“Stop the Count”
Elise Hamersley uncovers the troubling effects of Trump’s 2020 Presidential Campaign on the future of political media and American Democracy
Last Saturday, Joe Biden cleared the 270 electoral college threshold needed to become president-elect of the United States. Gathered in Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot (a farcical end to a farcical presidential term), Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani threw his hands into the air when informed of the media networks reporting Biden’s win. “Wow! All the networks!”, he howled at the sky, “Networks don’t get to decide elections, courts do.” The people, of course, the electorate, the eligible population of your country who have the power to give mandate and legitimise your government? They don’t decide elections. Litigation does. Power exacted until its exhaustion does. It is this manipulation of the electorate’s consciousness that has come to define Trump’s campaign style across both elections.
The image of a presidential candidate delivering a speech before a passionate, receptive crowd is an unremarkable scene for the modern American voter, however this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, the idea of ‘running’ for office, criss-crossing the nation in pursuit of swaying citizens, was once a radical departure from the norm. Andrew Jackson himself even once said “I meddle not with election. I leave the people to make their own President”.
Nowadays of course, the presidential rally is a given, and Trump’s cultish supporters certainly capitalise on such an event. Political campaigns have always been marketing strategies, particularly in America where there is less regulation on limiting the expenditure of political parties and individual candidates compared to the UK. In the recent decades of digital and social media, campaigns have increasingly shifted online to attract a significant demographic of Gen Z and Millennial voters. Trump’s presence, however, has ushered in a new era of presidential campaign. One built not on tactful use of media, but the paradoxical destruction of it.
It was the 2016 Trump campaign that demonstrated the ongoing nationalist shift in the Western world and the strength of a Washington ‘outsider’, appealing to decades of Republican ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric. It marked the increasing movement towards political personalities and away from policies. In other words, the battle of agenda, rhetoric and manipulation was at its onset and thus the phrase “Fake News” entered the modern political consciousness. It reached proliferation, culminating in a designation as Collins Dictionary 2017 Word of the Year. The phrase is funny, but remarkably sinister. This was the Trump campaign’s foot in the door and it has significant implications for the political education of his supporters and the observing American electorate. If you erode the populous’ trust in the press, the reporting of facts and truth, then you can feasibly say whatever you want, regardless of its accuracy. It excuses your misgivings and removes accountability for what you’ve said in the past. Trump’s presidential term has been built on this erosion of media and it was not accidental.
Trump’s presence, however, has ushered in a new era of presidential campaign. One built not on tactful use of media, but the paradoxical destruction of it.
This previous context means that Trump’s 2020 cries of voter fraud and legal pursuits are not surprising, they were inevitable. In fact, the dominant theme of his campaign was more about establishing doubt and suspicion surrounding mail in ballots than actual policy discussion. As early as August 20th 2020 Trump tweeted against Biden, the Obamas and mail in voting all at once. Don’t misunderstand me: we must always be critical in our evaluation of sources, everyone has an agenda. The demonisation of the media results in a distrust of independent bodies that keep the government accountable. But this demonisation of perfectly legitimate democratic processes just because they don’t result in the outcome you wanted? It completely displaces the individual and is typical of the tactics used by many corrupt regimes across the world.
One might even whisper that it verges on dictatorial.
On Monday, the Trump campaign insisted he had no intention of admitting defeat or conceding to Biden. On September 23rd, when asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he lost the 2020 election, he answered “Well, we’ll have to see what happens… Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation”. What does this inability to accept a peaceful transition of power mean for American democracy? It would mean it’s a farce. The President is not all powerful; he is not above democratic legitimacy. His immediate production of lawsuits over voter fraud, when it has been proved there is no foundation for such claims, demonstrates his complete disregard for egalitarianism and the principles on which America was built. Only the people can decide who occupies the White House. Donald Trump’s reaction to losing the 2020 race for Presidency is akin to that of a 10 year old losing at Monopoly. Although that might be a disservice to 10 year olds.
Trump’s 2016 campaign was built on fear: it tapped into racism that has resided deep in the foundation of America for centuries, like many other systems of power across the Western world. It was a special kind of evil that the other political movements such as the Tea Party, the Leave Campaign and other European election campaigns used to their advantage. What is particularly egregious about this year’s Trump campaign, however, was his blatant agenda to cast doubt in the mind of his followers about the reliability of a cornerstone of the democratic Western world, namely the electoral process. As a final parting gift, Trump has baked into his voter base a deep distrust of democracy itself, and this will ensure that Trumpism will continue for many years to come.