The outcome of the US election is still wide open, with plenty of room for mistakes by President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden.
It’s important to understand that the contest will not be decided by traditional election dynamics or the economy. The winner will be the candidate who best comes to terms with the deep anger and bitterness which has resulted from dramatic social and economic change in America, especially since the 2008 economic crisis, and arrival of the Covid-19 virus. But a bigger danger looms: Trump’s potential to undermine the elections and throw the entire American system into chaos.
Trump’s upset in 2016 resulted from his ability to suspend ‘reality’ with slogans aimed at anger among older, less educated white voters. Since the beginning of the year, racial tensions and the pandemic with all its implications have severely undermined these visions and raised serious questions, even among Republican voters, about Trump’s ability to govern.
Demographics are playing an important role. America is substantially more racially and ethnically diverse and younger than four years ago. Minorities have been hit hardest by the virus and the personal hardships it has caused. Much of Trump’s voter base is also suffering. Many are literally dying away.
Thus his efforts to suppress voter turnout to keep younger and non-white citizens away from the polls. At the same time, Trump feels obliged to protect his eroding base with continuing attacks on Obamacare, federal Covid relief packages, immigrants and African-American citizens. This is supposed to be a winning strategy in the midst of a health and employment crisis. Increasingly, opinion polls tell us that it doesn’t look like one. Those who wish to review this issue should watch the recent Chris Wallace interview on Fox.
However, the real imponderable could be Trump’s unwillingness to accept the election results, should they be close. He planted the thought in 2016 by declaring Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory to have been fraudulent. Renewed evidence of Russian election meddling in 2020 has added to the drama. So far, Trump has refused to state categorically that he would accept the results of the 2020 vote.
Meanwhile, where is Joe Biden? Concluding correctly that Trump’s attacks on his abilities and character would have little effect, Biden has avoided controversies by launching a barrage of new proposals on the internet, mostly from his home studio in Delaware. He has announced that he would not attend the Democratic convention in Milwaukee, ostensibly out of concerns for the health of the delegates.
Many still doubt the credibility of Biden’s large lead in the polls. But the opinion researchers predicted the popular vote almost exactly last time. And the electoral college factors which helped Trump to victory in 2016 are moving decisively in Biden’s favour. On 9 August NBC television broadcast its analysis that Biden was leading in enough states to give him 394 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
As election day approaches, such trends, as well as personal pre-presidential legal troubles emerging from prosecutors around the country, must be weighing increasingly on Trump’s mind. Loss of immunity from civil and even criminal prosecution could be disastrous. All this for a president who has demonstrated a readiness to do anything necessary to win.
Disquieting scenarios predicting election confusion are surfacing regularly in the American press. A president has the means to split the country badly and disturb the election process. Trump appears not to have the slightest hesitation about doing so. He will not give up easily. And that is why there is reason to worry.
John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisers Council.