As millions of Americans and others around the world watch Tuesday night, the President of the United States, in a live televised debate, claimed that postal voting in the upcoming election in his country would lead to “A fraud like you’ve never seen before. ”
Asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he would urge his supporters to “stay calm” and “not engage in civil unrest” with the results of the November 3 vote being determined on what could be days or weeks, US President Donald Trump then retorted.
“I hope it will be a fair election. If it’s a fair election, I’m 100% on board, ”Trump said. “But if I see tens of thousands of manipulated ballots, I cannot accept this. “
The prospect of a US president threatening not to “accept” an election result would have seemed incredible to many of us even four years ago.
But Trump has been nothing if not a disruptor during his tenure, challenging again and again what would once have been considered the norms of presidential behavior.
Statements made throughout his presidency have repeatedly raised the specter of authoritarianism in what has long been considered the world’s largest democracy.
While supporters are quick to dismiss this suggestion, some who have studied autocrats – a term defined by Merriam-Webster as a person in power with absolute authority – see the President’s remarks as familiar signs of a sinister decline. .
On several occasions during Tuesday night’s debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, critics say, Trump has shown signs of crossing what they believe is a dangerous line.
The Star spoke to several of these observers, who reported specific cases that gave them cause for concern about what remains to come in the United States of America.
Trump tells violent far-right group to ‘stand by’
What happened: The question put to Trump was whether he would agree on live television to condemn white supremacist groups contributing to violence in American cities. When Trump specifically asked which group he was asked to condemn, Biden suggested the Proud Boys – an all-male white supremacist group that described itself as a militant “gang” and whose Canadian leader advocated violence.
Trump replied, “Proud boys, take a step back and stay here. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what – somebody’s got to do something against the antifa and the left, because it’s not a right-wing problem.
The analysis: Lucan Way, a professor at the University of Toronto and author of several books on authoritarianism, says Trump’s refusal to condemn the Proud Boys – even asking them to “stand by” – was one of the moments the most transparent of authoritarian behavior during the debate.
“One thing a lot of autocrats do is openly rely on thugs to advance their cause,” Way said.
In the same breath, the president continued to denigrate “antifa” – a word sometimes used to describe the most radical of the leftist protesters in cities like Portland and New York, and who are the main targets of proud racists and sometimes violent. Counter-protests from boys. For this reason, Trump’s derogatory remarks about the antifa may have done as much to promote extremist opposition to Trump’s left-wing opponents as the “stand by” message, Way said.
“He clearly entered the realm of authoritarianism unambiguously,” Way said.
Trump questions the integrity of the vote
What happened: In response to a question about what the candidates would be prepared to do to reassure voters that 2020 saw free and fair elections, Trump’s response amounted to: it depends on whether I like what I see.
Trump repeated statements he had made earlier, calling the postal voting system “fraudulent.”
The analysis: It was a historic moment to see an American president – a role once touted as the “leader of the free world” – undermine grassroots democratic institutions on a stage of official debate.
« Taking a step back, this is clearly what in political jargon we call diet selection, ”Way said.
Of all that transpired during the debate, this was the most overtly authoritarian stance taken by Trump, Way said.
“What are the autocrats doing? They don’t accept free and fair elections, ”Way said. “Both parties accept the results of a free and fair election is sine qua non (otherwise, no) for any kind of stable democracy. Clearly, Trump is absolutely unwilling to do this.
Trump’s constant interruption
What happened: Much of what Biden said during the debate has been obscured by Trump’s relentless interruption. At one point, moderator Wallace reminded Trump that his own campaign had agreed to debate terms that included an uninterrupted two-minute response to the two candidates’ initial questions.
The analysis: No one was surprised that Trump entered the first debate with an attitude of intimidation – trying to appear stronger and bigger than his opponent in every way, says Janni Aragon, professor of political science at the University of Victoria.
“That’s normal for Trump – the discussion, the pursuit of Beau (Biden),” Aragon said.
Interrupting and flouting the rules of debate is part of projecting an image that alone is above the rules, Aragon said.
“It is the cult of personality.”
Aragon sees the personality Trump asserts for himself as an essential part of his strategy.
“His leadership style is authoritarian. He acts as CEO of the United States, ”said Aragon.
It may have produced more frustration than admiration on the part of Americans, with the exception of Trump’s base of supporters.
“The next 24 hours will hopefully get the president’s people to remind him that he might want to act more like a leader and less like a bully.”
Trump distorts (or flouts) the truth
What happened: Trump made a barrage of misrepresentation during Tuesday’s debate, including misrepresentation about voter fraud, says he could get a coronavirus vaccine faster than most scientists have said possible, and false statements about Joe Biden’s health care plan.
Analysis: When the facts aren’t in his favor, Trump doesn’t hesitate to build an alternative – and untruthful – history that serves him better politically, Way said.
“It’s his strategy because the basic facts are not in his favor,” Way said. “When 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, it’s impossible to just keep your record.”
This leads to an authoritarian strategy which is more subtle than the violent oppressive tactics that people usually associate with autocrats.
Referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Way said: “Putin’s strategy is essentially to reinforce the cynicism of democratic processes as a whole – essentially to view the opposition as corrupt.”
As someone who studies the rise of authoritarianism, it is this subtle strategy that Way believes him the most. Even though Trump has repeatedly repeated untruths, he has managed to convince his devoted base of his side of events.
“The strategy is to remove a fundamental basis of commonly shared facts that would allow people to make a decision in the election,” Way said.
Aragon pointed to a point in the debate when Trump doubled down on his decision to cancel critical race theory training for federal agencies.
“One of the things that strikes me about this is the utter denial of systemic racism in the United States and the oppression of people of color,” she said. “It was in my grandparents’ life where there were signs that said no Mexicans, no dogs, Texas.
Way said Trump’s tactics did not rise to the same level as those used in Russia, where dissidents have been arrested and allegedly attacked by state actors, allegations in which Putin denies any involvement.
Way compares Trump to Viktor Orban from Hungary.
“Orbán basically plays by a set of rules – but he changes those rules to effectively make it impossible for the opposition to win,” Way said.
“Civil society is not stopped, no one is slaughtered, but it does change the playing field,” Way said.
Doing so leaves room for supporters to justify Trump’s actions.
“That’s exactly why it’s such a brilliant strategy,” he said.
Way does not hesitate to expose what he sees as the stakes for the weeks to come.
“It goes deeply to the heart of democracy,” he said.
“This is most likely a dispute over whether the United States will remain a democracy.”
Aragon, meanwhile, said she understands why Canadian students seem so engaged in the U.S. election.
There is an element of what she calls a “trickle down” effect, where political movements and ideas are emulated in Canada.
She adds a warning, “We shouldn’t grab our pearls and say it couldn’t happen in Canada.”