Brett Gale
Monday, 16 November 2020

Stealing Elections – It’s what conservatives do.

Holed up in his White House bunker, sending the tweets that launched a dozen (and counting) failed lawsuits, Donald Trump is doing exactly what he’s been foreshadowing for months – disputing any fair election that he lost.   

Of course, very few of us are surprised by this.  Not only did he tell us he’d do it this time, he told us back in 2016 he’d do it then too, and four years on, Trump is still disputing the results of that election he actually won. 

Trump has had a lifetime of projecting his baser behaviours onto others, it is no wonder then that his farrago of lies about stolen elections by Democrats is simply a reflection of what he himself is trying to do. 

 Or is he? Since the election was called for Biden on November 7, there has been a million hot takes as to what Trump’s endgame is, as to what he’s really up to.  Having failed in all the traditional ways that Republicans win elections, voter suppression, cleansing of the electoral rolls, etc, is he now literally trying to steal the election by refusing to leave? 

Like the old Kremlinologists, modern-day White House reporters are parsing every tweet, scrutinising every word, debating the thoughts of every anonymous West Wing source, wondering why more Republican officials aren’t telling Trump it’s time to go, all in an attempt to work out what’s going to happen next.

What literally happens next may not matter all that much. While Trump is bending democratic norms to breaking point, the system grinds on, and all indications are that it will be very messy and ugly, but that Trump will be gone on January 20.  The more pernicious threat from Trump is the giant strides he has taken to complete the Republican project of undermining the very foundations of government, because, while the events of today might seem radical, Trump and his fellow Republicans are following a very old conservative political playbook.  

The Republicans are intent on de-legitimising the Presidency of Joe Biden even before he can take office on January 20.  This is what conservatives do.  It’s what they’ve done for decades. 

It’s just under a week since, November 11th 2020, marked 45 years since the constitutional coup that toppled the Whitlam Government in Australia.   The coup, however, was not an isolated event dreamed up in response to the so-called “loans affair” and ministerial impropriety, it came after a long period of de-legitimisation of Whitlam and his governmental program.  

From immediately after Whitlam’s election in 1972, Australia’s conservatives refused to accept that after 23 years of their moribund rule the Australian public had elected a reforming Labor Government.  Twice the conservative opposition tried to block the Budget from passing, and then conservative state Premiers deliberately twisted their interpretation of the casual vacancy appointments process to stack the Senate, thus ensuring an extra conservative majority that would work to stop the work of the government in its tracks.  This is even before conservative hacks on Australia’s highest courts (including a former Attorney-General) advised the Governor-General that he had invisible, magical, reserve powers under the constitution that meant he could sack a properly elected government.   

In the events of Australia in 1975 we see the precursor to the conservative political project as it has played out in all its ugly glory in the United States in recent decades.  It contains all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from the “Republican revolution” – the undermining of institutions of state, the deliberate polarisation of politics and a casual contempt for democratic processes.  

Interestingly, the resulting everlasting shame of having caused such an unprecedented crisis has meant that the Liberals in Australia have never really pushed the limits of our democratic system to breaking point again. 

Though, of course, they haven’t stopped trying to paint Labor governments as somehow not legitimate. In recent years, Tony Abbott was the master of destructive obstructionism against the Gillard Government, with his brand of de-legitimation heavily laced with the misogynistic overtones of “the illegitimate woman”.   

Republicans in the United States, by contrast, seem to have had a complete shame bypass when pursuing their version of this oldest of conservative political tactics. 

While, delegitimising Democratic Party governments is still the bread and butter of Republicans when in opposition, witness the “Birther” conspiracy around Obama’s Presidency, attempting to paint an entire election as fraudulent is a new and dangerous development.   

In the lead up to the 2016 election I wrote that Trump was not an anomaly, he was in fact the logical progression of the direction that Republican politics had been heading for decades.  Trump’s actual presidency was in many respects then, simply a continuation of the Reagan and George W Bush project to dismantle the very notion of government being able to deliver for the populace.  Reagan followed by Gingrich (in opposition) through deliberate design; George W Bush and Trump through incompetence in the face of crisis (Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis in the case of Bush, the coronavirus in Trump’s). 

The idea of discrediting democracy itself though is much more than the next phase of this project.  As the renowned historian Timothy Snyder has written, “when politicians break democracy, …. they are wrong to think that they will control what happens next”.

Some polls have indicated that about 60% of Republican voters believe that the election is being stolen from them.  This is new and dangerous territory where Trump has taken the American right.  Who knows where the demons once unleashed may go?  

Recent history from less established democracies in eastern Europe tells us this threat is not limited to the United States, but so too does any reading of the behaviours of the last fifty years of western democracies.  The conservative political eco-system has for many years done a terrifyingly good job of swapping “successful” ideas back and forth between various national conservative parties.  If Trump’s stab at discrediting democracy itself proves useful in keeping the electoral base in line and jazzed up why wouldn’t other right-wing parties in established democracies around the world try it?

Given how much of the toxicity and tactics of U.S. politics has already been imported into Australia (and ours shared with them) can we even be sure it wouldn’t happen here?

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.