Why Trump’s Refusal To Accept The Election Results Can’t Be Dismissed
Politicians’ attitudes help move public opinion. Public policy often follows. Rhetoric, therefore, that isn’t followed by executive action cannot be easily dismissed.
There’s often a difference between Trump the rhetorician (if one can call the oddly-capitalized mish-mash of sentence fragments the president spews “rhetoric” without making Aristotle weep) and Trump the politician.
Contrary to the president’s bombast, Mexico still hasn’t paid for the border wall, America hasn’t won any of the supposedly easy trade wars the president started and trade deficits with multiple nations are bigger than ever (actually a net positive for consumers). He hasn’t taxed any of the companies looking to build plants overseas “like never before,” as he threatened.
Of course, there are plenty of instances where the president’s actions do match his rhetoric. Unilateral executive action on trade, again, sticks out. Bailouts to farmers stick out. Fixing drug prices stick out.
But while these policies are ultimately not fantastic for anyone who thinks executive legislation sets a dangerous Constitutional precedent, they’re also less permanent than laws passed by Congress.
These are the types of policies that vacillate in time with the partisan flipping of the executive: a Republican president issues new orders that reverse the policies of the Democrat whom he succeeded, then his predecessor comes in an flips them again.
The greater danger is the precedent they set: they normalize the idea that, in the absence of Congressional action, executive action on legislative matters is not only desirable but appropriate.
But what about the rhetoric that isn’t backed up by action? What kind of precedent does this set? Public policy moves not just through measurable and tangible actions, but through more ephemeral things: like perceptions of ideas.
Take attitudes towards same-sex unions. Within twenty years, the United States went from enacting policies like don’t ask, don’t tell in 1993 to affirming, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, that same-sex couples have a right to marriage. It wasn’t policy victories responsible for this change, it was an underlying shift in public attitudes. Data gathered by Gallup over the decades shows public approval of same-sex marriage at only 27% in 1996 and at 67% in 2020.
There are a couple of models political scientists use to try and make sense of shifting public attitudes towards public policy proposals. Chief among these is punctuated equilibrium: the idea that opinion shifts slowly over long periods of time, sometimes interspersed with short periods of drastic change.
Same-sex marriage falls into the minority category. Within a short-period of time, public opinion and public policy shifted drastically. It’s an outlier in public policy.
By contrast, the upward trend in public approval for legalizing marijuana isn’t that different from that of approval for same-sex marriage: Gallup’s historical data records a 25% approval rate for decriminalization in 1995 and a 68% approval rate as of this year. Despite this, and despite 2020 being something of a zeitgeist for decriminalization, marijuana remains a federally-prohibited Schedule 1 drug. There has been no overwhelming, issue-settling victory for anti-drug prohibitionists. And so long as the drug remains banned federally, there’s always the chance that state victories can be wiped away by an aggressive Department of Justice.
Why is all of this significant?
Because public policy shifts in response to changing attitudes in the electorate. What drives changing attitudes in the electorate?
Constructing a comprehensive list would be a Sisyphean task. But, one of the most identifiable is the attitudes of public officials. Public policy has become a statement of morality. Not only its effects but the intentions of legislation and its drafters are often seen as expressions of value. In a certain sense, this is dangerous and deleterious for personal freedom. A legislator or a bureaucrat who sees himself as the guardian of your welfare, rather than your rights, is less likely to exercise restraint when differences between where you and he think your best interests lie arise.
But, in another sense, it makes sense that elected officials attach a moral imperative to their actions. It goes hand-in-hand with the democratic lexicon, which charges elected representatives with either championing or proactively protecting not their constituents’ rights but their welfare (depending, of course, on whether you believe more in the delegate or trustee model).
Let’s bring this back to Trump and idea of precedent set by rhetoric divorced from action.
That Trump has refused to concede the presidency is obviously alarming. Free countries depend on the peaceful transfer of power. But, doesn’t the president have the right to make sure the results are verified? Isn’t that also part of a free and fair election?
To a certain extent, yes. Recounts are a normal part of the election process. They’re triggered by close results to ensure accuracy and fairness in elections. Sometimes even the most diligent people make mistakes.
But there’s a difference between what Trump is doing and the contesting of a close election. In the normal election process, the candidate who appears defeated might ask for a recount, but he or she does this without declaring himself the assumed victor and bullying election officials who don’t produce a favorable result. It’s completely rational and even desirable to question government. But rationality means accepting facts and evidence, all of which has broke in favor of Biden.
So far, there’s every reason to believe rule of law will prevail: the legal process is proceeding apace and those with evidence on their side are winning, while those with debunked conspiracies on their side are reduced to desperate screeds and rambling press conferences.
But the majority of the polity understands government not by intimate familiarity with the Constitution and state and county election laws, but through public statements made by politicians. And the public statements Trump and his allies have made are devastating to the American electoral process, which relies on good faith actors and a respect for the limits of power.
This is the second election in a row where candidates have questioned the election results. In 2016, Hillary Clinton refused to explicitly reject the possibility that she would challenge the election results. Trump did the same. The rhetoric of both candidates in 2016 was ultimately not followed by action, but 2020 has witnessed a progression: Trump’s rhetoric is this time backed up not only by baseless claims that the election was stolen from him but legal challenges, as well.
Much like unilateral executive action that delves into legislative areas and sets the precedent that such action is not only appropriate but desirable, the rhetoric of the past two elections normalizes the idea that election results should be challenged. This rhetoric goes far beyond a respectable desire to make sure results are on the up-and-up, which the recount method provides, and delves into bitter partisanship, reinforcing the idea that a political opponent (and by extension their followers) cannot win the election on merits alone, but must have engaged in something underhanded.
At times, it’s tempting to dismiss rhetoric as consequent-free bluster, but measurable shifts in public opinion, followed by policy changes, show that politicians’ attitudes in the policy arena move the electorate. It would be foolish to think this effect is limited to hot topic issues.