You might be inclined to think that COVID-19 naturally lands at the top of every “biggest risks” list for 2021.
After all, the pandemic killed 1.8 million people in 2020 and catalyzed the most acute economic downturn seen since the Great Depression.
Although science appeared poised to triumph over the virus as the calendar flipped, western nations spent the winter months grappling with outbreaks far more acute than those seen during the onset of the crisis.
When a more aggressively transmissible variant of the disease began rampaging across the UK, the world was reminded that biological threats tend to evolve and adapt.
And yet, COVID-19 didn’t manage to grab the No. 1 spot on Eurasia Group’s list of “top risks” for 2021. Instead, “American carnage” (to quote Donald Trump’s infamous inaugural address) captured the top slot.
“A superpower torn down the middle cannot return to business as usual,” Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan wrote, adding that “when the most powerful country is so divided, everybody has a problem.”
Indeed. And, as we’ve seen over the past week, some Republican lawmakers have no qualms about subjugating democracy to political expediency.
In itself, that isn’t new. What’s new, arguably, is that we’re not talking about “democracy” narrowly construed. This isn’t just “business as usual.” It’s not your run-of-the-mill Beltway corruption.
Rather, America is undergoing a real-life experiment in autocrat governance, something that was underscored on Sunday evening, when the nation heard its president instructing state officials to doctor an election by “finding” enough votes to change the outcome. On the same phone call, Trump suggested that the situation needed to be “straightened out” before crucial runoff elections that would determine the balance of power in the Senate.
There can be no doubt: Trump is an aspiring authoritarian. And he’s convinced, cajoled, and otherwise bullied a sizable number of elected representatives to acquiesce to a transition from democracy to autocracy.
When a sitting congressman sues the vice president to demand he unilaterally toss out the opposing candidates’ electors and declare the election result void, that isn’t democracy. When the president pardons his former national security advisor and proceeds to entertain that person’s calls for martial law and a new election presided over by the military, that isn’t democracy. When a faction of lawmakers conspire to overturn the results of a free and fair election while refusing to provide real evidence (e.g., evidence that a court would entertain) to support their claims of fraud, that isn’t democracy.
All of that (and much more) has happened in America since November 3.
To be sure, multiple Republican senators declined to support their colleagues in the effort to disenfranchise 81 million Americans. And, every living former defense secretary on Sunday warned Trump (without naming him) that involving the military would take the country “into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen told NPR on Monday that Trump is attempting a coup. “I am not troubled by the word ‘coup,’ ” Cohen remarked. “There are things taking place which pose, I think, a threat to our domestic tranquility and security, and that is the president encouraging some of the more right-wing extremists to march on Washington,” he added.
Unfortunately, Trump has managed not only to tap into the nation’s prejudices and harness its worst impulses, he’s also managed to expand his appeal, something Bremmer mentioned in Eurasia’s 2021 outlook.
“A challenge for Democrats–increasingly a coalition of college-educated urbanites– is that Trump’s popularity extends well beyond his most vocal supporters,” Bremmer wrote, adding that,
He received 11 million more votes than he did in 2016 and, in so doing, constructed a broader electoral coalition that includes more Hispanics and Black Americans. A significant segment of that coalition sees Trump’s refusal to concede as a display of courage, not an assault on democratic norms. While many Republican Party elders don’t like Trump, public opinion is the reserve currency of politics, and he will leave office as (by far) the most popular and influential figure in the GOP. The last minute push by members of Congress to delay or derail the election certification serves as a foreboding sign of what’s to come. As long as a significant portion of Trump’s voters remains loyal, he will cast a long shadow, compelling Republican leaders to support him to avoid alienating his backers.
This is highly disconcerting. And because Trump’s coalition is at least partially comprised of the undereducated, many of those voters don’t understand where he’s taken the country and where the nation may go next. Indeed, I have long contended that Trump himself is not entirely apprised of such things, and is likely ignorant of his own historical analogs.
Bremmer warned of intractable D.C. gridlock as Republicans loyal to Trump block Biden’s agenda at every turn, prompting calls from Democrats for Biden to “take unilateral executive actions of questionable legality.”
That, in turn, will only deepen divisions, as Trump, still active on social media and television, will surely (and unironically) cast Biden as a socialist dictator who governs by decree.
“The more polarized the country becomes, the less likely its eroding democratic institutions will enable the compromises necessary to resolve fundamental problems,” Bremmer went on to caution, noting that one way or another, “Biden’s term opens the era of the asterisk presidency, a time when the occupant of the Oval Office is seen as illegitimate by roughly half the country — and by the lawmakers these election skeptics send to Congress.”
Of course, all of this sets the stage for Trump to return in 2024, or for a hand-picked successor to take up his “cause.”
Just prior to the62% of voters in a CBS/YouGov poll said the election is “over and settled” and that it’s “time to move on.” However, just 18% of Trump voters said Biden was the “legitimate winner.”
By extension, some 61 million Americans believe Biden is an illegitimate president.
You can be absolutely sure that Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill will work every, single day to perpetuate that notion.