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Undermining American Democracy: After Trump, what?

The fallout from the EU referendum result has at times become quite rancorous. Some politicians are refusing to consider the question settled; many are squabbling about what Brexit really means. It will, though, pale in comparison to the potential horror which awaits the world at the conclusion of the US presidential election.


Of the two plausible outcomes, one is clearly abhorrent. The other, that Hillary Clinton wins, will give all those who care about world peace a brief moment of relief. Do not be fooled into believing, however, that a Clinton victory will vanquish the Trump monster that has been unleashed through this most acrimonious and depressing of campaigns. It will continue apace, and moderates of all stripes must push back against it.


Donald Trump is readying himself for a defeat which, thanks to the wholly unsurprising revelation that he is a raging misogynist who jokes about sexual harassment, looks ever more certain by the day. Distressingly, though, he is not preparing for a concession. His ego is so enormous that he will never accept losing. Being a ‘LOSER!’, after all, is one of the most frequent taunts spat from his foaming-at-the-mouth Twitter account. Hence his most recent campaign speeches have been replete with accusations of evil Clinton-backed international media conspiracies to rig the election. This is not funny. It is threatening to undermine American democracy.


This enfeebling of the constitutional system has already begun with what The Economist has rightly termed the ‘debasing’ of American politics: so commonplace and casual are Mr Trump’s insults and tirades that we are becoming desensitized to them. It is hard to be spectacularly shocked by a candidate who calls Mexicans ‘rapists’, wishes to ban Muslims from his country and threatens women who undergo illegal abortions with punishment. The release of various tapes and allegations pertaining to his history as a serial misanthrope has prompted the deserved level of outrage, but so much other invective of his has not. Politicians and activists in the future will feel licensed to push the boundaries of acceptable public debate further.


There is a serious concern that Mr Trump’s supporters will engage in improper conduct at voting stations on polling day. He has urged them to ‘monitor… certain areas’ for irregular voting activity. As well as the fact that US law enforcement and electoral authorities are perfectly capable of ensuring voting is conducted legally, there is a frightening prospect that legions of Trump backers will congregate at majority-black and Hispanic polling stations. That he himself has not explicitly called for illegal activity is not the point: there is a grave risk that intimidation will occur. We have already seen how Muslims and African-Americans are treated at overwhelmingly white Trump rallies.


The instant the election result is apparent, a process of de-legitimation orchestrated by Mr Trump against Mrs Clinton will begin. The vote will be denounced as a fix. There will be no gracious concession speech, simply a vow to continue to oppose Mrs Clinton’s very presence in the White House. The conspiracy theories will be deafening: that she is secretly dying, that she is trying to fling open the southern border, or that she is in cahoots with Islamic terrorists. There are already fears that violence will break out. Some Trump supporters have told reporters that there will be ‘bloodshed’. Mr Trump has so hatefully convinced his supporters of Mrs Clinton’s evilness that behaviour like this moves into the realm of possibility. The level of diatribe aimed at the Democratic candidate by her rival – including threatening her with jail – portends only a total refusal to acquiesce to electoral reality and accept the result.


This brings us to the wider question of what happens to the movement led by Mr Trump. Rather than fading away, it will only be emboldened by a ‘rigged’ defeat at the hands of ‘Crooked Hillary’. It is hard to see that Mr Trump’s previous employers (NBC) will give him a new series of The Apprentice and nor will he be psychologically able to recede from the public eye, so speculation is rife that he will set up some kind of ‘alt-right’ conservative media organisation to prolong his crusade of hatred – and monetise it. It is harder to see where the millions of Trump voters will go, and who will take forth the torch of Trumpism in the electoral arena.


The Democratic Party is now so imbued with liberal values as to render it totally out-of-bounds to the atavistic Trump constituency. Equally, the mainstream Republican Party appears unfit to appeal to these voters. Indeed, the GOP elite is as scorned upon by Mr Trump and his followers almost as much as Democratic leaders. In the final weeks of the campaign, Mr Trump’s setup is becoming ever more detached from the remainder of the Republican campaign machine.


Establishing a new political party will not be easy, and would likely require someone with the pockets of Mr Trump to finance it – having spent huge sums on this campaign, this idea seems improbable. So who might be the new face of Trumpism? Little-known Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is one possibility. Mr Cotton has been one of Mr Trump’s most enthusiastic and loyal defenders in Congress. His attitudes towards immigration and foreign policy are, though not identical, very amenable to the sensibilities of Trump backers. Critically, he is unlikely to carry the baggage which weighs so heavily on Mr Trump, nor to lack the ability to speak for five minutes without disaffecting another section of the population.


Of course many would argue that the crudeness of Mr Trump is one of the reasons for his success in the Republican primaries. But a deft candidate who could espouse a similar policy platform without alienating independent voters (especially women) with unceasing vulgarity could be triumph over a taxed one-term Mrs Clinton. It is for this that moderates must realise that suppressing the nationalist, authoritarian agenda of Mr Trump does not end with his defeat. The battle – and it will, figuratively, be a long-running battle for the kind of country America wishes to be – will go on and will be won by a responsible combination good governance, decorous discourse and decent patriotism.


Oh, and Hillary hasn’t won yet. It could get worse.

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