracy in light of these events?

Storming the Capitol is an egregious attempt to overturn the election. The peaceful transfer of power from one incumbent to another is one of the most important tenets of democracy. The U.S. is failing that test. Trump’s refusal to concede and his characterization of the election as massively fraudulent are further violations of critical democratic processes. I fear that this is going to snowball into a movement that is going to threaten American democracy for years. At a minimum, it will fuel intimidation, a panoply of death threats for incumbent Democrats and mainstream Republicans and further radicalism in Republican primaries. There is no easy way out; even impeaching Trump in his waning days in office or prosecuting him down the line carries major risks.

I wrote elsewhere that Trump’s actions were closest to an auto-coup, but were really about stealing the election. This is still about stealing the election. Although, if Trump is linked directly to inciting this attempt to prevent the newly elected president from taking office, it is closer to a coup attempt than an auto-coup.

What are the consequences of efforts in Congress to object to the Electoral College results from certain states? What needs to be done to make our electoral system more robust to attempts like this to change the outcome in the future?

The Electoral College is a relic of an era that no longer exists. The Founders did not anticipate that candidates would win majorities. Voters were dispersed across the countryside and many were removed from quick access to information, making deliberation by representatives more important. And, of course, there was reticence among the political elite about the repercussions of direct democracy. All of this militated toward an institution like the Electoral College. But today, many states have laws that require electors to vote in ways consistent with the state vote. That has expanded over the years and should continue. In an ideal world, the Electoral College would be eliminated. But that is not easy since it would require changing the Constitution.

To what extent have Trump’s attempts to overturn the election result eroded trust in our democratic institutions, on both the right and the left?

Some of Trump’s supporters seem to be truly concerned about the integrity of the system. But most of their concerns are misplaced, and driven by media chatter about fraud and machine manipulation, both of which are highly unusual and very unlikely to have affected the outcome of this election. Nonetheless, many of these supporters are continuing to lose faith in our democratic institutions—a continuation of a longstanding trend.

Those on the left are losing faith for a different reason: An incumbent president is trying to use the federal government and partisan relationships with state-level institutions to steal an election. When faith in democracy declines across the board, that is always cause for concern about how institutions will hold up to their next big challenge. 

Have you been surprised that some mainstream Republicans have been hesitant to acknowledge Biden’s victory? Will we continue to see them cry foul in future elections, when there is little evidence of voter fraud?

A number of Republicans, and many moderates affiliated more with the Bush-era stripe of Republicanism, did rather quickly acknowledge Biden’s victory. I suspect that many of the remaining large number of holdouts are hesitant to do so for political reasons. Perhaps they fear a primary challenge from the right if they do so, or they worry about donor money if Trump retains a substantial base of support among Republicans.

But there seems to be a trend on both sides to delegitimize the elected president, whether for potentially valid reasons or not. Most recently, it traces back to birtherism under Obama, followed by Democratic investigations of the 2016 election and Russian interference under Trump. This could continue in future elections as social media fractionalizes a shared fact-based national discourse and enables politically convenient rumors and fantasies to flourish.

You’ve written about how authoritarian elites retain power even after they are ousted, via mechanisms like electoral system design, appointments and supermajority thresholds for change. Are some of these reflected in the American system?

The Electoral College and the filibuster are classic examples of ways in which certain elites from the founding era—most prominently, but hardly exclusively, southern slaveholders—sought to constitutionally protect their interests at the time of the American founding and to ensure that those interests couldn’t easily be contravened. The same is true of the malapportioned nature of the Senate (two seats regardless of state population, ensuring small states that they wouldn’t be overrun by big ones), as well as more obvious and gross violations to principles of equity, such as the three-fifths clause for counting enslaved people.

How does Trump’s behavior compare to that of authoritarian leaders elsewhere? Is it similar or different in any significant ways? Has the “stress test” of the Trump presidency highlighted our democracy’s strengths, weaknesses or both?

Many aspects of Trump’s behavior echo authoritarians around the globe. The most basic instinct of authoritarians is to hold on to power no matter what citizens have to say about it. Fortunately, Trump has some weaknesses: Many civil servants in his own government, and even some appointed officials, refuse to carry out his orders. The courts have repeatedly struck down his lawsuits that are intended to change the electoral outcome.

However, these four years have also highlighted the importance of norms in upholding democracy. Congress has repeatedly stepped aside in checking the president for partisan reasons. And other norms, such as making tax returns public or respecting the independence of the Department of Justice, have been challenged. While the strengths are heartening, overall, I think that the vast majority of observers are surprised by the depth of the weaknesses.