On December 1, 2016 Gambian voters went to the polls to participate in their country’s presidential election. Incumbent president Yahya Jammeh lost the election narrowly to challenger Adama Barrow. President Jammeh initially conceded the election to Barrow, but a week later announced that he was rejecting the results. He argued that there were “serious and unacceptable abnormalities which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process” and therefore would not leave office until “fresh and transparent” elections were conducted. This sparked a constitutional crisis as Jammeh and Barrow both claimed to be the legitimately-elected president. After a tense number of weeks, Jammeh conceded the election and stepped down in late January, leaving the country only under threat of removal by the military.
Events like this are not unusual in many parts of the world. Political leaders who lose elections often try to remain in power by dismissing the results of the election as illegitimate or fraudulent. They claim that they must save democracy in their country by assuming emergency powers and invalidating the illegitimate election results until new elections can be conducted, often at some to-be-determined point in the indefinite future.
This is why it is deeply problematic that President Trump continues to claim that he lost the popular vote in the 2016 election only because of “3-5 million illegal votes” that were cast against him.
During the campaign, Donald Trump frequently beat the drum on voter fraud and even refused to commit to accepting the results of the election, something that is without precedent in modern American political history. After his election, he continued to claim he was cheated out of a popular vote win: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he wrote on Twitter. On his fourth day in office, he told Congressional leaders that he lost the popular vote only because of 3-5 million illegal votes that were cast against him.
This should be deeply worrisome to anyone committed to the core tenets of liberal democracy and political stability in the United States. The acceptance of election results by the losing candidate and subsequent peaceful transfer of power has been a hallmark of America’s democratic system since John Adams conceded defeat to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Additionally, there is no verifiable evidence to support President Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election results.
Yet President Trump continues to boldly and loudly claim that he was cheated out of a popular vote win because of the “millions of illegal votes.” If enough Americans gradually come to believe his claim (of which there is no verifiable evidence), it may very well persuade enough Americans to refuse to accept the outcome of the next presidential election.
Imagine this hypothetical: should Donald Trump run for re-election in 2020 and lose, he may be tempted to claim that widespread voter fraud and illegal votes justify him to reject the results of the election, assume emergency powers, and call for a new election… at some to-be-determined point in the indefinite future. Meanwhile, a Constitutional crisis would ensue as the winner also claims victory and the American people, military, and institutions have to decide who they would view as the legitimate winner and allow to retain power.
Of course this sounds crazy, and the likelihood of it happening is small. But President Trump is continuing to push the boundaries of our traditional democratic norms and what Americans are willing to accept in terms of their political system. While he may not succeed at convincing enough Americans to reject the legitimacy of the outcome of the next election, the president who comes after him might nudge the boundaries just a little bit further. This may continue until we arrive at a position where a critical mass of the American electorate rejects the legitimacy of their election outcomes. The environment would indeed be ripe for the rise of an authoritarian dictator who seizes power with a promise to restore order, peace, and stability to the political system.
This is why it is imperative that the American people and our elected representatives should push back hard against President Trump’s continued claim of widespread voter fraud and illegal voting in the election. Call your representatives and demand that they publicly denounce President Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud and the consequent delegitimization of our electoral institutions. Nothing will hinder President Trump’s attempts to consolidate power and weaken our liberal democratic institutions faster than loud and regular pushback from the public, media, and the other branches of government.
Should we fail to hold President Trump accountable on this issue, we will indeed end up with the government we deserve.